When Positive Reinforcement Does Not Work For Training Your Dog

There are situations where positive reinforcement does not work for training your dog. Imagine, your dog has a bad habit, or just some behavior that you would like to change. Maybe he jumps on the couch and you’d rather him not. Or, as it is with my dog, maybe he drinks all the wine while you are at work. You’ve done all the positive reinforcement that you can think of. You’ve given treats for staying out of the liquor cabinet. But still you come home and find the dog passed out on the couch with an empty bottle of Merlot.

Positive Reinforcement Does Not Work In Every Situation

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Too Much Of A Good Thing

There are certain behaviors that your dog engages in that are self-rewarding. This means that the behavior is more enjoyable than any treat or praise you can offer. The booze is better than the biscuit. This is especially true for the hunting dog. For positive reinforcement to work, the treat or reward has to be the best thing available at the time. For the hunting dog, there is nothing he loves more than the animals he hunts, and we humans cannot compete. This ineffectiveness of positive reinforcement is a monster of our own creating. We have selectively bred these dogs to love to hunt. It is what makes them strong, efficient and tireless hunters, but the downside is that more heavy handed and ‘negative’ training techniques are required.

Decisions, decisions

Decisions, decisions

Putting it another way, take any well-bred hunting dog, and place before him a raw T-bone steak and a live quail. That dog will chase the quail to exhaustion without giving the t-bone a second thought.

But All I Read About Is Positive Training

But what about all of the trainers who advocate positive reinforcement only? Victoria Stilwell, famous dog trainer, tells us to stay away from heavy handed training techniques, and rely solely on positive reinforcement. Even here in Chicago, there was a recent event touting positive reinforcement for rescue dogs. I think this is great. But, for many of these dogs, their life consists of home and yard and the end of a leash. The owner’s influence is always present and there are few opportunities to act and decide and chose outside of that influence. For a dog with this life, a positive-reinforcement-only training is best and ideal. My own dog, Shiloh, received only positive reinforcement for the first 6 months of his life. But, when the time comes when the dog needs to operate in the field, outside of the direct influence of the handler, there needs to be something else to train him. No biscuit is going to affect his behavior when he loves birds, and deer, and rabbits.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the technique of training that is used to shape behavior when positive reinforcement is not effective. The idea behind negative reinforcement is to apply an undesirable stimulus that the animal learns to turn off by complying with the desired behavior. One example of this is teaching recall (e.g. the come command). The dog is put on a long leash (20-30 feet) and the command is given. At the same time, the trainer starts tugging on the cord. Not hard, but repeatedly jerking enough to disrupt the dog. When the dog starts to come in, the tugging stops. A treat can be given when the dog arrives, as well. This incorporates some positive reinforcement as well. If the dog veers off the path of coming in, the tugging begins again. In a couple of months, Zeke, the Llewellyn Setter I am helping to train, will begin to experience the training exactly as described above.

I also mentioned in an earlier entry that I am training my dog to retrieve. I am using negative reinforcement for this. At this stage of the training, I am causing him discomfort and showing him that the discomfort stops when he picks up the fetch object.

Isn’t This Just Beating A Dog Into Submission?

No. The amount of discomfort that is used in this technique is noticeable but minor. The tugging used to teach a dog to come isn’t even pain, it is annoyance. The ear pinch for fetch training is pain, but it is kept very low. The key with using pain is to read the dog and keep the pain low but noticeable. If the trainer chooses to increases the level of discomfort, he or she needs to watch the dog very closely to keep discomfort tolerable. No being can learn in the presence of excruciating pain.

Who Should Use This Technique?

First and foremost, using this on a very young puppy is tantamount to abuse. Most experts agree that this type of training ought not start until the dog is 6 months old. Even then, some dogs are slow to mature. Reading the dog is vital for the success of this technique. As you read the dog, if the dog seems really bothered by this training, stop and let him mature. Signs to avoid are a tucked tail, cowering, fear, and reluctance to leave your side.

Secondly, this technique is not a replacement for positive reinforcement. Rather it is the second chapter. The command ought to be taught first with positive reinforcement. Only after the dog understands the command would you consider reinforcing it with negative reinforcement. Starting training with negative reinforcement is unnecessarily harsh.

Third, if you have a dog whose main job is a companion animal, then there is little reason for this kind of training. The one exception is if you take pooch to dog parks or large open areas (like Iowa). If the dog tends to run big and favor chasing critters to listening to you, you may want to consider this training for having your dog come.

I couldn’t find a good video that shows the proper and effective use of negative reinforcement on a dog. I couldn’t make such a video because my dog already knows how to come. Zeke is still to young for this training. Instead, I leave you with Steve, the smelly college student, to explain some more details of this concept and give some additional examples.

Update (9/4/13)

After extensive conversation with one of the commenters below(e.g. Mr. Thomas Aaron), I would like to offer a revised view.  Positive reinforcement can be used for every area of dog training.  I no longer believe that there is a deficiency in positive reinforcement.  However, I would like to say that some of the techniques within positive reinforcement that are needed to shape and control some highly motivated behaviors (like bird chasing) are currently (and unfortunately) beyond the reach of the average amateur trainer (such as myself).  The main purpose of this article was to describe negative reinforcement, which remains a practical and viable alternative for when the trainer is unable to use positive reinforcement to shape the desired behavior.

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