Training your dog: Which learning/teaching style do you use?

How do you train your pet?

Understanding animal training can be confusing. Dr Jo explains training/teaching and learning styles in a simple, easy to understand manner. And encourages owners to use positive reinforcement…

Training a dog can be fun!

Do you train your pet? The answer is yes you do, whether you are aware of it or not. Pets are always learning. They learn what works for them and repeat this behaviour. If you wish your pet to behave in a different way, then you need to teach them.

I often find that there is confusion among pet owners, especially dog owners, about how to train their pets. Many have heard of positive, motivational training and want to remain as positive as possible but sometimes punishment creeps in. Then there’s negative reinforcement. Just what is this? The world of animal learning can be confusing. And all you want is a better behaved pet!

Teaching opportunities

So let’s look at these four styles of teaching and learning…

Canine Learning Theory

Positive reinforcer

There is no secret that I am a big fan of positive reinforcement. Ideally this is the way we train pets. Positive reinforcement means rewarding behaviours that we desire. Rewards can be many types – treats, praise, pats, toys and more. Go with what motivates your pet. Dogs can be easy to train using positive reinforcement.

There is some evidence that food may be the most effective reinforcer of dog’s behaviour, at least in the early stages of training. When you have established the behaviour you want, it can be useful to introduce an intermittent reinforcement schedule. In other words, don’t reward behaviour every single time with a treat. Your dog will work even more for you to get that desired reward.

If you ever feel frustrated by using this technique and think you are spoiling your dog by offering too many rewards, consider how you would teach a cat. Would punishment work? Not likely. Positive reinforcement is the way to go with most animals. Think rewards!

Training dogs using positive reinforcement


Negative reinforcement

While negative reinforcement can confuse many pet owners, it is really quite simple. The pet is rewarded by removing a stimulus. So imagine using a head halter. When the dog pulls on the halter, they feel discomfort to their muzzle area. When they stop pulling, the discomfort ceases. This is negative reinforcement. The reinforcement comes from removal of the stimulus.

Negative reinforcement can be useful but will be even more powerful when applied with positive reinforcement. So, for instance, when your dog stops pulling on the lead due to the use of a head halter, you can then issue a command to ‘Walk’ and reward (positively reinforce) the desired non-pulling behaviour. This will ensure long-term learning.

A negative reinforcer should never cause pain to the animal. It is intended to be a management tool. When it is used incorrectly it becomes positive punishment.

Negative reinforcement leads to stress in dogs

Positive punishment

In positive punishment a punishment is applied to an animal when an undesirable behaviour is performed. Positive does not equal favourable. Positive equals the application of a behaviour on to the animal (as opposed to a negative which is taking a behaviour away). Examples of positive punishment include the jerk of a check chain (although these can also be a negative reinforcer), shouting at your dog, rubbing their nose in waste products (yes, some people still do this!!), holding them down to the floor, pinching ears or hurting them in any physical manner.

Some trainers still claim that this is the only or the best method to use with certain animals. There is no doubt that positive punishment does tend to stop a behaviour but perhaps only as an interruption, not always a permanent solution. Shouting at your barking dog shuts them up for a minute. It is then desirable to come in with your positive reinforcer for quiet behaviour. Reward your dog for being quiet (positive reinforcement).

Owners often get the timing wrong with punishment. No use punishing your dog after the event had occurred, as they cannot associate their behaviour with your punishment. Punishment is unlikely to build a better bond between dog and handler. It may not even stop the unwanted behaviour, simply ensure that the animal performs the same behaviour but only in the absense of the punisher!

The use of positive punishment has been shown to be eventually met with aggressive responses from dogs. Even yelling at a dog may eventually cause them to respond in an aggressive manner to their handlers or owners. Use of punishment and negative reinforcement has been shown to increase the chances of aggressive behaviour towards people both within and outside of the home. The use of punishment has also been shown to result in dogs that are less playful and who are less likely to interact with strangers, possibly because they are more watchful and wary of the response they may receive.

Don’t like the idea of punishment for your dog? Well, it seems you are in the minority! Over 70% of owners were found to use some form of punishment on their dogs! Stop yelling and get more creative in your use of positive reinforcers.

DOgs may become fearufl of owners who deliver punishment

Negative punishment

Negative punishment may seem like a hard definition to work your head around but all it means is taking something good or desirable away to reduce the occurrence of a particular behaviour. So if your dog is jumping up on your guests and you put your dog in another room, as a time out, this is negative punishment.

People often mistakenly believe that negative punishment will help their dog learn. Your dog is not sitting in isolation lamenting his ‘bad’ behaviour. Your dog will return to the room, to the same stimulus and perform the same undesirable behaviour (if not this time, then the next) unless your have taught them how you would like them to behave. Be proactive and teach your dog.

Training your pets

Try, wherever possible, to be a positive, motivational teacher. Yes, we can all use punishing techniques at times, due to frustration, ignorance or feeling that being positive does not work. You may actually have to look at your teaching style and technique and reward yourself for remaining positive. Build a better bond with your pet by training them in a positive manner.

More reading

Training styles and dog-owner interactions

Use of reinforcers in dog training

Punishment and behaviour problems in dogs

Punishment and negative reinforcement increase dog aggression

Aggression met with aggression

Training methods and stress

Punishment in horses

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