Why Force-Free & Positive Reinforcement?

There are some common misconceptions I would like to dispel, and some interesting facts I’d like to share too!

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive Reinforcement (R+) is one of the 4 Quadrants of Operant Conditioning Theory, accompanied by Negative Reinforcement (removing a stimulus to increase a desired behavior), Positive Punishment (introducing a stimulus to decrease an unwanted behavior), and Negative Punishment (removing a stimulus to decrease unwanted behavior).

As defined by the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, positive reinforcement is the procedure of presenting a positive reinforcer after a response. While that definition is technical and correct, it’s not super helpful in how it applies to behaviorism, particularly where dogs are concerned.

Positivepsychology.com expands on this definition: Positive reinforcement refers to the introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behavior. The desirable stimulus reinforces the behavior, making it more likely that the behavior will reoccur. In dog training (or any animal training, including humans), an example of this would be providing a treat when a dog does something you would like to encourage them to do more often.

“Force-free” is simpler, as it’s just what it sounds like: training without the use of aversive methods, which is any tool or use of a tool that causes dogs intentional pain or discomfort.

I could go on about this forever, and likely will in an extensive post sometime in the future. For now, let’s continue on to the stuff that’s most important to you and your dog.

Why is this the training method I use?

  • First, and possibly most importantly, it has been proven over thousands of hours of research to be the most effective way for any animal to learn. When we create a positive association with an environmental stimulus or event (classical conditioning), and then mark desired behavior with rewards (operant conditioning), we increase the likelihood that those associations and behaviors will be retained and repeated.
  • Dozens of organizations, including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, take a hard stance against the use of aversive methods and things like “dominance training,” and instead endorse the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods for both basic training and behavior modification. Read the AVSAB Position Statement on Humane Dog Training, packed with cited studies, frequently asked questions, and a recommended reading list.
  • It’s just more fun, and it aligns with my outlook on life. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Being kind to animals comes second-nature to most of us. We love our dogs, but there is an overwhelming amount of “information” out there, both good and bad, so sometimes we end up making decisions that are unintentionally detrimental to the health of our companions. I urge you to listen to certified behavior professionals, and the veterinary professionals, on what is best for our dogs.

Common Misunderstandings

Nope! Positive Reinforcement means we focus on the behaviors we do want to see from our dogs, marking them the moment they occur so our dogs get a clear signal of what we want from them. Dogs should be allowed to make mistakes and offer different behaviors until they hit on the one we want. It’s up to trainers to have a keen eye to capture that behavior and communicate that to the dog. If the dog starts engaging in an expressly unwanted behavior, redirection is warranted.

Bribery requires that you offer a specific reward before a behavior is performed. In positive reinforcement training, the reward, be it food, praise, a toy, or something else, comes after the behavior is exhibited. We are marking the dog’s behavior, as if to say “put a pin in this and try to remember it for next time.”

Your dog absolutely can– and will! Did you know that all animals, including humans, learn the same way? This is called “Learning Theory,” a well-established principle in the subject of behavior. Regardless of breed, age, size, or temperament, reward-based training is the most effective way to learn and retain information. Don’t just take my word for it; for more info with 21 cited studies included at the end, see the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s Position Statement on this.

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