2 min read

Training through positive reinforcement is much, much more than giving a treat. I want you to ask yourself:

“How much pleasure is the dog getting”?

Eating can be a pleasurable process or mere fuel. If you find yourself eating and not noticing what you put in your mouth then the pleasure of eating has passed you by.

In training I see the click-and-dump process missing out on the central component of this reinforcement actually being rewarding for the dog. This may mean giving something extra beside food – a connection for a few seconds, verbal happiness, a small chase, a catch. Activity and interaction are often craved by the dog when food alone seems to be a put down. No wonder we find some dogs who find they “don’t like food” when it comes to training.

We can see the same question “is the dog getting pleasure from this” with regard to play intended to serve as reinforcement. The games bring arousal to the associated behaviours, but at the same time conflict. Tugging that gets so rough and vocal and looks more like basic survival rather than a shared pleasure. If you are not enjoying it I am damn sure the dog won’t be.

I see dogs “learning impulse control” with the lunge whip only able stand and squeal because they are beyond frustration. Poor timing and a misunderstanding of how to employ reinforcement completely strips any pleasure the dog may have found in a simple chase and carry.

When play is used as a reinforcer we should always be aware that the game can also bring high levels of stress, conflict and loss of confidence. We present the dog with stimuli they are forced to respond to by their genetic heritance but then face them with minimal success, repetitively. It looks like the dog version of a hamster in a wheel. Chase, chase, bite, bite, grip, give it up.

With regular repetition of a specific reinforcer pattern: chasing, grabbing, eating, the anticipation of that pattern begins to strongly affect the associated behaviour. It weaves into the behaviour and can be hard to change. If the reinforcer represents only pleasure then that would be of benefit to the dog, the behaviour becomes one of pleasure to perform. But if the behaviour is woven with an anticipation of conflict and loss then we see the behaviour, aroused, but full of conflict and extremes. It often looks frenetic. I cannot see that is of benefit to any dog.

For every game, for every point where you control delivery of reinforcement, just keep asking whether you see enjoyment and pleasure or habitual response and conflict?


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