I am sure you have heard the term positive reinforcement training. But what does that term mean?  What is positive reinforcement?  Positive reinforcement training involves reinforcing your dog for the things they do right.  There has been a lot of scientific research involved in dog training.  What the scientists have learned is that positive reinforcement is very effective.

You may have heard of Pavlov and his dogs.  He would ring a dinner bell and the dogs would salivate.  The dogs had learned to associate the bell with food coming, even before the meal arrived.  The began salivating in anticipation.  This phenomenon is known as classical conditioning.  Your dog learns by classical conditioning all the time.  For example, when the doorbell rings, your dog gets excited because they anticipate a visitor at the door.  They have associated the doorbell with people coming.  Classical conditioning happens voluntarily.

Operant conditioning is also known as trial and error learning.  This is what occurs when you do active training with your dog.  Dogs learn to associate their behavior with its consequences.  Dogs will increase the frequency of those behaviors associated with pleasant experience and decrease the frequency of behaviors associated with unpleasant consequences.  For example, you are talking on the phone and your dog starts barking.  In order to continue your phone conversation, you give your dog a bone to chew on so that he will stop barking.  The bone creates a pleasant experience for the dog.  He will likely bark next time you are on the phone to recreate the pleasant bone experience.  If your dog chases the cat and the cat scratches the dog on the nose, the dog will likely not chase the cat again.  He will associate chasing the cat with an unpleasant experience.

Consequences drive behavior.  Training your dog involves controlling the consequences of your dog’s actions to influence the behaviors they choose to express.  Operant conditioning is a way to do this.  In operant conditioning, you will either add something or remove something.  For example, if you give your dog a treat you are adding something.  This is known as a positive.  If you remove pressure on a collar, you have removed something.  This is known as a negative.

Consequences will either increase or decrease the frequency of a behavior.  Reinforcement is anything that makes the behavior more likely.  Punishment is anything that makes the behavior less likely.  By combining positive and negative reinforcements and punishments we can affect the dog’s behavior.  Four quadrants make up operant conditioning.

Positive reinforcement is the first quadrant.  This is the quadrant that we want to focus on when training our dogs.  Positive means to add something and reinforcement means that the behavior will increase in frequency.  By giving your dog something that he loves when a specific behavior is performed, the behavior is likely to occur more often in the future.

Positive punishment is the second quadrant.  Something is added that your dog dislikes to reduce the chances of him repeating that behavior in the future.  For example, when your dog barks at the window, you swat him on the rump to stop the behavior.

Negative reinforcement is the third quadrant.  In this case, you take something unpleasant away to make the behavior occur more frequently.  Prong collars are an example of negative reinforcement.  When your dog is pulling on a leash, you put pressure on the prong collar which causes an unpleasant experience.  When the dog stops pulling on the leash, you release the pressure on the prong collar.  The dog will be more likely to not pull on the leash the next time.

Negative punishment is the final quadrant.  You remove something your dog likes to decrease the frequency of the behavior.  This can be a good tool for training.  For example, when your dog jumps on you, you turn you back and take away your attention.  Your dog wants your attention and will likely not jump on you in the future so that he can keep your attention.

Positive reinforcement trainers focus on positive reinforcement and negative punishment.   These trainers concentrate on using things that dogs like such as, treats, toys, attention, etc.  They will either deliver them or take them away.  They typically avoid the use of unpleasant things.  Aversive things are only appropriate when it may save the dog’s live in a threatening situation.

There are consequences to the use of aversive things.  Due to classical conditioning, the dogs trained using aversives may associate the trainer and the training process negatively.  Which can make these dogs not look forward to training of any kind.  They will be afraid to try new things.  The bond with the owner may be adversely affected.

When dogs are reinforced for their behavior, they learn to love training.  Training means good things are going to happen.  The dog does not worry about making a mistake and is willing to try new behaviors in hopes of getting a pleasant response from the trainer.  They became an active participant in the training process.  Due to classical conditioning, your dog will associate you with pleasant things and the bond will be stronger between you and your  dog.