Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Common forms of Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Food and Training Collars
When it comes to dog training the question of positive versus negative reinforcement inevitably comes up. The answer is very simple, as far as our experience goes, there is no question – both are absolutely necessary.
Naturally we would all like nothing more then to just use positive reinforcement. There are plenty of dog training centers that promote it. If you have any questions as to whether it producers highly trained dogs off-leash regardless of the situation there are two things you can do to test it.
Testing Positive Reinforcement – Theory
On a very simplified level dogs do everything to either experience pleasure or to avoid pain. What if we motivate with only positive reinforcement? Then a source of pleasure comes along that is far more pleasurable then the one that has been used to create and reinforce a behavior.
Let’s test it. Let’s use for an example calling your dog. If every time your dog is called he or she gets a juicy rib eye, most dogs are going to be HIGHLY motivated! Let’s say your dog has strong prey drive (desire to chase something that moves). Now a rabbit runs by right in front of your dog. Your dog naturally starts to chase the rabbit. The source of pleasure could not be higher. You now call your dog. Your dog has had a rib eye EVERY time he or she is called. Does your dog stop and turn around to come? If the source of pleasure of chasing the rabbit is greater then that of eating the rib eye then the answer is no, your dog is not going to come.
The second problem with this equation is that of diminishing return. The pleasure derived from eating the rib-eye is less the hundredth time then it was the first. The pleasure from the five hundredth steak is less then the one hundredth one, and probably far less then the first. By the one thousandth steak, you’re getting less and less of a return on your investment.
Testing Positive Reinforcement – Practically
After finding a school that subscribes to only positive reinforcement, ask to see a dog that has gone through their off-leash program. Then ask to see their fully trained dog off-leash on the busiest street in your area (in Boston it’s Newbury Street in New York it’s 5th Avenue, at the busiest time of day. That should convince you.
A second source of research might be to find a family that subscribes to only positive reinforcement in raising their children. No punishments. No losing privileges. Just pure pleasure. We all know instinctively what that would be like.
The Million Dollar Question
Your dog is running into the street, chasing a rabbit. He or she is about to be hit by a car. Do you want your dog consciously, or unconsciously, basing his or decision by which is going to be more pleasurable? Or do you want your dog to come to you instantly because of knowing he or she MUST come, and yet to thoroughly enjoy it in the process?
The Place for Positive Reinforcement
Our approach is to use pleasure to teach new behaviors. The source of pleasure is dependent on the dog. For some dogs it’s food combined with praise (utilizes the senses of sight, smell, taste and hearing). For others it’s motivating by toys such as tennis balls and Kongs. First is to understand what is most motivating, and most useful.
Once new behaviors are created we use extreme amounts of pleasure to reward them. Extreme amounts pleasure because we want our dogs to be extremely happy when responding to a command!