As I was brainstorming topics to blog about, I realized I should probably do a post on the basics. For me, the idea of positive reinforcement is so ingrained in my mind & shapes all I do, but I understand that for most non-dog trainers - this probably is not the case. So today's post is all about what positive reinforcement is, how it works, and why we use it. In layman's terms.
When people think of positive reinforcement, they think of treats and clickers.. which isn't WRONG per se - but it is all about how we use these things. We are going to talk about the theory of positive reinforcement in this post, and I will follow up with another post about CLICKERS next!
This is the only nerd part I will include here. Let's define positive reinforcement in terms of psychology and training. People over complicate this, and confuse the terms to mean things they don't mean.
Positive = ADD
Reinforcement = INCREASE BEHAVIOUR
So positive reinforcement training is ADDING something that will increase the likelihood of the behaviour occurring. We are adding something that the dog finds valuable, in order to make them want to do the behaviour more. Treats are not the only thing to use in positive reinforcement training, it is whatever your dog finds valuable. Maybe their favourite thing in the world is playing tug! What is valuable is determined by our dogs.
We as learners (whether dogs or humans or fish) learn through punishment and reinforcement. Using positive reinforcement is the least frustrating, aversive, forceful & intrusive method of learning - which is why we like to use it. Instead of punishing the learner for something we do not like, we instead are paying them for what we do like! When you get paid for something, you're more likely to do it again. And there aren't side effects like fear or intimidation. You have a willing participant, you become a team with your dog when you use positive reinforcement.
Positive Reinforcement is NOT bribing your dog! NO MA'AM!
My goodness, the amount I hear this from people who don't use positive reinforcement... "you're just bribing the dogs!" ummm, pause. Full stop. Let's back it right up. That just ain't true. We are PAYING our dogs. In the elevator, if the dogs I am walking can sit and look at me (or just stand near me and look at me) imma pay them for that. Maybe I have to cue them to get their attention with a kissy noise to get them understanding what I want, but once they are looking I PAY! Once they realize they are getting paid for giving attention, they sure as heck are going to be checking in with me way more often. No kissy noises needed. They are like "oh sick an elevator, hey kelsey WHAT UP!!!!" and I'm like "oh hey dog, HERE U GO U EARNED THIS!"
If I were to BRIBE the dog, what would happen is that when we get in an elevator I use a treat by their nose to get them to look at me. What happens when I don't lure them with a treat? I don't get attention. No bribe? No behaviour. But when we pay the dog, they begin offering the behaviour in hopes of it being paid! If we pay for the behaviour until the point where the behaviour is being willingly offered, we can now pay on a variable schedule. Maybe they only get paid every second or third elevator ride! Does the behaviour go away? Nope! Because the dog knows that the behaviour MIGHT get paid, and because it MIGHT get paid - it is worth it to offer it up! (think of humans and scratch tickets... we know we won't win every time, but we might win SOMETIMES, and because we might win SOMETIMES it is enough for us to keep buying those little tickets).
In summary: you don't get offered behaviour if you use a bribe. Positive reinforcement, when done right, can have the treats faded away. Believe that or not! As long as you don't fade the treats too soon, and you continue to reinforce periodically - you can do it. If you have a dog who is dependant on treats, you probably did it wrong!
How would you rather learn?
At the end of the day, this is really why positive reinforcement is the way to go for me. I respond much better to being praised for something I did right, rather than being punished for doing something wrong.
Say I wanted to learn how to play the piano. If we were using positive punishment - I would be playing, and every WRONG note I did I would get a pinch in the arm. Over time, I may make less mistakes - but I am also now not really enjoying my time playing piano, and I am SCARED of my teacher. I didn't learn how to do something right, I learned how NOT to do something wrong.
If we were using positive reinforcement, we could start very slow - every few notes I got right I got a "yes kelsey! sounds great!". When I do something wrong, I don't get any praise - but just encouragement to try again. Overtime I am learning what gets me praise, and what doesn't. I am now trying to get more and more praise, I am learning those chords! Together, as a team, my piano teacher and I can BUILD the behaviour of playing an entire song. We take it at my pace. If it's too hard and I am making too many "mistakes", my teacher breaks it down & reinforces for my small successes. This makes me excited, I am a happy participant and I am learning what works! I would way rather learn this way.
For my fellow dog trainers and walkers out there - I know this is a very simplified explanation of positive reinforcement. But this post isn't for you ;) I want positive reinforcement to be understood by everyone! My tips for you humans - think about your day to day life, notice those moments of reinforcement (and punishment) and see how prevalent it is. Think about how you would rather learn. And then take that to your dog!
Let me know if you have any questions, but have fun! And become a team with your doggo. Pay them for the behaviours you like!
Stay tuned for our next post on CLICKERS!