Over the past few decades there has been a major shift in the way we have approached dog training. Gone are the days of using force and fear to control our dogs, instead we use more force free, reward-based training.
Apart from the obvious ethical reasons for this there are many more subtle reasons for reward-based training.
Before I get into those, let’s just clear up one or two common misconceptions about reward-based training. Firstly, we are not bribing the dog, the rewards come after the behaviour as a consequence, rather than having to see the treat in order to do the behaviour, in the long run we want to be phasing out the rewards. Secondly, we don’t just let our dogs do whatever they want, we do tell our dogs when they do things we don’t want them to do – but our primary aim is to set up the environment so that we can reward the dogs for what we like.
So why the shift towards force free dog training?
A study carried out in 2004 found that dogs who were trained with more rewards ultimately showed a higher level of obedience and those who were trained with more aversive methods exhibited more problematic behaviours.
Further studies in 2008 by Blackwell and her colleagues showed that dogs who were trained using positive reinforcement were less likely to show aggression and fear than dogs who were trained using punitive methods, a study that was supported by a further study by Herron et a.
So why is this? If both positive reinforcement and positive punishment (where you add something aversive to the dog to stop them doing a behaviour) are both training methods that appear to work, why is positive reinforcement showing these findings in studies?
That is due to the release of dopamine in your dog’s brain (and yours) when you get a reward. Dopamine is released by neurons when we expect a reward and then enhances reward related memories. This feels good so we want to do more of the stuff that causes this to happen.
The release of dopamine triggers the reward pathway in our brains and additionally the neural pathway for behaviour, actions and thought is also activated. It is these two brain pathways triggering together that causes positive reinforcement training to be so effective!
That is why it works!
Blackwell et al 2007. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour
Herron, M et al 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviours. Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Hiby, E.F et al 2004. Dog training method: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welf