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Karen B. London
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You Get The Behavior You Reinforce
It’s not just true with dogs
Coach Matt and Coach Chris use positive reinforcement effectively, and the kids love it!

“It’s time to line up.” Upon hearing this once, 30 kids who had been happily engaged in soccer matches were immediately racing at top speed across the field to line up with their teams. They formed straight lines quickly and cheerfully, just like they do every time their coaches tell them to.

Is this a particularly good group of children? Are they all the type that do what they’re told right away just because they want to please? Of course not! The group is just as mixed in behavioral tendencies as any normal group of kids. They are displaying desirable behavior because they have been reinforced for doing so.

Specifically, at British Soccer Camps, the coaches reinforce the campers by awarding points in their imaginary World Cup competition. The greatest number of points (10) is given to the first team to line up properly, which shows that this behavior is most highly valued. By comparison, the winning team in a match receives 3 points and the “man of the match” (the player who is singled out for excellent play, fine sportsmanship, consistent effort or any other commendable behavior the coach chooses to recognize) earns 2 points for his team. Team effort is more highly prized than individual effort.

In a similar way, when I train dogs, I use the most highly valued reinforcement for the most important behavior I am working on, which is often recalls. When a dog comes when called during training, the reinforcement may be a new toy, a stuffed Kong, going for a walk, multiple treats, or anything else that is highly desired. Because this behavior is so important, I reinforce it very strongly.

“You get the behavior you reinforce” is as fundamental a truth in dog training as it is in any situation that involves teaching and influencing behavior. At soccer camp, many of the parents comment that the coaches are so good with kids, and that’s certainly true. I see it from a very specific perspective though: These coaches are well-versed in using positive reinforcement to get the behavior they want. (Another way to think of this is that the coaches themselves are well trained by the organization and its experts.) Positive reinforcement works, and it makes camp fun for all. When the same techniques are used in dog training, the results are identical: It works, and it makes the experience fun for everyone, whether two-legged or four-legged.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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