Vet Watch

Reward-based training

This post is broadly applicable to most animals to a greater or lesser extent, but the emphasis is on our canine friends, so I’ll refer to ‘dogs’ rather than ‘the subject’ or some such jibber-jabber.

The Australian Veterinary Association recommends the use of positive reinforcement (or rewards-based training) as the preferred training method for dogs. The other option – positive punishment – is not ideal and can be dangerous for both dog and owner. 

Dogs learn in response to a changing environment and respond in various ways. Some responses are instinctive (e.g. nipple seeking in pups), some are environmental responses (e.g. drinking when thirsty) and some are due to learning. Response pathways are strengthened or reinforced by repetition and weakened through disuse.

The two main types of reinforcement are:

1. positive reinforcement, involving giving the dog something it wants to make the behaviour more likely to occur again (eg a treat given when asked to sit). This is the best way to learn.

2. negative reinforcement, involves removing something unpleasant (or aversive) to make the behaviour more likely to recur. For example, holding a dog back from the biscuits on the table with a tight collar, and releasing the tension when the dog sits down and stops leaning in to the biscuits. Negative reinforcement is also known as ‘avoidance learning’.

Punishment as a (less than brilliant) tool involves:

1) positive punishment: applying an unpleasant stimulus to prevent something happening again. For example a smack on the nose to discourage scavenging around the table.

2) negative punishment: taking away something the dog wants, to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour recurring eg removing all biscuits form the table as the dog approaches to reduce the likelihood of scavenging.

Training involving positive punishment, or negative reinforcement has been associated with undesirable side effects such as escape and avoidance behaviour, aggression, learned helplessness, depression and learning problems, and fear of people or things in the environment. The dog doesn’t learn what is right or desired of them, and punishment can be a way for people to vent their feelings on a pet.

It’s much better to prevent behavioural problems than to treat them. Behaviour is a complex mix of genetics (so look at the parents before buying a pup), learning (so attention to the critical learning period before 16 weeks to encourage proper inter-dog socialisation and human-animal bonds) and the environment. If pups are deprived of constant social and benevolent human contact during this time there can be severe long-term effects on the ability to live in a family environment and the development of anti-social behaviours. Puppy classes are an awesome way of establishing and continuing socialisation in dogs under 16 weeks of age.

Till next time, Cheers, Evan Kosack.

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