The double-edged sword of positive reinforcement


Positive reinforcement, just like any dog training method, can set your dog up for success or failure. Setting a dog up for success requires more than just rewarding good behaviour. It involves redirecting your dog's focus and rewarding the right behaviour at the right time.




What you should do

 1.  Have an immediate response to reward the desired behaviour

One mistake commonly made by owners is giving your dog a command, followed by breaking up a chunk of treat and offering it to the dog. Many situations can occur during the delay of offering the treat. For instance, your dog may fixate on a passing dog with excitement, get frightened by a loud sound, jump on you, and so on. Giving a treat at this time would reinforce the minor behavioural issues your dog displays and may become more severe later on. If a treat is given while your dog is fixated on another dog, you are rewarding excitement. If you give a treat when your dog gets frightened by a sound, you are encouraging fear. Hence, it is crucial to reward the instant your dog does the desired behaviour, implying the association of a treat with the ideal behaviour.


 2.  Keep training sessions short

Dogs tend to lose their concentration quicker when their attention is directed using treats and any time longer is not optimal for training. A common suitable duration for positive reinforcement sessions should be 5-10 minutes, which may vary between different breeds, age groups and individuals. Ideally, your dog should understand that the quicker a desirable behaviour is displayed, the quicker a treat is given. It is important to end training sessions before the concentration is lost, forming a positive association with both you and the activity, facilitating the precious dog-owner bond. 


 3.  Use small pieces of treats

Giving small treats not only limit the daily calorie intake which is vital for health in the long term, but also increases the engagement and responsiveness to training techniques. Offer pinkie nail-sized treats for large dogs and pea-sized treats for smaller dogs, which can be achieved by breaking up commercially sold treats. Offering small-sized treats is not cheating your dog as interpreted by some, as the scent is the main determining factor compared to the size. Hence, treats used should ideally have a strong scent. A common favourite treat would be dehydrated pork liver treats.


 4.  Start in a location with little distractions

The basis of positive reinforcement is the usage of treats to get a dog’s attention and also serves as a reward. This is the reason why a dog exposed to a bustling and noisy environment during the initial stages of positive reinforcement training leads to minimal improvement. Progressively condition your dog to focus on you in increasingly distracting environments or in the presence of the behavioural stimulus, until your dog is able to perform the desired behaviour regardless of both the environment and distractions.

This is why redirection using treats may be less effective in an outside environment and is even totally ignored for dogs with severe behavioural issues – choosing to be aggressive or fearful in the heat of the moment than paying attention to treats.


 5.  Keep it fun

Your dog needs to associate positive reinforcement training sessions with playtime. Engaging in a playful state with your dog perks up both the excitement and focus, as it is considered a major spike in mental stimulation and anticipation compared to other activities during the day. It is hence crucial to channel your dog’s excitement and attention to mentally enriching activities which goes a long way in keeping boredom-based behavioural issues like chewing, destruction and digging at bay, possibly saving you hundreds or even thousands of dollars!

 

What you should not do

 1.  Bribing

Another common mistake is showing your dog the treat to do a desired action. This conditions your dog’s mind to only perform the behaviour in the presence of a treat. This is also known as bribing. At the start of training, using treats to guide the behaviour can be done. However, a transitioning phase would be needed after your dog gets a rough idea of what is expected, such that your dog is able to display the behaviour without showing any treats. Be creative to supplement verbal praises and massages, which can be a convenient reward when outdoors.


 2.  Contradicting ideas

Dogs do not understand exceptions. Avoid creating the rule of your dog not being allowed up on your couches and beds if you were to later allow that rule to relax. Another common example is owners commanding their dogs to “sit”, but give up as if nothing happened when their dogs do not seem to pay attention. Your dog may then notice that commands given do not need to be followed and possibly challenge any future rules that you wish to enforce. Additionally, every family member in the household should be in sync with enforcing the same rules on your dog to avoid the confusion of pleasing different expectations.


 3.  Complicating commands

Dogs understand commands and words, not sentences. If you want to get your dog to sit, command ‘sit’ in a concise manner. Avoid the addition of unnecessary words such as “please” and “I would want you to…” which can make your dog lose concentration and hence hamper the effectiveness of the training. Being nice to your dog is done through the ability to understand, protect and lead with actions instead of words.


 4.  Show frustration

Dogs are social animals and are highly capable of picking up cues in relation to how we are feeling. This is evident from dogs such as therapy dogs integrated to aid in human emotional support. It is almost impossible to lie to a dog on how we feel. If you are frustrated due to the training, end on a good note by commanding a simple command and reward your dog for it. You may then review the training approach and change it up to better suit the next training session. For example, you can break the training process into small, achievable steps should your dog be confused with what you want. Always remember that dogs try their best and will never have malicious intentions and in no way should training be associated with something negative or stressful.


 5.  Negotiate

Similar to a child, the tone is serious during discipline. Negotiation sets room for doubt. Give the command “sit”, with a monogamous and firm tone, instead of “sit?”, with an increased pitch at the end. Always command in a low and calm tone and a higher-pitched tone when praising desirable behaviour.

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