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Michigan Dog Training

1031 Cherry Street

Plymouth, Michigan 48170

How Dogs Learn Best

By Essential IT

English Pointer, Michigan Dog Training, Bed Bug Detection Dog, Plymouth, Michigan

Behaviorally speaking, there are four ways to operantly teach desired behaviors: 1. Positive Reinforcement, 2. Negative Punishment, 3. Negative Reinforcement and 4. Positive Punishment. All four quadrants of learning theory make up what is called “Operant Conditioning.” These terms were developed by scientists to explain how something added or taken away can impact an animal’s learning. For example, the term “positive” means anything that is added to and “negative” means that something is removed, e.g. food is given or taken away. This is considered positive or negative under those aspects and not something that is good or bad. Reinforcement means that a behavior is increased, whereas Punishment means the behavior decreased.

Michigan Dog Training in Plymouth, Michigan primarily uses Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment to teach desired behaviors followed by Negative Reinforcement. Positive Punishment is used much less, for example after a behavior has been taught and reinforced but still the dog decides not to comply. And, prior to using Positive Punishment one should ask themselves if the behavior was taught sufficiently that the dog clearly understood what was expected. To teach behavior, reinforce desired behavior with a reward your dog finds pleasing (food treat, toy, petting, verbal praise, or other life reward). This is called using Positive Reinforcement. For example, when the dog’s rear end hits the floor after being asked to sit, he receives a reward. One can also use Negative Punishment which is the removal of a reward. Using the prior example, if the dog began to stand after being asked to sit in order to obtain the food reward, one would remove the reward until the dog sat back down. Then it turns back into Positive Reinforcement by giving the reward for sitting.

Negative Reinforcement can also be used to teach behavior. For example, for a dog that barks excessively while on a walk due to over excitement, one might use a head collar. When the dog begins to bark, the owner would gently and gradually pull up on the leash which would close the dog’s mouth and tell the dog to sit. The slight pressure would be applied until the dog sat and appeared calm (not barking). A second example would be a dog that gets up from a sit position without being released with a verbal cue such as “yes”, the handler would pull up on the neck collar using a leash toward the dog’s ears causing the dog to pull away and  sit back down. This is called “oppositional reflex.” As soon as the dog sits again, the pressure would be released. A third example would be low level non-painful stimulation from an E-Collar (Electronic Collar). The stimulation would start when the dog is looking away from you and you give the command to “come”. The stimulation would stop as soon as your dog turned toward you and began to take a step toward you.

In most cases, Positive Punishment shouldn’t be used to teach a behavior but can be used to effectively stop undesired behavior. It should be followed by rewarding a desired behavior. An example of Positive Punishment would be stepping on the dog’s leash so that when the dog jumps up, he is stopped by the leash. The dog received a correction for jumping followed by the handler cuing and rewarding the dog for sitting. Another example would be the dog feeling a vibration from an E-Collar that simply shakes the collar when they bark or jump up on a counter.

Animal Behaviorists Daniel Q. Estep, Phd, CAAB and Suzanne Hetts, Phd, CAAB of Animal Behavior Associates Inc. state that “in order for punishment to be effectively and humanely applied it must meet the following criteria: 1. it must be immediate within seconds of the undesired behavior for the dog to associate the punishment with the undesired behavior, 2. it must be consistently applied so that the punishment is predictable, 3. it must be delivered at the appropriate intensity so that it is sufficient enough to stop the behavior but not be too excessive that it creates other problem behaviors and 4. it should be applied infrequently, otherwise, the desired behavior probably was not taught sufficiently.”  The goal of punishment should be to stop undesired behavior at the lowest needed intensity and not used to scold or abuse a dog as a way for a person to vent their anger at the dog.

A dog learns bests when all four quadrants of learning theory are used. As Dr. Ian Dunbar, a well known Veterinarian Behaviorist stated at his Chicago, Illinois Trainer’s Academy, “Behavior is fluid and there are four quadrants, not two.”  Unfortunately, there are some trainers who naively try to train or say they train using only Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment. But one can understand how this just doesn’t make sense when you consider raising human children. You teach your kids using positive methods but when they understand how they are expected to behave and choose not to behave appropriately; then fair and logical consequences are warranted, followed by reinforcement upon coming back on track.

How dogs learn best is a fluid use of all four quadrants of learning theory:

  1. Positive Reinforcement: Reinforce desired behavior by giving something rewarding to the dog when the desired behavior is performed
  2. Negative Punishment: Take away the reward when the dog does not do the desired behavior to punish the undesired behavior
  3. Negative Reinforcement: Something the dog finds unpleasant is removed when the desired behavior is performed which reinforces the desired behavior to occur
  4. Positive Punishment: Apply a correction to punish the undesired behavior

To dive further into how a dog learns, check out the book, “How Dogs Learn” by Mary R. Burch Phd and Jon S. Bailey, Phd. It’s an easy read that matches science well with every day dog training examples.How dogs learn, Michigan Dog Training, Michael Burkey


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