What Exactly is Reward-Based Training?

What Exactly is Reward-Based Training?

I work with a national network of professional dog trainers, all of whom are the most successful in their communities.  They have an incredibly high success rate, and all of them commit to working with their clients until they accomplish all of their training goals.

The trainers I work with have all taken my Professional Dog Trainer’s Course at some point in their careers, and all of them offer reward-based training.   Often, however, we are asked exactly what this means, so I thought I’d take the opportunity this blog gives me to explain what that means to our trainers and their clients.

These days in dog training, people think that there’s just two ways that dogs are trained.   There’s the old, punishment-based style of training where your dog encounters some form of punishment whenever he does something wrong.  Usually people think that this is an extremely harsh method of training that is associated with old school, military style trainers.  (In reality, even trainers who claim to be just the opposite employ, and recommend to their clients, this type of training.)

Then there’s what is, unfortunately, commonly referred to as “positive reinforcement” Dog Training done by competent dog trainers employs all 4 quadrants of operant conditioning, not just positive reinforcement.training.   What this actually means is that a dog is rewarded when he does a behavior that you would like to see repeated.  This reward can be anything that the dog likes, like praise and petting, however when dog owners, and even trainers see or hear this phrase, they automatically assume that this is “treat training”.

A Boston dog trainer and I once worked with a client who had a dog who displayed territorial aggression. During our initial email correspondence, the client asked me if I use “punishment” in training. He told me his wife was sick to her stomach at the thought of using punishment to train their dog. When I met them, however, he told me that a “positive” dog trainer suggested using an air horn every time the dog barked at people or cars passing by their house. Imagine their surprise when I pointed out to them that using the air horn in that way

Dog Training should be effective, but should not involve punishment-based philosophies.

… a gift from the dog training gods! While shopping for a bed for my dog at a big box pet retailer that offers “positive reinforcement, reward-based training”, I watched a trainer working with a 5-month-old Doberman puppy who was jumping up on her, and its owner. Her solution was to spray it in the face with water each time he jumped. It didn’t work… he kept jumping – and getting squirted. (The only thing worse than relying on punishment-based training, is repeatedly punishing a dog after what you are doing isn’t working)is actually punishment! You see, punishment is simply engaging in an action that your dog doesn’t like, when your dog does a behavior that you don’t like. When done correctly, your action decreases the likelihood that the dog will do the unwanted behavior the next time he’s in that same situation. In this case, the “positive” dog trainer recommended sounding an air horn (an action the dog doesn’t like) whenever the dog barked at anyone passing by their property (a behavior the owners didn’t like).

is actually punishment! You see, punishment is simply engaging in an action that your dog doesn’t like, when your dog does a behavior that you don’t like. When done correctly, your action decreases the likelihood that the dog will do the unwanted behavior the next time he’s in that same situation. In this case, the “positive” dog trainer recommended sounding an air horn (an action the dog doesn’t like) whenever the dog barked at anyone passing by their property (a behavior the owners didn’t like).

So, while this dog trainer claimed to be a “positive reinforcement” trainer (because she uses food and abhors the use of training collars, according to her website), she actually recommended a punishment-based training technique to get their dog to stop his territorial behavior. This recommendation didn’t work because in order for it to work, the action you take has to be something the dog really doesn’t like. Apparently the sound of an air horn is not on that list, and so the unwanted behavior never stopped – that’s why the client needed my help.

When someone asks me, or one of the trainers I work with, what our training philosophy is, I’ll often answer that they are “4-quadrant trainers” but that we try to minimize any aversive or punishment, and try to encourage rewards and positive reinforcement.  (Ironically, this used to be the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s mission statement)   Also, we want to teach the dogs we train to work to receive rewards, when they learn new, acceptable behaviors.

What makes the training we do “reward-based” however, is that we employ a training protocol that takes away a dog’s opportunity to fail, or engage is behavior that would require punishment, and at the same time, using rewards, we teach the dogs new, acceptable behaviors.   So, in the case of the client I was talking about, we took away the dog’s opportunity to bark at the window, and taught him to stay calmly in his place, using rewards.

Once the dog has learned acceptable behaviors, away from the problem causing stimuli, we begin to gradually reintroduce the opportunity to do the previous, bad behavior, in the hope that the dog will make the correct decision that he’s been taught.  When he does this, he’s rewarded.

Training a dog in the presence of the stimuli that causes the bad behavior, is just setting your dog up for failure, and punishment, no matter what the trainer who makes these unfair suggestions labels their training.   (A dog trainer in Philadelphia and I ran into this scenario just a few days ago.)  Instead, an approach that is infinitely more fair to your dog, would be to take away the opportunity to fail, while using rewards to teach your dog acceptable behaviors.  (Remember, in this relationship, you are the species with opposable thumbs, and you have the ability to control your dog’s environment!)   You should, however, be willing to PROPERLY employ all the quadrants during this process, while focusing primarily on positive reinforcement. (Easy to do, when your dog’s opportunity to fail has been initially removed.)

This is my definition of reward-based training!

All of the dog trainers I work with are experts, not only in training dogs, but in teaching their people how to easily and properly follow through and maintain their dog’s training for the rest of their pet’s life.   If you would like to be referred to a trainer who will commit to your long-term success, please contact me today!

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