Use positive reinforcement to train your pet

May 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

For many of us, spring signals fresh beginnings, new approaches, and growth. A perfect time then for a re-evaluation and "spring cleaning" of your interactions with your pet dog or cat! 

In all areas of life, we humans encounter various types of consequences for our behavior. If we slack off at work, we may be fired. If we do something nice for a friend, we may receive a favor in turn. If we fail to do our taxes, we get fined. If we brush our teeth every day, we avoid tooth decay. Behavioral psychologists have described four types of consequences for our behavior - positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Our behavior, as well as the behavior of our nonhuman friends, is subject to all of these consequences throughout our lives. 

In response to their pets' behavior, owners are always choosing between these four types of consequences in their natural teaching and training strategies. Some owners might yell at their dog for getting into the garbage or put him in his crate for chewing the furniture. These are examples of punishment. While certain types of punishment, when implemented correctly, may have a place in some areas of pet behavior management and training, animal behaviorists and dog trainers have witnessed a great paradigm shift in our treatment of pet behavior over the last 40 years. This shift has paralleled that which has occurred in our treatment of individuals with disabilities as well as our teaching of students in the classroom and our parenting of children at home and in the community. In particular, what we have seen is a trend away from the heavy use of punishment and toward the increased use of positive reinforcement to change behavior. 

By definition, a positive reinforcer is something that is provided to the pet after a response occurs that increases the chances that response will occur again in the future. For example, Molly's owner provides Molly with a treat each time she sits, and Molly begins to sit more and more over time. Fluffy's owner lets him out into the yard each time he barks, and soon Fluffy barks whenever he needs to go out. 

When we humans receive positive reinforcement for our work, we often report feeling happier and more motivated. In fact, countless research studies have demonstrated the powerful effects of positive reinforcement in shaping and maintaining human behavior. The same may be said for our furry and feathered friends. Not only can positive reinforcement change behavior successfully and in diverse ways, but animals often prefer working for positive reinforcement as opposed to working to avoid punishment. 

So the next time you are about to yell at your pet for her misbehavior, pause for a moment to assess how you might use positive reinforcement instead. For example, think of the ways you might reward your dog with praise and affection every time she passes the garbage can without putting her nose in it, or urinates outside in the grass as she ought. We are often quick to punish our pets for their undesired behavior, while we too often neglect to "capture" and reinforce the desired behaviors with praise and a treat, ball play, or the chance to go for a springtime walk.