Positive Reinforcement Training – What It Is & Why It Matters
Updated: May 28
This term is not a value judgment. In some social circles it generates a lot of energy: positive trainers are good, traditional trainers are bad, and on and on. Another misconception about this type of training is that it is permissive; it is not.
I believe in science based training because it is based on facts so let’s define this term. In science the word “positive” means “added.” Think of the word positive as a plus sign. The word “reinforcement” refers to anything the learner will work for. Think of it as a snack. So in layman’s terms saying “add snacks training” is Positive Reinforcement Training.
Another way to describe this training methodology would be reward based training. The focus of this training is on what the dog has done that you want to see him do more of. In most cases if a dog is doing a behavior you want he cannot, at the same time, do the one you don’t. A good example of that is that a dog who is quietly at your side cannot also chase sheep or jump on you at the same time; these behaviors are incompatible with each other so if you reinforce the dog for being “good” you may never need to scold him for being “bad.”
If one of my dogs is doing a behavior that needs to stop NOW I do something to interrupt the behavior, such as making a noise or stepping in front of the dog. I then quickly ask for a behavior the dog knows well that is incompatible with the behavior I want to stop. Then I reward the dog for giving me the behavior I asked for.
Dogs love this type of training. In Positive Perspectives 2 - Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog, Pat Miller says "Dogs who have been trained with positive methods from puppyhood tend to show more volunteerism; they raptly observe their handlers, looking for opportunities to offer behaviors that may be rewarded."
Dogs that are scolded for doing something wrong learn a couple of things: They learn not to do the behavior while you are there, and they learn that sometimes you become untrustworthy. They also don’t learn what you want them to do instead. Left to his own devices the dog may substitute a behavior you like even less for the one he was doing a minute ago. If you ask for a behavior and then reward for it the dog knows exactly what you want him to be doing.
Reward based training builds a trusting relationship with the dog and owner; punishment based training damages that relationship because even if your “correction” is done kindly the dog doesn’t enjoy it and will work to avoid the situation. Yes…you may be thinking…that’s the point! But what the dog is learning to avoid is working with you and trusting you. You may have a short term solution in that you stopped the behavior at that moment but you have created a long term problem in the dog’s mindset because he is less likely to listen to you the next time.
Many dogs who are faced with a situation they feel they can’t deal with turn to aggression as a means to cope; this behavior is LEARNED and PREVENTABLE.
Excessive (or perceived as excessive) barking and not staying home are the two most common reasons LGDs are surrendered to shelters. A dog who isn’t happy let’s that fact be known is a variety of ways.
An owner’s training choices create a quality of life issue for both the dog and the owner. When training really goes wrong these choices may cost the dog his life. LGDs represent a huge investment of time and money. The dog’s success is important to the owner for these reasons as well.
Training can really be a lot of fun!!! It doesn’t need to be stressful or scary, and mostly it’s pretty easy if you think about it from the dog’s perspective. I recently read that training dogs is like expecting them to learn English as a second language. Thinking of it that way reminds me of how patient I need to be with my dogs and how realistic my expectations of them must be. Maremmas are inherently kind, sensitive, intelligent dogs. They offer their canine body language honestly; it’s there for you to learn from and understand.