Operant Conditioning – Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive Reinforcement Training is one part of Operant Conditioning – a proven method for encouraging wanted behaviour and discouraging unwanted behaviour.

I remember the first time a potential client asked me if I used “Positive Reinforcement” techniques. I had no idea what she meant. As the positive training craze erupted, I was asked that question repeatedly and each time I wanted to roll my eyes and puke. It’s like asking a dietician if their program is based on calorie reducing strategies.

The term is basic and generic. In fact, the term “positive training” became so popular it is now both a verb and a noun. Trainers explain their techniques as “positive training techniques” and describe themselves as being a “Positive Reinforcement Trainer”. What this really means is they can answer the question, “What reward do you use?” – I cannot answer that question, although UPWARD Methodology is reward driven.

Is UPWARD Methodology “Positive”? Yes and No.

Yes, as a verb. I use Approaches suited to the dog’s personality to teach and apply skills in ways the dog can easily understand and learn. My clients learn how to calmly and effectively work with their dog. I do not rely any physical restraints or use force. If a dog is uncomfortable in any way, I cease the exercise immediately, and build the skills required to accomplish goals at the pace of the dog.

No, as a noun. I do not rely on contrived rewards, such as treats, pats, or praise to effectively work with a dog.

When I tell people that, as a Specialist/Behaviourist, I do not rely on treats, they commonly respond with, “Of course! When dogs expect a treat, we get stuck into always having to give one.” Sort of. Using treats as a reward to teach basic commands is very easy – it does not take long – literally minutes. Once the dog has learned the specific action associated with the word, we should no longer rely on treats as the reward. I cringe when I read postings for dogs declaring the dog to be “treat motivated” because, by labelling dogs this way, it encourages people to rely solely on treats, therefore limiting, or “ceiling”, their ability to effectively work with their dog.

Relying on treats is often slow to show progress, or unpredictable, because 1) the treat is used as a reward that is not wanted by the dog, 2) the treat is used to try to convince the dog, 3) the treat prevents the people from reading their dog, and/or 4) the treat is forcing the end goal at an uncomfortable pace for the dog.

Treat based exercises do not have the ability to change the dog’s perception of the person or of the situation or to increase a person’s ability to manage a situation.