Positive Reinforcement Isn’t For All

Positive Reinforcement Isn’t For All

Yep, you just read that correctly.  Positive reinforcement isn’t for everyone, but not for the reasons many people think.

I firmly believe that dogs do not need to have aversives as part of their training in order to learn and be reliable.  They don’t need to be hit, choked, shocked, kicked, pinned to the ground, popped, or intimidated.  Seems to contradict my initial premise right?  Well, while the dogs don’t need it, I think many humans are stuck feeling like they have to use some sort of punishment either because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to believe (reward the good punish the bad) or that they dont’ know how to get what they want without using some sort of aversive technique.

I was having a conversation with a dog owner who was asking a training question.  In my explanation I told her to make really good things happen where they want the dog to be and to prevent wrong choices.  She responded, “Well how do I teach him that that bad things happen in the area I don’t want him.”  I was a little bit shocked hearing this from someone who I know to be very positive and pacifist by nature.  I tried to explain that by really paying out for being in the good areas and by preventing him from being in the ‘wrong’ areas, that the dog would continue to make the easy choice.  When the dog knew how to get reinforcement that they could add in some punishment by putting the dog on a leash, inside, or in another area away from the fun if he tried the ‘wrong’ choice–but I emphasized that this was only to be done after the dog knew what he SHOULD do.

She seemed puzzled (and looked at me like I was CRAZY) and kept on insisting that “he needs to know bad things happen over there.”  Even someone so positive couldn’t quite get her head around the idea that by setting the dog up for success and heavily rewarding good choices that the need for punishment, particularly painful punishment, was almost nonexistent. She really just could not fathom that it was possible and I’m not sure that I would have been able to convince her otherwise without being able to show her.

I think many trainers and dog guardians struggle with the idea that aversives aren’t needed for training.  Their histories and experiences tell them that aversives are okay because they work.  They think positive reinforcement is phooey and it isn’t for them and the reality is, it may not be for them…yet.

If a trainer or dog guardian, new to positive reinforcement based methods, does not step outside their experiences and their histories, it probably will not work for them because the way they had been training probably did need the physical punishment to be effective.  A lot has to change in terms of how they approach training, how they utilize rewards, how they build drive, how they proof skills, and how they deal with failure in order for them to be successful.  Even simply increasing the amount of positive reinforcement methods and reducing (even a little) the amount of aversives can be challenging.  Until a trainer is ready to challenge him/herself and really change how they approach training, they are probably not ready for the switch to positive reinforcement based training.  Positive reinforcement based training really is more than just using rewards, it’s a way of thinking and a way of approaching problems.

It really is not an issue of the dogs needing punishment but the guardian/trainer needs it because they do not have the tools to do it without (or they aren’t ready to branch out and try it a new way).  When talking with some of the best trainers, competing in high levels in various sports or working with behavior modification, it became obvious that as they stepped out of their comfort zone of using some level of aversives, they had to learn how to problem solve differently.  They also had to be open to trying something and failing while having the resiliency to bounce back from failure to figure out something different to try.

Until trainers and dog guardians are at this point and really ready to change their approach to training, positive reinforcement based training may not yet be right for them…yet.

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