What is the Definition of Positive Reinforcement?

by Maggie Marton March 30, 2017

What is the Definition of Positive Reinforcement?

Until pretty recently, dog training was considered more of an art than a science. Thanks to a few decades of animal behavior research, scientists now know more than ever how dogs think, solve problems, and even how they feel.

All that research has led to a revolution in the dog training world: Positive reinforcement is the way to train.

So, what is positive reinforcement?

Imagine you start a new job. You have a lot to learn, and it isn’t always easy. Maybe you make some mistakes, but as you work through your training, you start to catch on. And the best part? At the end of each week, you collect your paycheck. That paycheck keeps you focused and motivated... and ensures you’ll be back on Monday.

Positive reinforcement dog training is a lot like that. Your dog is working by learning something new and earning a paycheck (rewards like tasty treats or fun toys). And it works whether you’re teaching a cue like “roll over” or stopping a problem behavior like jumping on visitors.

Back to your new job. What would it feel like if your boss constantly told you that you were doing everything wrong, but she never told you how to do it right? Frustrating.

Old-school, correction-based dog training is a lot like that. You tell your dog “no” or, worse, deliver a physical punishment, yet he never learns what he’s actually supposed to be doing instead.

With positive reinforcement, you teach your dog what you want and reward him for doing it. It’s really that simple.

Quick tip: When solving a problem behavior, think about what the most incompatible behavior is to the nuisance one, and teach that. For instance, teach your dog to sit on a mat when visitors come in--and reward him for doing so. He’ll be so busy sitting on his mat that he won’t jump on those visitors.

Unfortunately, dog training is an unregulated industry. Many longtime trainers still resort to painful, correction-based training. Some even still use methods like shock and choking, even though science has shown repeatedly that those methods are ineffective and harmful. If you’re hiring a pro to help you and your dog with a problem behavior, make sure to ask if the trainer uses science-based methods.

If you’re going to DIY your dog training, you need some kind of marker to indicate that your dog did something correctly (a lot of people use a tool called a clicker, but a word like “yes” can work, too) and some treats or a toy (his paycheck).

Want to get started? Check out two hugely popular YouTube channels to learn how to train your dog positively, including how to stop unwanted behavior:

Zak George’s Dog Training rEvolution

Dog Training with Victoria Stilwell

Happy training!

Maggie Marton
Maggie Marton


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