The Buzz About Reward Based Training

Traditionally dog training was primarily taught through punishment or aversive techniques.   Through time, reward based or positive reinforcement training has become more popular.   By definition, behaviors that are reinforced will increase.  This is true for various species of animals including humans.  It’s also true that both desired and undesired behavior can be increase through reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement training is adding something to your dogs environment that your dog views as reinforcing.  Examples of reinforces for dogs include:  verbal praise, treats, toys, play (with the owner or other dogs, or toys), rub downs, a clicker, and more.  What your dog perceives as a reinforcer can vary from dog to dog.  Many trainers find that food, of various kinds, is a high reinforcer for dogs.  This is because food, by nature, is a primary reinforcement, which means your dog needs food to survive.

The benefits of reward-based training are numerous.  What I have found most apparent through my years of training through this method is that reward based training creates a thinking dog a dog that is eager to elicit a behavior to see if they will receive a reward.  I have witnessed dogs that have been trained through punishment or given corrections for undesired behaviors to be reluctant to offer behaviors in fear of being corrected.  Other benefits of reward based training include increased trust from the dog to it’s owner, dogs eagerness to work with the owner, a decrease in stress behaviors exhibited by a dog, and a dogs retention of the behavior over time, to name a few.

In my opinion, the benefits of positive reinforcement training far out way the challenges of this method.  Some of the most commonly cited challenges include:  length of time it may take to train a behavior and if not trained appropriately, dogs dependency on the reinforcement, particularly food.

By definition, punishment decreases a behavior.   For the purpose of this article when I refer to punishment or aversive training techniques I imply leash corrections, pinning your dog down, or yelling at them.

A pro of punishment-based training is that, if used properly, it can elicit an immediate response from your dog.  What makes this controversial is that, if not rewarded for the appropriate behavior, the dog is not learning to display the desired behavior, they are learning how to avoid the punishment.

In my opinion, I feel the challenges of aversive training deeply out way the pros.  Some challenges to punishment include:  loss of trust between a dog and their owner and it can lead to submissive, aggressive, or fearful behavior.  In addition, in order for punishment to be effective it must be consistent, timely, and viewed by the dog as unpleasant.  All of which may be difficult for a new owner/ handler to master.

You may be wondering how you to stop your dog from inappropriate behavior by using a reward system if the definition of punishment is to decrease undesired behavior.  When using a reward system you are being proactive and rewarding your dog for the desired behavior as opposed to being reactive and punishing a dog for displaying inappropriate behavior.  If your dog does elicit an inappropriate behavior, I suggest ignoring your dog, or walking away from them, or using various management tools such as a crate or gentle leader for walking, or simply saying ‘oops’ and try again.

I want to stress, both reward based training and punishment based training can be effective. Nevertheless as a dog owner, the pros and challenges of the two training techniques should be understood and evaluated closely by you before beginning your training program.  I strongly believe in reward-based training.  My Golden Retriever, Kai, taught me this over 15 years ago when I began dog training.  I put a slip collar on him, and gave him 1 correction, he quickly turned and looked at me with eyes filled with shock, fear, and confusion. It was at that moment that I began my study and practice in reward-based dog training methods.  I have never looked back sense!

Kai, who taught me the most about dog training.