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Positive Reinforcement Training – May 3, 2011

Because animals learn from their experiences, everyday they learn something new, or what they already know is reinforced. One type of learning, called operant conditioning, occurs when individuals learn the relationship between behaviors and their consequences. Behavior that is followed by positive consequences (such as a treat) will increase in frequency and behavior followed by negative consequences (a squirt from a water bottle) will decrease in frequency.

While human behavior may be motivated by ethics or a moral code of right and wrong, an animal’s behavior is motivated by what works for him. Your pet decides how to behave based, in part, on whether or not particular behaviors will get him what he wants or allows him to avoid things he doesn’t want.

When you make the behaviors that you want your pet to show also work to get your pet what he wants, you’ve set up a win-win situation. Behaviors that are rewarding, and work for your pet will increase in frequency. That’s the power of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement also strengthens the human/dog bond and is fun for both you and your pet.

What is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is anything your pet will work to receive. This might include food, treats, play, toys, catnip, petting, and attention. Pets differ as to what they consider valuable and rewarding so it is up to you to experiment to find out what your pet wants and will work for.

Avoid adopting the attitude of expecting your pet to do things “because you said so” without some reward. Would you go to work every day if your boss didn’t pay you but simply because he expected you to do it for him? This kind of attitude is actually expecting your pet to behave, not because of the goodies it will bring him, but because he will avoid something unpleasant (you scolding him or being mad at him). While that sort of approach can be effective, it certainly isn’t very enjoyable for you or your pet and it won’t create the happy sort of trusting relationship that benefits both of you. You must reward animals to get them to do things reliably.

Verbal praise is not inherently rewarding for all pets. Sometimes it only becomes rewarding to a pet if it has been paired with some other strongly rewarding consequence like toys or treats. You’ll learn more about this type of “secondary reinforcer” later in this blog. Some pets, usually dogs more often than cats, which are described as “eager to please,” may do anything for a kind word. For these pets, social reinforcers such as praise and petting are quite valuable to them. But don’t be surprised if your pet isn’t in that category. You’ve learned from other pamphlets in this series the importance of preventing your pet from repeating unwanted behaviors. That’s because behaviors themselves can be inherently rewarding. Digging in the back yard, scratching the drapes, jumping up on the table, or chewing up a remote control—all behaviors you don’t want your pet to do—are their own reward. Remember, behaviors that are rewarded will increase in frequency.

Using Positive Reinforcement Effectively
To get the most out of positive reinforcement, you must know what to use and when to use it.

When to reward your pet.
You must reward your pet when he’s in the act of behaving appropriately. Let’s say you see your cat scratching her post, and get a treat from the cabinet to reward her. She finishes scratching and runs to the kitchen, where you give her the tidbit. You haven’t rewarded scratching her post, but instead rewarded her for running to the kitchen. Whatever behavior your pet is doing at the time you deliver the reward is the behavior that will be reinforced. A delay of even a few seconds may cause your pet not to associate the reward with the behavior.

How often to reward your pet.
When you are trying to teach your pet a new behavior, it is best to give the reward every time your pet does the desired behavior. Once your pet has learned the behavior, it’s actually better to reinforce the behavior randomly, some of the time. This means you don’t always have to have a treat in your hand, but you should surprise your pet with a treat from time to time, and always praise or pet your pet for a job well done. Save the best rewards for the most difficult situations.

What to use for rewards.
You already learned that whatever your pet will work to obtain can be used to reinforce behavior. The more you can control your pet’s ability to obtain the specific reinforcer you are using, the more valuable and effective it will be. This is another reason why praise and petting may not be all that reinforcing for many pets. Most of us who love our pets tend to talk to them and touch them frequently. Because attention from us is readily available, it becomes less valuable as reinforcement. This doesn’t mean you should stop petting and talking to your pets, it just means you may need to find other items to use when you really want to reward good behavior. Use tidbits for example, only as reinforcement, rather than giving them to your pet “for free.” If you are going to use play to reinforce certain behaviors, you can hold back one special toy to use, rather than allowing your pet free access to it.

Save the best rewards for the best behaviors. If your cat comes to you rather than chasing your other cat, play with her until she’s worn out, rather than just a brief 30 second play period. If your dog comes when you call him in the dog park, give him a whole handful of treats, not just one.

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