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Why Positive Reinforcement Training Fails (podcast notes)

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

I believe that using positive reinforcement to train dogs is powerful. And in almost all circumstances, we can use positive reinforcement to train any behavior. Having said that, time and time again, I see people struggling with positive reinforcement training. Why is that?

First, I think that we humans are better at keying in on incorrect behavior than correct behavior. Its the whole squeaky wheel phenomena. Its easier, mentally, to correct an incorrect behavior than to notice correct behavior and reward it.

Think of your working life. In most cases you may notice the errors that a co-worker makes far more often than the correct things (same with a spouse).

But 'easier' needs to be defined, because in reality, focusing only on incorrect behaviors is far easier on the teacher than the learner. Training through rewarding what we like is far easier on the learner, and has the added benefit of allowing the teacher to focus more on positive behaviors, and by doing so, actually forming a more positive emotional response to the learner.

Because of this, I prefer to focus on positive reinforcement training as the backbone of most of my training.

People struggle with positive reinforcement training for a multitude of reasons, the three that I focus on in the podcast are: failure to reward often enough early on, failure to set up scenarios that guarantee success in the learner, and a failure to adequately think about what we want to see in place of an unwanted behavior and reward that.

The podcast actually expresses these things rather well, with an abundance of examples, so I will not repeat them here.

Moving away from modalities that utilize punishment as a go-to is hard, and it takes work, and to be honest, I believe that it takes more work and planning oftentimes than using punishment. I think that the more that we challenge ourselves to move towards rewards-based systems, the better we become on focusing on the good and wonderful things our dogs do, and even if sometimes we find ourselves resorting to a verbal correction or the like, our ability to focus our efforts on seeing and responding to the wonderful things that our dogs do, the better we all are for the effort.

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