Simply put “positive reinforcement training” means that you are training your dog using *something the dog likes as a reward for doing what you ask him to do.
*Something the dog likes can be many things but food is a commonly used reward (or reinforcement). It’s quick to deliver and receive, especially if you are using soft semi-moist treats and small pieces. A reward can also be a toy; perhaps a ball on a rope, or a tug toy. Play with a toy as a reward can make the training session longer. And the dog needs to fetch and release a ball, or spit out the tug so you are not having to wrestle it away. The key here is the dog has to REALLY want it! a Cherrio is not going to be as good as a small piece of cheese or hotdog! If what you are using as a reward is just ‘ok’ your training will be mediocre and/or even frustrating as you won’t get the results you are wanting. I’m going to be using food in this article as the reward because I find it to be easy and effective and it is what I most commonly start with.
There are different ways to use positive reinforcement for training purposes. You can capture the behavior. I’ve taught all my dogs to lick their lips when cued “Tasty” by capturing the behavior. One of my favorite ways to train is called “Shaping”. Kind of like a potter, you start with nothing and gently shape the dog to perform the behavior you are wanting. You can also lure the dog. I will sometimes use a food lure to get the behavior I want–say stepping up onto a box. There are many exciting directions you can go with all these methods but I’m going to continue to explain a bit more about how I like to train new behaviors and sharpen up previously trained behaviors.
What I really like to use is a small gadget called a clicker. A clicker comes in different styles, makes a consistent sound, and is controlled by you. A clicker is a tool that you use to communicate with the dog. The dog learns that by doing ‘X’ they will hear the click and they know a treat is following! The rules of this ‘game’ can be expanded as the two of you learn how to communicate via the assistance of the clicker. An easy example of a basic sequence may look like this: You ask the dog to “Sit”. Dog puts his rear on the ground. You click just as his rear end hits the ground, and then follow up by giving him a treat. A dog that gets the game is a dog that really likes to play (learn). They are engaged with you and you can see their happiness in being able to be part of this communication flow. You can teach the dog many things, including complex behaviors, easily once you understand a few basic clicker principles.
With positive training you are a Happy Trainer—and you have a Happy Dog!
Another phrase for this type of training is ‘Marker Training’. A clicker is not the only device that you can use to mark the behavior you want. Many trainers will use a whistle, a bell, a light or their voice. Whatever you use, you need to connect the sound with the reward for it to be effective prior to training. This is called “pairing’. I have used a bell, a whistle, clicker and a word–“yes” as a way to mark when my animal does something I liked and would like them to do again. When I’m using a verbal mark, as much as possible, I try to say the word in the same way each time. I use the word “yes” and I extend the ending so it’s more of a hiss: “yessss”.
This short discussion is just the tip of the iceberg in where and how a clicker can be used and is just one way of using positive reinforcement. Below are a few definitions of common clicker training terms used in the training world:
A marker is a sound that is distinct, easily heard, consistent and precise. There is scientific research showing that short sharp sounds, such as those made by a clicker, are more quickly processed in the brain and lead to faster learning than using human speech. However, many people (myself included), will also use a marker word such as “Yes” in their training in addition to the clicker, whistle, or other sound.
A reinforcer, or reward, is anything that the animal really wants or values–but most often food is used. Food is one of the primary needs for survival and therefore it is very important and highly valued by animals. There are other reinforcers that are also commonly used; a tug toy for a highly driven dog, chasing a ball or pleasant physical contact. All of these can be a reinforcer as long as the dog finds it rewarding.
A behavior is anything a dog does…but for the sake of what we are talking about here I am mostly referring to cued, or asked for, behavior. When you ask your dog to sit and he puts his rear on the ground he is performing a sit behavior.
A cue is given to the dog when you want him to perform a taught behavior and it signals to the dog that the opportunity to earn a reward or reinforcement is at hand.
Watch for future posts on how positive reinforcement, and/or clicker training, can help you and your dog have a better understanding of each other and a Good Life!