Pros & Cons of Positive Reinforcement Pet Training
Within days of adopting Kona from the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas, CA I enrolled us in dog obedience class that employs positive reinforcement training methods. This terrier mix had spent her first 18 months in shelters and was smart but shy. I knew that praising and treating her for small successes would help boost her confidence and bring out her hidden talents.
During her first month in my home, I wore a treat bag filled with healthy bite-sized goodies that I would deliver whenever she heeded any cue—big or small. I relied on treats in training her to view her crate as “great,” to “watch me,” to plop quickly into a sit and to not yank on the leash during our walks. I opted to take a positive reinforcement approach, a reward-based training that marks desired behavior and does not use force or bullying to make a dog comply.
The decision was the right one as Kona has now completed three levels of obedience training and earned her Canine Good Citizen title from the American Kennel Club. And the bond between us grows stronger each day. She views me as her benevolent leader, keeper of all good resources and not as a taskmaster or demanding dictator.
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Positive reinforcement is the go-to training method for many professional dog trainers as this technique relies on the use of verbal cues, hand signals, treats, clickers and toys to correct bad habits, achieve desired behaviors and even to teach new tricks. It is a non-force training approach based in scientific learning theories. In the early 1900s, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov made famous the benefits of using rewards and positive associations to change behaviors in dogs by ringing a bell each time they were fed. Fairly quickly, these dogs made the association between the sound of the bell and being fed. In fact, at the mere sound of the bell, the dogs would drool in anticipation of receiving food.
But is positive reinforcement 100-percent effective for every dog? No.
“You want your dog to view you as a kind leader, but positive reinforcement is not just about handing out treats or being what some in the dog training world refer to as ‘cookie pushers,’” says Mikkel Becker, CPDT, KA, CTC, a certified dog trainer and co-author of six pet books who lives in Seattle. “You need to know what motivates your dog and how to properly reinforce good behaviors.”
Here is a rundown of the pros and cons of employing positive reinforcement training on dogs.
Pros of positive reinforcement training
- Instills a trusting and lasting bond between you and your dog.
- Does not use physical force or verbal shouts to get a dog to perform a cue.
- Uses a dog’s favorite motivator (treats, toys, clicker) to inspire a dog to master a new cue or trick.
- When done properly, can help a dog learn a simple cue like sitting and progress to master more difficult tricks like sitting up and spinning in a circle.
- Fosters confidence and a willingness in your dog to experience new places, new people and new activities.
Cons of positive reinforcement training
- There is a risk that a dog will only work for food and not listen to you if you do not have treats with you.
- You make training sessions too long to the point your dog loses focus or concentration.
- You attempt to teach a complicated cue or trick that your dog is not ready to master and it creates frustration in both of you.
- You fail to give clear verbal and hand signals, causing confusion in your dog.
- You attempt to conduct a training session when there are distractions around (such as a blaring television in the living room, other pets in your household or squirrels running around in your fenced backyard).
Parting advice from Becker: “Positive reinforcement does require patience, but take a long term outlook and you will see that it does pay off and you will have a well-behaved dog who loves and respects you.”
By Arden Moore, a dog and cat behavior expert, master certified pet first aid instructor, author of 26 best-selling pet books, radio host, and writer for Pets Best. Since 2005, Pets Best has been offering pet health insurance plans for dogs and cats across the U.S.