3 Myths About Positive Reinforcement Based Dog Training

Positive reinforcement-based training has the firm backing of nearly every credible animal behavioral science institution worldwide. So why do so many myths continue to circulate?

Mar 13, 2024byChelsea Pinkham
myths about positive reinforcement based dog training

“Positive reinforcement” is a behavioral term that refers to the four quadrants of Operant Conditioning. It means to apply something good––such as a toy or a tasty reward––to accomplish a desired behavior. Despite some scoffs from old-school trainers, this method of canine behavioral modification is the most widely supported by scientific evidence.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t just mean throwing treats at dogs while ignoring bad behaviors, either. Modern trainers use reinforcement to create new, desirable behaviors to replace undesirable ones. Let’s delve into the myths around this methodology!

Positive Reinforcement Doesn’t Work for All Dogs

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Like people, all dogs are unique individuals. Luckily, unique forms of reinforcement and methods of reinforcement exist for every individual dog. Contrary to popular belief, dogs who display psychological issues, such as extreme forms of fear-based reactivity, resource guarding, or an inability to settle, benefit from carefully crafted, methodical, science-based training methods rather than a “heavy hand.”

Dogs who refuse to take food outdoors are often labeled as being poor candidates for the use of reinforcement-based training with high-value treats. However, an inability to take food outside of the home can indicate underlying behavioral issues that must be addressed.

Dogs who refuse to take food outside might be suffering from overarousal issues, in which the nervous system becomes too overstimulated to focus on anything but the dog’s surroundings. These dogs might be labeled as “hyper” or “high-drive” when in reality, they are likely facing some form of FAS (an acronym used by the training community for fear, anxiety, and stress).

Fact: Professional Trainers Rely on Positive Reinforcement

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Professional trainers help overaroused dogs by perfecting cues in the home, without distractions, and gradually increasing expectations. Slow desensitization, counter-conditioning (changing a dog’s response toward a trigger through pairing the sight of the trigger with positive reinforcers), and confidence-building exercises can all help build a dog’s ability to take treats outdoors.

If positive reinforcement isn’t working for a particular dog, a trainer must step back and ask themselves: “Is the dog’s body language showing comfort with the pace I am moving? Did I set up the dog’s environment to make cues as clear as possible? Am I offering enough engagement to prevent the dog from becoming frustrated? Are my reward markers (such as a ‘click’ or a verbal marker like ‘yes’) clear, and my timing impeccable?”

Fact: Food Isn’t the Only Positive Reinforcement

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Although food is typically the greatest form of reinforcement, there are many more forms of reinforcement for all types of dogs. For workaholic breeds, like the German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois, work itself can be used as reinforcement to train skills, such as settling down and impulse control.

Toys, such as tug ropes and flirt poles, can also serve as excellent forms of reinforcement. Even opportunities for fun can be used as reinforcement; for example, a dog might be asked to offer a “sit” and a “touch” to be let off-leash, or a different trick behavior before each toss of a ball.

Positive Reinforcement Is Bribery

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One of the most common misconceptions about positive reinforcement-based training is the idea that using food to ask dogs to perform behaviors is “bribery.” That’s not true.

When a handler limits themselves to only using luring, animals may only perform when a treat is in sight. Luring is the act of physically holding a treat in front of a dog’s nose, and then luring the dog into performing a behavior. Luring might be necessary for some trick behaviors but in general, the goal should be to phase it out.

By transitioning from luring with treats to luring with your hand or a target stick, you are asking the dog to act in faith that the reward will come. Using treat pouches or fanny packs will enable you to quickly deliver rewards after marking a desired behavior.

Skilled trainers often use variable reinforcement schedules. This means that once a behavior has a reinforcement history (say you’ve rewarded your dog for the first 25 times they’ve offered a sit), you might reinforce the behavior every other time, every three times, or so on, varying in your reinforcement schedule.

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To increase motivation, throw in a “jackpot” every so often, in which a dog is randomly rewarded with a large amount of high-value treats. This will make training like playing the lottery for your dog. Sometimes, you win nothing, most of the time you win a little, but sometimes, you win big!

Using variable reinforcement schedules doesn’t just make your training more effective, it’s a safety essential. This style of training will enable you to continue to ask your dog for behaviors out in public, even if you’ve run out of treats. Of course, dog caregivers should always try to remember their treat pouches and keep them stocked.

Fact: Dogs Need Motivation

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Though many dog owners might want their dogs to behave “just because,” this simply isn’t the way it works. All animals, humans included, need motivation to work. Would you work a busy and difficult job with no salary? Asking dogs to ignore distractions and inhibit natural behaviors like jumping up, chasing prey, and play-biting goes against their very nature. Big asks require big rewards!

It should be noted that early humans domesticated dogs through the use of food. Dogs’ wild canine ancestors only came close to human dwellings because food scraps incentivized them to do so. Early humans didn’t use punishment and force to keep dogs around; instead, they developed a mutually beneficial relationship by providing dogs with the sustenance they needed. Through reinforcement-based training, you can do the same!

Dog Training Needs Balance

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“Balanced training” has become a catchphrase for trainers who still use punishment-based methods on dogs. The “balance” is supposed to refer to B.F. Skinner’s four quadrants of Operant Conditioning, implying that balance between the quadrants is necessary. Not only does this claim contradict current behavioral science, but it’s also actually been refuted by the very scientist who coined the terms in the first place.

What to Know About Operant Conditioning

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The four quadrants of Operant Conditioning are:

  • Positive reinforcement (adding something good to increase the likelihood of a behavior)
  • Positive punishment (adding something bad to decrease the likelihood of a behavior)
  • Negative reinforcement (removing something bad to increase the likelihood of a behavior)
  • Negative punishment (removing something good to decrease the likelihood of a behavior)

According to American scientist, B.F. Skinner: “In the long run, however, punishment does not actually eliminate behavior from a repertoire, and its temporary achievement is obtained at tremendous cost in reducing the overall efficiency and happiness of the group.”

B.F. Skinner warned against the use of punishment and force to accomplish desired behavior, and he was ahead of his time in doing so. Today, canine behavioral science has progressed by leaps and bounds.

In fact, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and virtually all other credible canine behavior institutions worldwide support the use of positive reinforcement as a primary training method.

Chelsea Pinkham
byChelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!