What is positive reinforcement training?

A must-read for the Singaporean dog owner

Up For Paws
Feb 4, 2014 · 4 min read

For a long time traditional dog trainers have used the old method of punishment conditioning to get dogs to avoid unwanted behavior. However, this is slowly changing, and dog lovers the world over, like you and me, are taking on positive reinforcement techniques as the preferred training choice.

If you have heard of this concept bouncing around the Singapore dog forums, then a pat on the back for you! Positive reinforcement training rests on the foundation of rewarding an act you like, and then repeating it with consistency until it is internalized. According to Ian Dunbar, the veterinarian who conducted most of the research on positive reinforcement dog training, withholding a reward from a dog is punishment enough, and is in fact more effective in the long term than physical punishment.

How does positive reinforcement work for your dog?

Take leash walking for example. Dogs aren’t born to walk on a leash, in fact, having to walk with a restriction tied to their collar (or even wearing a collar in itself) isn’t something that any animal is born accustomed to. During training, a traditionalist dog trainer would have used a choke chain which would elicit a sharp sudden choking sensation on any dog that lunges ahead. It would hurt, causing the dog to avoid choking on the chain again.

At this point, a few of my Singaporean friends would tell me there is nothing wrong with this. After all, many of us grew up under tough Asian parents who thought nothing of using a feather duster cane when we did something mischievous. Tough love seems to work, and if we love our dogs the way our parents love us, then what’s wrong with this?

Tough love seems to work, and if we love our dogs the way our parents love us, then what’s wrong with this?

Dogs, unlike humans, live almost entirely in the present and therefore if you associate an act with punishment, then they will always remember the punishment, but not necessarily the memory of the associated act. Have you ever met dogs that act ‘jumpy’ and ‘fidgety’ when you reach out to them? These dogs probably have been conditioned to associate any outreached hand with a punishment, and although they have no memory of why they are punished, they know that an outreached hand is followed closely by pain. (Read: Do Dogs Have Memories?)

Dogs react to choke chains differently. While some dogs may take to it, others — like my boxer-mix breed Chowbox — would learn to dislike the choke collar, and may gradually even shun the leash or going for walks.

So what happens when leash walking is taught with positive reinforcement?

A positive reinforcement trainer will react to a leash-tugging dog by teaching the dog to associate a loose leash with a great walk. Techniques such as “Be A Tree” or the “Backwards Walk”, accompanied with lots of praises and treats, are highly successful with most dog breeds. What’s even better is that once your dog has learned to walk on a loose leash with positive reinforcement, you will begin to enjoy other ‘spillover’ effects such as a better bond with your dog during walks, and having your dog respond better to your recalls. When Chowbox and I go for walks, sometimes I allow him to walk two steps ahead of me for a few heartbeats before I slow down my pace. Almost instantly Chowbox will slow down as well even though he’s not looking at me. This is because we have built a bond that has transcended the leash, and he is now attuned to my every move when we are out together.

Skeptical? Well here’s positive reinforcement in practice, give it a try.

Leash walking:

  1. Instead of a choker, use a harness or a Halti (also known as ‘Gentle Leader’) when leash-training your dog.
  2. Bring amazing treats (forget the dry organic biscuits, think sumptuous delicious sausage franks) to hold your dog’s attention.
  3. When your dog lunges forward and pulls on the leash, literally stand still and “be a tree”.
  4. The moment your dog turns back, praise her and give a treat.
  5. Do this a few times, and then subsequently get your dog to come to you before you give your treat.
  6. Once she has learned it, graduate to having your dog come to you and sit by your side before you both move forward together.
  7. While your dog is learning this for the first time, be prepared to stop multiple times.
  8. Be patient and consistent, and go for multiple short walks over a few hours instead of long frustrating ones.

Positive reinforcement training can be used in every aspect of a dog’s life, so stay tuned for more posts on how you can change your dog’s behavior such as preventing jumping, or harnessing patience in your dog — DIY-style!

Jun Yeo is the owner of Up For Paws, a dog daycare that believes in positive reinforcement, responsible dog ownership, and a dog-friendly Singapore city for the win! She can be contacted at woof-at-upforpaws.com.

Image by Marvin Lowe Photography

(Originally posted here)

    Up For Paws

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    Up For Paws is a dog daycare that believes in positive reinforcement, responsible dog ownership, and a dog-friendly Singapore city for the win!

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