Explanation for Purely Positive, R+, and Punishment Training

Note: R+ is a symbol for positive reinforcement.

Sometimes people will try to deter others away from positive reinforcement training by claiming there is no purely positive training, or it does not work.

This is really a non-argument, though. Behaviors can be trained with errorless learning, where the behavior is broken down into enough parts that the animal is reinforced (or rewarded) only for correct behaviors until it is shaped into the final behavior.

So that would be purely positive training that does work, but it’s also not part of the majority of positive reinforcement trainers’ plans.

There’s nothing wrong with withholding or removing rewards for incorrect responses in order to punish (i.e. decrease) behavior, while using it in conjunction with rewards (meaning the dog won’t get frustrated because he’s set up to succeed the majority of the time). It’s not punish, punish, punish, punish, etc., but rather reward-reward-no reward-reward and more along those lines.

It allows dogs to learn when they perform the correct behavior they receive a reward (helping them understand it was correct), and when they do not perform the correct behavior they receive no reward (allowing them to understand it wasn’t correct, and to try something else).

And this is the way most trainers shape behavior, by rewarding the desirable behaviors among those offered by the dog, and ignoring the unwanted ones (meaning we don’t have to set it up in an errorless learning type of situation, because that simply wastes time – dogs can handle experiencing no reward for trying incorrect behaviors).

Clearly, though, there is an blatant difference between removing/withholding rewards for incorrect behavior, and directly punishing dogs with harsh physical corrections (with leash jerks, special sharp collars or ones that cut-off the dog’s airway, or shock them at whatever level). Both of these categories of consequences are intended to decrease unwanted behavior, but they are obviously not equal. The latter group compromises dog’s welfare and should not be used. It’s also not necessary when we have the other easy to implement option available as a training technique.

If you haven’t switched over to positive reinforcement/reward-based training, go ahead and start today. Your dogs will love you for it.

By Dan Raymer

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