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Ten Reasons to Use Positive Reinforcement Training

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Positive reinforcement training provides us with an efficient way to train our pets. Here are 10 reasons to use it.

1. Speed

When you reward behaviors, you are giving your pet specific information that the behavior he performed was the correct behavior. This leads to quick learning, since your pet can focus on that specific behavior rather than worrying about receiving punishments for all of the possible incorrect behaviors he could try.

2. Positive Side Effects

Since your pet will receive things he likes, treats/toys/walks and so on, he will learn:

  • To enjoy the training process
  • To form a bond with you as the trainer
  • To associate hearing cues/signals and hands reaching towards him with good things, since they are paired with rewards.

This is a powerful tool and can prevent or eliminate other potential behavior problems from popping up during the training process. In contrast, force training (which we never recommend) can lead to negative side effects.

3. It’s Fun!

When we experience our pets learning new behaviors and getting excited about the rewards and process, it is reinforcing for us as well.

4. Quick Responding to Signals/Cues

You’ll get super quick responses to your signals if using rewards and correct technique. The rewards are an enticing form of motivation and it’s enjoyable for pets to attempt to earn them; this is especially noticeable in contrast to punishment, force-based methods, where pets can be frightened to respond or try new behaviors for fear of correction or pain.

5. Forming Positive Associations

You can use positive reinforcement training to help pets overcome fears and learn to accept body handling, like at the veterinarian, or to introduce puppies to new things during the socialization period, and because of its positive side effects, you don’t have to worry about creating new fears to anything.

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6. Setting Up for Success

Positive reinforcement training allows us to set up each training scenario we need, and prepare to teach the specific behavior we want our dog or cat to learn to perform in that situation – for example, teaching a sit stay at doorways, a coming when called/recall at 50 feet away off-leash, fetching a toy across the room, holding a stay for 2 minutes while dinner is prepared, and to allow us to test whether our pets can achieve these behaviors. If they can’t currently, then more repetitions of training can lead to the response needed.

7. You Can Start Right Away

All it takes is some simple rewards, so grab some kibble and work on teaching a new behavior before mealtime. Of course it helps to mix in different types of rewards over time: varying the type of treats offered, using higher value treats (your pet’s favorites), and using toys.

Once you understand the process of using positive reinforcement, you’ll notice it’s easy to incorporate into your daily life, and it can become a positive way of interacting with your pets in all situations, not just designated training sessions.

8. Science Supports It

The more research that is done into positive reinforcement training, the more benefits are discovered.

9. It Works!

Positive reinforcement training has proven to work with hundreds of animal species, and on every conceivable training problem including reactivity, severe forms of fear, separation anxiety, and aggression.

10. Our Pets Prefer It! Empathy is Valuable

When we consider how our best friend dog or cat would like to have us treat them, we find obviously that they rather receive rewards than harsh punishments. We know we rather be treated with respect, and can enjoy offering the same treatment to our pets while teaching them. Positive reinforcement training is a win-win process for us and animals.

Don’t Socialize Your Puppy?

Dog Socialization: Part II

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Don’t socialize your puppy?

There is a relatively new message spreading around the dog world claiming you should not socialize your puppy, or that you should not actively socialize your puppy; just let life happen.

Here is why this is bad advice:

As discussed in our Dog Socialization: Part I article, if you simply take your puppy and expose him to sights, scents, and sounds, he could habituate to these things (which would be excellent!), or unfortunately, he could sensitize to them and start to fear them.

Knowing that behavior problems are one of, if not the top reason dogs are relinquished to animal shelters, as a professional dog trainer it should be mandatory to recommend socialization to all puppies, especially the type of socialization that actively targets forming positive associations with things and events they will have to experience during their lifetimes. This is literally preventative measures against fear and aggression, the two big behavior problems that lead to bites of other dogs and people, and which can ultimately lead to euthanasia of the biter.

 

Don’t use treats during socialization?

Don’t actively socialize your puppy may also be framed as don’t use treats during the socialization process.

Not all situations will need treats. The main priority is for our puppies to form positive associations. Playing with other dogs can be a naturally positive experience. We don’t need to feed treats during the play, although we could after each break taken by the pups, or after encouraging them to disengage for a quick break, then release them to play again (it’s like a double-reward: treats + play).

More importantly though, if one puppy bullies the other, after separating them you can feed your puppy some treats to offset what would otherwise be a negative experience.

And while we can allow passive socialization to occur in situations like walking through a neighborhood and allowing your puppy to take in all sights, sounds, and scents, there are also situations that left without any obvious intervention from us will become negative or scary experiences, so we’re much better off delivering treats to our pups to intentionally create as many positive associations as possible.

Therefore, you definitely should use treats during the socialization process.

 

Using treats during socialization is a distraction?

For proper socialization to take place, following correct training order of events, we want our puppies and dogs to observe a thing in the environment so that they can get used to it and form a positive association with it, if needed. This means, they should notice the thing (usually making eye contact with it, but we can also work with any of the senses), so that we can pair it with something good – like treats, play with a favorite toy, and happy praise. None of these things is a distraction.

Rather they are rewards and positive events, so that a behavior (like your puppy making eye contact with you and standing quietly), is rewarded and thus repeated in the future, or…

A stimulus/event (like a person approaching), now predicts a positive event occurring (treats, play, and praise).

So yes, definitely use treats during socialization, especially if there is something your puppy is showing uncertainty or fear towards.

If you’re worried that your puppy will start to enjoy people and other dogs after having positive experiences with them and pull towards them on walks, then you can simply train behaviors like calmly passing on leash when it’s not a good time to meet. Using this strategy you’ll get a dog that likes other people and dogs, is not afraid of them, is less likely to bite them, and can still behave appropriately following your cues.

We shouldn’t desire an asocial dog simply because he might be less motivated to pull towards others.

 

Exposure to things is bad?

This one seems to be a misunderstanding of proper socialization/training technique. Never during the process should puppies be exposed to things to point of creating fear. Forcing them to walk onto surfaces they are scared of, or allowing people to manhandle them, or forcing them to get trampled in a group of dogs that are over-matching them in size and play style are all poor attempts at socialization, and any good dog trainer knows this, however, this is completely different than abandoning socialization altogether.

Puppies should get to learn and play with other puppies and safe adult dogs. It could even be argued that intentionally withholding these experiences is inhumane.

Teaching puppies that strangers predict good things, either directly from their guardian or from the strangers themselves is only going to lead to better outcomes in the future. The alternative is a dog that potentially learns to distrust people and is at higher risk to bite.

Moral of this part of the story: don’t flood your puppy with negative experiences that lead him over his fear-threshold. Instead follow correct socialization protocol by exposing your puppy to novel things and situations, at a pace he is comfortable with, while simultaneously pairing those things with positive consequences like treats.

 

Because of genetics, we don’t have to socialize our puppies/dogs?

The notion that social puppies will grow into social dogs and asocial puppies will never advance to adulthood to like others simply because of their genes, is absurd. Yes, genetics plays a huge role in any individual’s behavior, but it is because of genetics that it is even more important to socialize our puppies and dogs. If a puppy was born fearful, we have to work extra diligently to help him become more comfortable and confident.

There are plenty of dog breeds that have been selectively bred with fear towards strangers.

Dog behavior and training expert, Jean Donaldson, has identified several key words used to describe breeds that translates to: “these dogs are uncomfortable around strangers.”

These terms include:

  • Aloof
  • Discerning
  • Wary of strangers
  • One-family dog
  • Reserved with strangers
  • Takes a while to warm up to people
  • Great with the family
  • Protective (1)

In addition, before we even acquire our dogs, they can also have fear from:

  • A mother that was stressed during pregnancy, and/or
  • “Parenting” from a skittish mother.

That leaves us with opportunities to prevent or try to eliminate fear by actively:

  • Working to provide a stimulating/enriching environment for our puppies’ growth and socialization.
  • Avoiding negative life experiences that will scare our puppies and dogs – including avoiding the use for force-training methods, which can directly lead to fearful/aggressive behavior; instead we can use positive reinforcement training methods.

 

Conclusion

Socialize your puppy! Just do it correctly: avoid causing fear, and instead actively work to help your puppy form positive associations, and build up protective “padding” with plenty of positive experiences, so that if/when a novel or potentially negative event occurs in his life, he’ll be able to handle it with resiliency and confidence.

 

References:

  1. The Culture Clash: A revolutionary new way of understanding the relationship between humans and domestic dogs by Jean Donaldson. 2nd Edition. 2005.

Dog Socialization: Part I

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What is Socialization?

Socialization is the process of habituating, or getting used to things in the environment.

So socialization is a broader concept than simply creating opportunities for your dogs to be social; it includes preparing them for all sorts of events they are likely to experience in their lifetimes.

While socialization is important for dogs of all ages, it is especially true for puppies, who have a socialization period, a time when they are more open to accepting things in the environment – starting approximately at 3 weeks of age and ending in the range of 12-18 weeks old.

Once this critical period ends, puppies will fight or flee from things they have not been socialized to. In an evolutionary sense, they have survived to their current age without exposure to these things, and consequently do not need to confront them to survive, thus their attempt to increase distance from them.

 

Socialize Dogs To…

Luckily, we know the most important things to socialize dogs to. These include:

  • People of all kinds – men, women, babies, and children of all ages, etc.
  • Other puppies and dogs – allowing normal canine interactions and play opportunities
  • Veterinary clinics – the staff, vets with lab coats, sights, sounds, smells, body handling for examinations and any other procedures
  • Body handling, including for brushing teeth, cutting nails, taking baths, or going to a groomer
  • Places – neighborhoods, parks, pet stores, anywhere else your dog will go in life
  • Riding in vehicles
  • Loud sounds, fireworks, thunderstorms – not going outside near them, but making sure they do not scare your dog or puppy inside the home.
  • And anything else your dog will come across in life.

 

How the Process Works

If you think of each novel event or thing starting out as neutral from your puppy’s perspective, then your work is to ensure you help your puppy form a positive association with the event/thing.

Exposing puppies and dogs to things can lead to: 1. habituation – getting used to them, or 2. sensitization – becoming more sensitive towards the them. In the latter case, they move from neutral to negative. This is the opposite of what we want to accomplish with socialization, and can lead to fear and aggression – two of the more complicated behavior problems to solve with training.

So while our dogs may habituate to sights and sounds around the neighborhood and we can take advantage of a passive socialization process at times, we also know certain things that are inevitably scary or uncomfortable such as veterinary exams.

To counteract these situations, we can simply pair things/events with super tasty treats. This will send these neutral experiences into a definite positive category.

For example:

  • A stranger walking across the street could be scary, but instead you can make it equal a treat for your puppy. Over time, the puppy will start to love seeing new people approach.
  • Every time the veterinarian exams a body part, deliver your puppy one of his favorite treats to turn a potentially scary and uncomfortable experience into something pleasant.

 

Checkout our Dog Socialization: Part II blog – answering questions about socialization.

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

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Positive reinforcement is the addition of a pleasant consequence that increases behavior.

Behaviors that are positively reinforced will increase (or maintain at its current level) over time, meaning an animal will attempt the same behavior again if it worked for him to earn something desirable. The reward is a consequence for the behavior, and a reason to perform the behavior again.

Rewards can consist of anything your dog or cat wants, including food, treats, toys, an opportunity to sniff something or greet a person/animal, or a walk outside the home.

Sometimes we intend to positively reinforce a behavior, but the reward we give at that specific time is not desired by our pet, so it doesn’t act as true reinforcement, and the behavior isn’t offered at an increased rate.

Therefore, it’s important to understand it’s the learner, the pet, who gets to decide whether a reward is reinforcing to him.

And just like with people, our pets can like certain foods sometimes and not as much other times. They have their individual preferences, they can feel like playing more than eating, or vice versa at any given time, so we can incorporate this knowledge into how we train our pets.