Ep. 1: What is Positive Reinforcement?

Feb 4, 2019

When you hear the term "positive reinforcement" what comes to mind? Treats? Being nice? Nothing because you do not have the slightest idea what it means? In this episode, we break down what this term actually means, why that is important and how positive reinforcement, as a training technique, not only works for dogs, it works for all animals...including people.


Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the It's Time to Train Your Dog podcast. In this podcast, we'll be talking about all things dog training, how it is that we can help our dog be the best family companion possible, training tips, tips from your instructor and professional trainers, and much more.

In this episode, I wanted to dive into what exactly positive reinforcement training is, just to help you have a better understanding of what that term actually means and how it applies to training our dogs. Before we start diving into the podcast, let me do a very quick introduction of myself.

My name is Dianna Santos. I am the owner and lead instructor for Family Dog University, Dog Sport University, and Scent Work University. These are three online dog training platforms. They all offer online courses, webinars, seminars, as well as regularly updated podcasts and blogs. I've been training dogs professionally since 2011. I specialize in working with dogs who are fearful, reactive, and aggressive. I also have a fair amount of experience working in the dog sport world, particularly with Scent Work. I've also been a trial official and worked for a competition organization. You know a little bit more about me. Let's dive into the podcast.

When people first hear the term positive reinforcement, there's a lot of different things that can come to mind, particularly if you're not a training professional, particularly if you aren't geeking out on animal behavior or dog behavior. When I used to do orientations for basic obedience classes or basic manners classes, those orientations would be with just the owners. The dogs wouldn't be in the room. It'd just be a way to help everyone understand what it was that we were going to be doing over the next couple of weeks.

One of the first questions I would always ask is, "What is it that you think positive reinforcement usually means? What is that term? What does that mean as far as dog training is concerned?" The first thing everyone would say is treats. I'd be like, "Okay. But what does that mean?" They're like, "Oh. Well, you give your dog treats." I'm like, "Okay. But why are you giving your dog treats?" "Oh. Well, because you love them." Or, "Because maybe they did a good job," or, "Well, that's because my trainer told me to." But the main thing was that there was not a real understanding of what positive reinforcement means.

That's not to say that these people somehow were in the dark, or how dare they not know. For most people who are out in the world, there's no need to know that for our day-to-day life. It's not as though someone's popping out of the bushes saying, "Give me a good definition for positive reinforcement now, stat." That's not happening. What I wanted to do in this podcast episode is just give you a very quick breakdown of what that term actually means, and why is it we use it for training not only our dogs but all variety of animals. Actually, it applies to people, too.

At the core of it, I think what we need to realize is that the term positive reinforcement is actually a scientific term. It's not using the most common ways that we understand those terms. What I mean by that is the word positive is actually seen as adding to. It doesn't mean good. I hope that part makes sense, is that a lot of people hear positive, and they go, "Well, that means that it's good." Not necessarily. When we're talking about the term positive reinforcement, what we're saying is positive means to add to. If you had negative reinforcement, it would be to take away. Think of it like math. Positive is adding to.

Then when we think about the term reinforcement, when we're looking at it from the scientific standpoint, that means that we are strengthening something. When we put those two words together, it means that we are adding something to strengthen something. In our realm of dog training, what that means is that we're adding something to strengthen a behavior. Hopefully I haven't lost you yet.

But what we can see just from this really quick breakdown, this is drastically different than what most people think positive reinforcement means. A lot of people just think that it's good, and you're just throwing treats at it, and that's it. It's actually a lot more complicated than that. What we're trying to do with positive reinforcement is we're trying to add something to our training to strengthen a particular behavior that we like. In layman's terms, I want to find something that my dog enjoys so that they will do a behavior that I like them to do, and I want them to do it more.

This is a really important piece, because when we think positive reinforcement training is just about treats, you're not seeing the whole picture. Let me give you a human example. If you thought that I like chocolate, for instance, so chocolate would be my treat, you would give me chocolate and then I would do the things you wanted me to do. But the problem is there's a whole variety of different chocolates. What that means is that if you were to try to give me white chocolate, for instance, that's actually not going to increase my behavior at all to do the thing that you wanted me to do, because I don't like white chocolate. In my opinion, white chocolate is not real chocolate.

It wouldn't pass the first part of this. I do not find white chocolate to be reinforcing. You adding it to your equation of how it is you want me to do something doesn't do anything. If anything, it might have the absolute opposite effect, which means that if you were to give me white chocolate to say, "Oh, look, I'm rewarding you for doing a good job on that really hard project," that's not a reward to me. That could actually be a punishment, because I have worked really hard on this project. It was stressful. It was difficult. Then you're paying me with something that I don't even like? I'm not going to work that hard on that next project.

I would have preferred if you paid me, if you gave me a day off, if you gave me something, but you're giving me something that's worthless. It's useless. I have to now figure out how to get rid of this white chocolate. I'm put in this really socially awkward situation. I can't just give it back to you. I need find someone else who happens to like white chocolate. You've given me a burden.

I hope that this human example can help you understand just how important it is to recognize what your own individual dog actually finds rewarding so that you can actually properly apply positive reinforcement. Just throwing a treat at a behavior doesn't do anything, particularly if your dog doesn't happen to find that treat very rewarding.

Now, we can even dive deeper into the weeds. Let's say that your dog does happen to like a certain type of treat. But do they like that certain type of treat all the time? What happens if you were to take your dog into a situation that was really super distracting? There's all kinds of stuff going on. Let's say that the squirrels decided to descend from all the trees and have a party. They're all running around like 10 feet away from you. Do you think that your dog is really going to care all that much about that treat that you have? They would much rather chase the squirrels.

If you were trying to work on training them a particular type of behavior, let's say a sit, and you're trying to feed them a treat because you thought that they found that rewarding, they may find the treat rewarding when they're inside your kitchen. But now, the only thing they find rewarding is trying to chase those squirrels. You're not going to be applying positive reinforcement training when you are yanking back on your dog, shoving a treat in their face, and trying to get them to sit. That's not positive reinforcement training. That's trying to shove a treat into you dog's face to get them to sit while they want to chase the squirrels.

I think it's important for us to understand what all this means, and to put it into layman terms, because there is definitely a delineation just within the dog training community as a whole, as far as people who do this professionally, and people who are out there in the world with real dogs. There shouldn't be that delineation. I'm not saying that you have to go out and buy every single behavior book known to man. I'm not saying that you have to go to take college courses, or intern with trainers or even behaviorists or people with doctorates, you need to enter into this whole realm of study. You don't.

But I do think that it's important as dog owners that when we are trying to help our dogs be the best canine companions they can be for us, even if we never want to do anything really super out there such as dog sports ... We don't want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. We just want our dogs to not drive us crazy when we're sitting on our couch. We want to be able to go for a walk, maybe play some ball. We just want to have a pet. That doesn't mean that your dog still doesn't have to understand a certain number of behaviors in order to do that successfully.

In order to train those behaviors, positive reinforcement really helps. I think it's helpful for everyone, every single dog owner, to understand why that works. Why does positive reinforcement work so well, not only with our dogs, but with all animals, including people? The reason being is that when you reward a behavior, you strengthen it. If you can actually find what's rewarding to that individual, we'll just say it's our dog, for that particular situation, and you reward that behavior, they're going to do it again. The reason why this works particularly with dogs is dogs only do what works. Dogs are only going to do those things that actually work well for them.

If you are trying to work on something like a sit, you want to figure out what it is that your dog actually finds rewarding in that moment. Now, for most dog training, what a professional is tell you is try to find a low distraction area in which to train so that your dog can stay easily focused on you and there aren't other things competing for their attention. But it's also to ensure that your reward, be it your treat, your toy, verbal praise, petting, whatever it is that you're doing, is actually rewarding to the dog, so you don't get into that situation where the squirrels are much more enticing than your treat.

But how does all this work? How does a dog actually understand that you like it when they sit? Well, it's pretty simple. What you do is you ask your dog to sit, and then you reward them with your treat. It's always the behavior first, and then the reward. If you give your dog a treat and then you ask them to sit, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If I were to pay you and then tell you to go do your job, you may not want to finish that job too quickly. Even for professionals, they may only take a deposit, but the majority of their payment will be made at the end of the job. Otherwise, you may just never finish the job. The same thing applies for our dogs. If we want to strengthen a behavior, the animal does the behavior first, and then we reward them.

How does all this pan out for you? What does all of this mean? What this means is that in order to use positive reinforcement, you need a couple of things. Number one, you always have to figure out what it is that your dog actually finds reinforcing, and every single dog is going to be different. Some dogs really like treats. Other dogs really like toys. Some dogs really enjoy verbal praise, and other dogs like petting. Then there are some that like all of those, and they can interchange them at any point and it doesn't matter. They're all equally awesome.

But even with those big bucket categories, you still want to make certain that you have each of those divided up into levels, what I call value levels, a low-value reward, a mid-value reward, and a high-value reward. Let's just take treats. Let's say that as a blanket statement you say, "My dog loves food." Great. My next question is going to be, "Well, what's their least-favorite food? What's the food that they're just like eh, I'll eat it but it's not that big of a deal?" You may say their kibble. Okay, great. That's going to be one of your low-value treats.

What's the next type of treat or next type of food that your dog is like, "Ooh, that's kind of interesting. I really like that. Can I have some, please?" Maybe you say something like string cheese. Perfect. That's going to be your mid-value treat. Now, what is the type of food that your dog just goes gaga for? They are spinning circles, they're drooling, their eyes are saucers. What is the food that they're just like, "I have to have that?" You say, "Well, I think whenever I make meatballs my dog goes really bananas." Perfect.

Now you have three levels of reinforcers that you can choose from. You have your low-level treat of kibbles. You have your mid-value treats of string cheese, and you have your high-value treat of meatballs. You can now figure out when it's best to use each of those types of treats. In other words, you wouldn't want to use meatballs all the time. It's just going to diminish the value of that treat, and you don't have to use that high-value treat all the time. But at the same point, if you're asking your dog to do something really difficult in a really challenging environment, trying to feed them kibble isn't going to work. You want to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible.

Once you figure out what the reinforcer is, and then you want to figure out the value of the reinforcer, you then want to figure out what behavior are you actually trying to work on. This is a really important piece of positive reinforcement training. You're always providing information to the dog. You're never assuming anything. You want to provide them an opportunity to do a behavior so that you can strengthen it. That's the whole point.

By just saying "No" doesn't mean a whole lot. That doesn't provide me any kind of feedback. Let me give you a human example. Let's say that I invited you over to my house. I open the door. You come in. I don't say anything. You say, "Okay, she's kind of weird." You sit down on the couch, and there happens to be a coffee table. I hand you a water. You take a sip and you place the water onto the coffee table. We start chitchatting, and all of a sudden I go, "What are you doing?" You go, "I don't know. You're very weird." I say, "No." You go, "No what?" I storm out of the room.

You are completely puzzled. I come back and I throw a coaster at you. You're just looking at me completely puzzled, and then eventually you go, "Did you want the water bottle on the coaster?" You do not think that I'm very stable. You don't think I'm very polite. We were just having a conversation. Why couldn't I have just told you, "Hey, by the way, can you use a coaster when you put the water bottle on the coffee table?"

The same thing applies with our dogs, except it's even more complicated because they're not people. They're a completely different species. They see things and experience life completely different than we do. Even just the way that we communicate. As you can tell from this podcast, we're very verbal. Our dogs aren't. They communicate with body cues. There's a huge chasm as far as how they understand what's going on as opposed to what we understand is going on.

In the context of positive reinforcement training, our main goal always has to be to provide our dog with information. Simply saying "No" doesn't provide any information. It's better to provide your dog with information and input. For instance, if you wanted your dog to sit, then you would ask them to sit. If you wanted them to do something other than to jump up, you would ask them to do that other thing. You would ask them to sit. Just saying no doesn't help.

To wrap this up, what does positive reinforcement mean as far as training? It means that you're adding something, a reinforcer, to strengthen a behavior that you want to be strengthened and you want to continue into the future. That means that you're going to have to figure out what your dog actually finds reinforcing within a number of different scenarios. The more reinforcers you have in your toolbox, the better it is for you, which means that positive reinforcement isn't just about treats. It could be about treats, toys, verbal praise, play, opportunity to do things, a whole slew of different things that you'd be able to choose from.

You want to make certain that you are broadening your horizons as you train. It's absolutely true that for the majority of training we start with food, and the main reason is twofold. One, 99.9% of dogs will find food motivating. There are some who don't, but a lot of times that's simply because they're either being fed too much or there's something else going on. But every single living creature needs food in order to survive. Food is a great place to start.

The other great thing about using food is that it can help you build accuracy with your behaviors. After you have built accuracy with your behavior, you can then move on to some of the other reinforcers, particularly toys. We use toys in order to build excitement and what we call drive, which really is just enthusiasm, engagement, and a lot of exciting, flashy movement. But when you're first starting out, it's easier to use food.

Now, once you've figured out your reinforcers, you've figured out when to use them, you then want to figure out what behaviors you actually want your dog to do. What behaviors do you want to be strengthened and you want to continue into the future? This is going to require a little bit of thinking on your part. Something may seem really cute when your dog is a small, tiny puppy. But is it going to be just as cute when they're a full grown, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90-pound dog? With the courses that we provide at Family Dog University, we actually walk you through some of that thinking so that what may seem cute today may not be all that cute tomorrow. You just want to think those things through.

The final question is positive reinforcement, is it actually effective, and the answer is yes. It's used all across the animal world, meaning that you'll see it in aquariums, you'll see it in zoos, and you also see it with people. There's a lot of different programs that are working, particularly with children, in shifting away from berating or anything else to using positive reinforcement training. Some of it is even using marker training, where they actually use clickers or verbal markers to break down what it is that they need those students to do, whether it be gymnastics, whether it even be something as far as doing a particular task such as building a robot.

They'll break down the actual things, the behaviors, that the children are doing so that they can actually understand, "Okay, this piece was right. This piece was right. Okay, I didn't get a marker for that one. Okay, let me keep trying." It strengthens behavior. It has the learner stay more engaged. It makes it so that they want to be part of the learning process without being afraid of being wrong. It makes it so that there's no fear introduced, and that's really important, particularly when we're talking about dog training.

Again, we always have to remember that our dogs are a completely different species. The more that we can have active engagement with our dogs, the better it is, so they don't shut down on us, and so they don't have suspicious associations, where we may have wanted them to do one thing, but if they became afraid, they may have actually thought it was about something completely different, which could be really difficult to sort out at the end of the day.

Do I personally use positive reinforcement? Yes, I do. I find it to be very effective. It also helps improve the relationship that you have with your dog. It makes you feel better, because you're looking for all the opportunities to show your dog that they were correct, as opposed to always focusing on when they may be incorrect.

If you have some more questions about positive reinforcement training, particularly with marker training, maybe even with clickers, I wanted to let you know about a webinar that we do offer at Family Dog University. It's called Learn About Clicker Training. This is recorded. You'd be able to access it today. Within this webinar, we talk about the history of clicker training, why it was started, where it's used, and why it's effective. But most importantly, we walk you through the steps of how it is you could actually use clicker training with your own dog.

I hope you found this podcast a little bit helpful, just to have a better understanding of what positive reinforcement training is really all about. Happy training, and we look forward to seeing you soon.