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Being the Good Guy in Your Dog's Life

Behaviourism - Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning involves changing an animal's voluntary behaviour by means of the consequences of that behaviour.

'Reinforcement' is something that makes an animal's behaviour more likely to occur, while 'punishment' is something that makes an animal's behaviour less likely to occur.

'Positive' denotes that something good or bad is added, 'negative' that something good or bad is taken away.

In 'positive punishment', an unpleasant stimulus is added (the dog pulls on the lead and the choke chain tightens around its neck). In 'negative punishment', a pleasant stimulus is removed (food reward is removed when dog fails to sit on command).

In 'negative reinforcement', an unpleasant stimulus is removed (the choke chain loosens as the dog moves closer to its owner). In 'positive reinforcement', a pleasant stimulus is added (the dog sits on command and is given a reward).

Time for a Change of Philosophy?

A lot of traditional training methods have used some form of positive punishment, often with its natural partner, negative reinforcement. The dog is not in the correct heel position, so the handler yanks the lead. The dog fails to lie down on command, so the handler pushes it into a down. The puppy wets the carpet, so is slapped and shouted at.

While the dog may learn to do some behaviours, and avoid others, in order to avoid being punished, this is a method of training that will cause the animal stress. Handlers who favour training methods based on positive punishment badly need to reconsider the morality of the way in which they treat their animals, and the relationship they want with their pets.

Change your personal philosophy - choose reward-based methods using positive reinforcement. These are the methods of choice for handlers who are prepared to think step by step through the shaping process needed to train an end behaviour, and for handlers who want to have fun with their dogs.

Focusing on Wanted Behaviour

Once you've ditched the positive punishment methods, training becomes much more enjoyable, both for you and your dog.

It's now all very simple - every time your dog does something you like, you give it something it finds rewarding (positive reinforcement). Don't give the reward if the dog didn't do the desired behaviour (negative punishment), but you must make sure you set up lots of situations where the dog can succeed, so that you can reward it for producing the wanted behaviour.

One of the most liberating aspects of using positive reinforcement is that you, as a trainer, are no longer looking for things that your dog is doing wrong. You are, instead, actively looking for all the good things your dog does!

Positive Reinforcers for Your Dog

Dogs vary a lot in what they find rewarding:

• food treats - sausage, cheese, liver etc.
• toys - balls, tug toys, squeakies.
• smiles and kind words from handler.
• gentle pats, tickles and rubs.
• activity - working, going for walk.

You need to think through what your own dog finds most rewarding, that you can use in a training situation. Usually, food or toys are good choices. Not all dogs perceive pats and kind words as sufficient reward, and in some cases physical contact with the handler can even act as an aversive. So the important thing is to find what works for your dog.

If your dog is not doing something you want, ask yourself two questions: "Have I taught the desired behaviour in a way my dog can understand?" and: "Have I made it rewarding?"

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