Positive Reinforcement Works with Both Dogs and People

Excerpt from “Treat Everyone Like a Dog”
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2020, Updated June 2021
treat everyone like a dog excerpt

The mindset of looking (actively searching) for behavior that you like and want to happen more often pervades the world of dog training and is also a philosophical approach to life. It easily becomes a habit because it’s very effective at influencing behavior, and it does so in a kind way without damaging or hurtful side effects. As an added bonus, it tends to create a more positive outlook for the observer, too.

Looking for good behavior rather than being on the lookout for what somebody did wrong is simple, but it’s so unusual a perspective in some professions that when the police force in Farmington, New Hampshire, adopted it, their efforts made the national news. In that town, police officers began actively watching for people doing the right thing—keeping their dog on a leash, crossing at the crosswalk, using a turn signal—and reinforcing that behavior by giving out gift cards for pizza or fries.

GET THE BARK NEWSLETTER IN YOUR INBOX!

Sign up and get the answers to your questions.

Email Address:

It all started when one officer noticed a man going out of his way to walk through heavy snow in order to cross at a crosswalk instead of crossing illegally, and he wanted to do something for the man to acknowledge his effort.

Not only does the strategy of positive reinforcement make the good behavior more likely in the future, it helps form connections and relationships between the police force and the citizens. Most people who are approached by a police officer will think, “Uh-oh, do they believe I did something wrong?” and possibly be quite afraid. To have an officer tell you that you did something right will catch most people off-guard, but in a good way.

Typically, police officers interact with the small percentage of the population whose behavior is not what the police want it to be (or people they suspect—rightly or wrongly—of not behaving properly), so this helps them reach the rest of the people. Police officers looking for good behavior instead of bad behavior is a real switch from the standard practice in that field. Looking for good behavior and reinforcing it is a revolutionary idea in police work even though it is common in dog training.

It’s not just police officers who are new to using positive reinforcement; it has barely made an appearance at all in some fields. Regrettably, in our society, it’s far more common to comment or respond when someone does something bad, that you don’t like, or that you object to. It’s not ideal from a behavior-influencing perspective to give feedback only about what’s wrong. It seems that more people complain about a salesperson or a flight attendant when service is not as good as they’d like than offer compliments when those jobs are well done.

Excerpted from Treat Everyone Like a Dog, © 2020 by Karen B. London. Used with permission.

Image courtesy publisher

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life