Reinforce, Then Coach

In dog (and human) training, research has shown us that rewarding good behavior is much more efficient and has less risk of fallout than punishing bad behavior.

Learning a New Skill

I am in the midst of learning a very new skill: roller skating. 8 wheels under my feet at 38 years old is more than a little intimidating. When I practice by myself, these are some of the thoughts that run through my mind: “you’re too old for this,” “you’re no good at this,” “why can’t you just get this part right,” “you’ll never be good at this.” These thoughts consistently make me feel like giving up and have never helped me to improve, so I decided to hire a teacher. 

Enter my positive reinforcement skate teacher. Now, when I stumble, here is what I hear: “you are doing awesome,” “last week you fell three times, you haven’t fallen once this week,” “you’re getting better every time you practice.” These comments make me believe in myself and inspire me to keep trying. They function as positive reinforcement. 

Photographic evidence of my new learning endeavor

Photographic evidence of my new learning endeavor

What is Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training?

Positive reinforcement trainers may also use the term “reward-based” training. Positive reinforcement is defined as “adding a stimulus to increase the frequency of the behavior that preceded it.” The comments my teacher makes in our lessons make it more likely that I will keep practicing and reach my goal. In dog training, the same concept applies: add something the dog loves (usually food) after the dog does the behavior you want to see more of. Voila! You get more of that lovely behavior in the future!

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Reinforce, then Coach the Next Piece (Don’t Criticize!)

My dog training mentor and teacher, Jean Donaldson, taught me to “reinforce what you want to see more of and then coach.” This applies to training dogs but more importantly, coaching humans to train their dogs. No matter how much a client might ask for criticism, criticism serves to punish (a.k.a. reduce a particular behavior). It ignores anything reinforceable and therefore doesn't guarantee a better, or even correct response next time. If I start by pointing out what a client is doing wrong with their dog, they will likely become nervous and have some of the similar self-sabotaging thoughts that I used to have when learning to roller skate. Focusing on what not to do is not very helpful when learning a new, highly physical skill.

When clients feel criticized and are punished, they often give up. Criticism is much more salient to humans than compliments. Someone could get 10 compliments about their new shirt, but one negative comment will stick out and either create self doubt or just hang over them like a nagging headache. When clients are reinforced for the parts they are doing right, they'll do those parts better and more often. After I’ve pointed out what a client is doing right, they feel good and I can then gently coach them on the next piece. It might look like this: “I love how you kept the food lure right at Fluffy’s nose! Now, next time I want you to deliver the food the moment Fluffy’s lands in a sit.” Reinforce what they got right, then coach the next part.

Laura Witkowski of  Good Wolff  training with Asha

Laura Witkowski of Good Wolff training with Asha

Why Positive Reinforcement?

There is loads of research to back the reasons modern dog trainers choose positive reinforcement training over old school aversive training methods or a combination of the two (a.k.a. “balanced training”). My personal favorite benefit is that it fosters a relationship based on trust. Through years of positive reinforcement training, my dog is always eager for training sessions because they are rewarding and fun. In our relationship, there is never the threat of pain, fear, or coercion. Our dogs are only with us for a short time and what we do with this time matters greatly. Read here for a guideline on how to find a credentialed reward-based trainer near you. See additional resources section below for more information on positive reinforcement training.

Additional Resources

This post is a part of the "Train For Rewards Blog Party 2019", with Companion Animal Psychology. Click the image above to see all the #train4rewards posts!