Training Your Pet with Positive Reinforcement
When it comes to teaching your pet to behave, forget punishment and start learning to accentuate the positive
Have you ever wondered how they taught Lassie to go find Timmy? Or how Eddie, the dog from Frasier, developed comedic timing that matched that of his human co-stars? Training dogs (or any animal, for that matter) doesn’t have to be difficult, especially if your goals for your pet are a bit more modest than television’s animal stars—think “sit” and “stay.” You simply need patience, practice, and a basic understanding of the laws of animal learning.
DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY
We love that dogs and cats aren’t judgmental, but that means they lack the judgment to make moral decisions in the way that people do. In fact, many human-animal bonds have been damaged by people’s mistaken belief that a pet did something inappropriate or unacceptable out of spite or anger. There’s no evidence that pets think this way. Animals simply repeat behaviors that make them feel good. For this reason, dogs and cats can be taught to do any number of things—from entertaining moves like a paw-shake to the more mundane such as allowing nail trimming, teeth brushing, or medicating.
The trick is, something pleasant must immediately follow each of these events. You can teach a kitten or puppy to allow nail trims by first simply handling their feet every day (several times a day when possible) and giving them a tasty treat immediately afterwards. After several days of this, you can begin handling their feet more firmly and following up with a treat. (See “Teachable treats: Using food rewards to train pets” above for more.) Over time, you progress, very slowly, to extending the nail, and then cutting the nail—in the beginning perhaps only cutting one nail a day. Eventually, over time, your pet will gladly tolerate nail trimming to get that special treat.
KNOW THE PRINCIPLES TO SOLVE PROBLEM BEHAVIORS
Take this example: If your dog discovers that getting into the trash is fun and rewarding because it contains wonderful smells and yummy tidbits, you can bank on the behavior being repeated. He’s learned that the reward (acquiring a snack) is good.
Why can’t you just punish a dog for the behavior? Good question. Let’s review the definitions of reinforcement and punishment, and you’ll see why punishment won’t solve the problem.
For starters, you’re probably not around when your dog gets into the trash. If you can’t punish your pet immediately (within one to two seconds of the act), punishment isn’t effective. Even immediate punishment is ineffective if it can’t be carried out every time. Meaning, if your dog gets punished for getting into the trash when you are at home but avoids punishment when you’re not home, he’s getting both positive reinforcement and punishment for the same behavior.
This confuses your pet and can lead to anxiety and even fear associated with being in your presence. In addition, your dog is being reinforced intermittently for the behavior, which further establishes the behavior and makes it harder to change.
When used appropriately, punishment can work. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But studies show that punishment, especially positive punishment, can have unwanted side effects in many dogs. (Positive punishment is when you try to reduce a behavior by introducing something unpleasant; in negative punishment, something pleasant is removed.)
It’s difficult to do positive punishment right. In order to be effective, punishment must be applied:
- every single time the unwanted behavior is performed,
- within one to two seconds of the unwanted behavior, and
- at a level that is truly unpleasant without causing extreme fear, pain, or distress in your pet.
Positive punishment that doesn’t meet these criteria can be dangerous and lead to more problems than it solves. Negative punishment, if performed incorrectly, may not solve a problem but is less likely to make a condition worse. (Check out “How pets learn: Reinforcement and punishment” on page 13 for more definitions on this topic.)
USE YOUR PET’S ANIMAL INSTINCTS
When confronted with an unwanted behavior from your cat or dog, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “What is my pet getting out of this?” Animals don’t perform behaviors for no reason; every behavior means something to the animal. If you can figure out what’s reinforcing the behavior, then you can attempt to remove reinforcement of the behavior you dislike. Ideally, you’ll replace the behavior with an acceptable one by rewarding the pet for the more desirable behavior. With a problem like digging through the trash, this means that you may have to go to some effort to set up the animal for success. Puppies and dogs new to your home should always be confined in a pet-proofed (and trash-free) area. You can then provide your dog with a food-containing toy to keep him occupied while you’re gone.
Jumping on people is another example where replacement works better than punishment. This behavior is highly motivated and self-reinforcing because dogs like to greet people face to face. Many pet owners are told to punish a dog for this behavior by kneeing it in the chest or stepping on its toes. But this is usually ineffective because not every person who visits will do this, so your dog is intermittently rewarded for his behavior. Even pushing dogs away with our hands or saying “No” or “Get down” is positive reinforcement because it’s an interaction.
Using positive punishment inappropriately can harm your pet’s welfare and do irreparable damage to your relationship.
The best way to teach a dog not to jump on people when greeting them is to teach the dog an alternate greeting behavior that can be rewarded. Teaching “sit” is ideal. If you ask your dog to “sit” and he’s so excited that he ignores the command, he must be ignored as well. Simply turn your back and ignore him until he calms down. Then ask again for the “sit.” As long as your dog knows the “sit” command, he’ll eventually learn to sit because sitting means getting rewarded with attention.
Using positive reinforcement properly takes time and practice. But don’t worry; accidentally reinforcing the wrong behavior doesn’t harm your dog. It only delays success. Using positive punishment inappropriately, on the other hand, can harm your pet’s welfare and do irreparable damage to your relationship.
Rewarding your dog consistently for proper behavior is more fun for you and your dog. Your dog will pay more attention to you because it’ll remain in a state of happy anticipation of something good to happen. It’s nicer than a pet that ducks its head when you reach for it because it doesn’t know whether it will be hit or petted. Punishment is rarely, if ever, necessary to teach a pet proper behavior, and it should never be used as a first approach to any training problem. Punishment does not teach your pet what it should do, only what it cannot do. Teaching your pet what you want it to do using positive reinforcement is easier—and more humane.
How Pets Learn: Reinforcement & Punishment
Whether it’s jumping on a visitor or digging up a flowerbed—maybe a flowerpot, in the case of a cat—there are reliable methods for changing your pet’s behavior. There are two ways to do this: reinforcement and punishment.
REINFORCEMENT is anything that increases the chances of a behavior being repeated.
Positive reinforcement is when you introduce something pleasant to increase the chance of a behavior being repeated. Positive reinforcement often can include food treats, petting, time for play, or even vocal praise. But it’s important to know what’s truly rewarding to your pet. Some dogs don’t consider toys much of a reward, but give them a bite of chicken and they’ll eagerly repeat the behavior that earned it.
Negative reinforcement is when you remove something unpleasant to increase the chance of a behavior being repeated. This happens when an animal successfully struggles and fights to escape an unpleasant procedure. (Think of trimming toenails, cleaning ears, or bathing.) Some pets struggle and avoid the procedure, thus increasing the likelihood that they’ll struggle and fight again in the future. Applied properly, negative reinforcement can play a safe and useful role in training your pet. But if it’s too similar to punishment, it can do more harm than good.
Continuous reinforcement is the best way to teach most new behaviors. Give the reinforcement or reward every single time your pet performs the behavior upon your request.
Intermittent reinforcement is the best way to maintain a behavior after it is learned.
PUNISHMENT is anything that decreases the chance of a behavior being repeated.
Positive punishment is when you introduce something (usually unpleasant) to decrease the chance of a behavior being repeated. Yelling, hitting, swatting with newspapers, and squirting with water are all positive punishments. No matter how benign or harmless a positive punishment seems to you, if it’s applied after a behavior to decrease its repetition, it’s considered a punishment. Using punishment the right way—without causing harm to your pet or the bond between you and your pet—can be difficult for most people and should be considered a method of last resort for changing your pet’s behavior.
Negative punishment is when you remove something (usually pleasant) to decrease the chance of a behavior being repeated. If you walk away and ignore your dog every time he barks at you for attention, you have applied negative punishment. You have removed your attention (something your dog values) in response to the unwanted behavior (barking). Negative punishment can play a useful role in training dogs and is usually safer than positive punishment, but proper timing is equally important. For example, if you pick up your pet’s leash and tell it to sit, but instead the pet runs around jumping and barking in excitement, you can immediately put down the leash and walk away. By removing the potential for a walk (usually a good thing in the pet’s view), you have increased the chance that the dog will sit next time you pick up the leash and say “sit.”
TEACHABLE TREATS: USING FOOD REWARDS TO TRAIN PETS
- Food rewards should be small, about the size of a green pea.
- Food rewards should be soft and chewy so the pet can quickly consume them and be ready to focus on you again.
- Food rewards should be something special your pet really loves.
- Only give your pet the chosen food rewards when you’re training. Giving it at other times diminishes effectiveness.
- If your pet is overweight or on a restricted diet, use the kibble that she normally eats as a reward. To avoid weight gain, every morning measure out the amount of food your pet can have for that day and use a portion of it for training.
- Consult with your veterinarian for more advice on which training treats are best for your pet.