Positive/Negative

Dog training based in corrections uses a lot of punishment to stop “bad” behavior. You ask the dog to sit, and he doesn’t sit? Punishment time. The goal is to decrease the behavior of not sitting when asked. (Very old-fashioned training will also use the cessation of punishment as a reinforcement, like releasing an ear pinch when the dog does the desired behavior, but that’s beyond my scope here.)

We “positive” trainers think of ourselves as doing something else. We don’t issue leash corrections, we give cookies! We celebrate when the dog gets it right!

But, do we?

In my clicker-based obedience classes, all of the student questions were still quite negative. “How can I get my dog to stop counter surfing?” “I don’t want my dog to jump up. What do I do?” “I need my dog to stop pulling on the leash!”

Speaking from the behavioral science perspective, you cannot reward your way to stopping a behavior. A reward, by definition, increases behavior. Punishment is what decreases behavior.

As long as you think of your dog’s behaviors as something that need to be stopped, you are living in a punishment-based world. It’s possible that you can live in this world without actually using a lot of punishment. You can stop counter surfing with a baby gate. You can stop jumping by turning away from the dog. You can stop leash pulling with a front-clip harness. At the end of the day, though, you’re like a tourist getting by with gestures because you don’t speak the language. You might get the point across, but nobody is going to enjoy it. (Let’s be clear: sometimes management of a behavior is important for the dog’s safety, in which case, manage away.)

To be a really, truly, positive dog trainer, you have to think about things in positive ways. 

The statement cannot be “I don’t want this behavior”; it absolutely must be “I do want this behavior.”

Quite simply, reinforcement increases behavior. If you want to use reinforcement, you have to be focused on a behavior that needs to increase.

It’s all very easy and logical on paper. It’s harder to do in practice, when your dog is doing something that is driving you around the bend. Looking for what we do want also goes against the natural human tendency. As a species, we’re fantastic problem solvers, which means that we do tend to dwell on things that need to be “fixed.” Shifting your mindset will open up a million training possibilities, though, including solutions for all of those “bad” behaviors. It’s worth the work.

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7 thoughts on “Positive/Negative

  1. YES!!! So smart.

    But it’s harder for humans to think about what they DO want their dogs to do instead of what they don’t want.

    The fun part is that once the person clues in, for some dogs, the training is freaking easy.

    Like

    1. Easy, indeed. Silas will sometimes grasp something after a few tries, then look at me like “You could have just asked for that in the first place, silly human.” We just have to ask in a way they understand.

      Like

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