Behavior & Training
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Rewards Redux
Positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder


Visualize this scenario: Comet, a sixmonth- old Labrador in a beginner-level dog training class, ignores all distractions and charges back to her guardian, Barbara, after hearing “Comet, come!” As soon as she arrives, Comet receives effusive praise and petting from Barbara. A great example of positive reinforcement, right? Except that, in this very common situation, Comet responds to the actions of her guardian by turning her head away as though in disgust.

In this case, Barbara’s actions were a perfect example of positive punishment, in which something is added (pats and praise in this case) that decreases the frequency of a behavior (coming when called). Barbara couldn’t have done a better job of teaching Comet to ignore her if she had tried.

But wait — don’t dogs love to be petted? Don’t they love to be praised? Well, yes, they do. But then, no, they don’t. Lest you think I’m messing with your mind, put yourself in your dog’s position for a moment. Ah, yes, I know — being anthropomorphic can cause a lot of problems, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful sometimes. Bear with me here: Imagine that you’ve just done something wonderful, and your boss wants to thank you. She gives you a box of expensive chocolates, the kind infused with exotic flavors, like lavender and chili. You know she spent a fortune on them. Except, you don’t like lavender-chili chocolate; you like good old-fashioned milk chocolate from Hershey, Pa. Or, maybe you love flavored chocolate, but you’re on a diet, and being presented with a pound of chocolates is akin to torture.

The dog in the training class and you as an employee are in the same position: Someone is trying to give you “positive reinforcement” for a behavior they’d like you to repeat, but what they’re giving you is something they define as good and you define as, well, not very. Dogs may love petting, but not all versions of it, and not in every context. Praise may be music to their ears, but not all the time, or maybe they like funk and you’re singing jazz.

Many people know that using positive reinforcement (I’ll use PR from now on) is the most effective way to influence behavior, but knowing how to use it effectively takes more than remembering to carry cookies in your pocket. Without a doubt, one of the most common problems people have when using PR is not being thoughtful enough about what their dog defines as reinforcing. Of course, small bits of tasty food are fundamental for training a dog who truly loves to do what you ask, but they are not enough. You’re not always going to have Snacky Wackies in your pocket, and your dog isn’t always going to be hungry (well, that’s true for some of our dogs, anyway). When you do use food, keep in mind that the most frequent mistake beginners make is to use bland, boring stuff akin to a solitary oyster cracker. Good enough if you’re really hungry, but not worth leaving a plate of linguini with braised spinach and caramelized tomatoes for — or, if you’re a dog, a greasy food wrapper in the gutter.

But food, even great food, is never enough. The last thing you want is a dog who listens to you if you have edibles in your pocket and ignores you the rest of the time. And, although it’s hard to imagine if your own pup is a furry garbage disposal, there really are dogs who just don’t care all that much about food.

That brings us to petting and praise, which can also be great reinforcements if the dog truly likes to be petted (pats on top of the head appear to be as aversive to dogs as they are to people) and if it’s given at a time when a dog really wants it. An eight-month-old Lab/Husky cross is probably not going to be wild about pats on the head and hearing baby talk after he left his buddies in the middle of a wild play session. He doesn’t want to be petted when he’s in the middle of play any more than you want to have your back rubbed during an important business meeting.




Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.

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