I am often asked which is more powerful. Positive reinforcement or Negative Reinforcement? The simple answer is that they are both powerful and effective when used properly. Unfortunately, most dog owners do not understand the principals, the laws, that underlie the proper use of either. The most common mistake novice owners make is late timing. The dog has already done the wanted behavior and is now getting rewarded or the dog has already done the unwanted behavior and is now getting the correction some time later.
Bad timing = Bad communication.But, back to the the which is better question. In my mind I see positive reinforcement as a more effective, long term solution to behavior modification. The simple reason is that when you use positive reinforcement methods the dog is working with you to earn the rewards for the wanted behavior. They look forward to doing the wanted behavior and use all the brain power to help you and themselves learn the new behavior and if done properly they new behavior becomes part of their normal, expected behavior. I also understand that sometimes positive reinforcement methods are time consuming and require a level of skill higher than is required to effectively use negative reinforcement methods. So, for short term solutions to behavioral problems that are dangerous to the dog, to other animals or to your property it is often advantageous to use negative reinforcement methods to effect a short term cessation of the behavior.
But, once the behavior is stopped I like to follow up with positive reinforcement methods to strengthen the behavior and ensure that the behavior stays gone and isn?t just temporarily masked by the use of negative reinforcement. It is important to understand that something drives all behavior. If the dogs prey drive is responsible for it?s desire to chase cars it is unlikely that you will have a permanent effect on stopping this behavior without someone getting the dogs cooperation. So, using negative reinforcement you can quickly create avoidance of the behavior, but for long term maintenance it is important to follow up with positive reinforcement to maintain the behavior by using one or all of the following positive reinforcement methods to get the dog motivated to do other behaviors besides chasing cars when it is stimulated by their movement.1) Reinforce the absence of the behavior. Ignore the barking, then when it stops click and reward.2) Teach a behavior incompatible to the bad behavior. The dog cannot sit and jump at the same time. So, teach them that when they are excited to sit in front of you, not jump, to lay on their bed, not beg for food, to nuzzle your hand, not bite it and on and on. So, reinforce (make stronger) a better behavior to replace the unwanted behavior. Once again to be used on behaviors that are not dangerous to the dog or your livestock or you or your property.3) Put the behavior on cue. Teach a command on bark, teach a command for jumping, teach a command to herd the horse and then don?t give the command. It is really helpful to a dog to know when it is ok to do a behavior and when it is not. All my dogs bark on command, tug on command, pull on the leash on command, jump up on command and on and on. Having these behaviors on cue give me control over them.4) Change the motivation. When you are having a behavioral issue with a dog I would suggest that the first thing you do to address the behavioral problem is to determine the cause or motivation behind the behavior. So, what drives your dog to (fill in unwanted behavior here). Typically, the dogs behavior is a response to your reaction. For example dogs typically jump up in an attempt to get your attention. Stop giving them ANYattention for jumping and they will typically quit.
You would. If you used a soda machine and every time you put your money in you got no soda in return you would quickly learn not to bother with that behavior. On the other hand if that machine almost always give you a reward for your behavior, but sometimes doesn?t work you will try again and again to get the reward. Dogs are like that. If you sometimes (when you?re in a good mood for example) pet them for jumping and then other times yell at them for jumping they will continue to jump and jump on you in an attempt to find the time that you are in a good enough mood to pet them. This is called a variable schedule of reinforcement and drives both good and bad behavior. It is the same psychology that drive gambling an addiction in people. Random rewards are powerful even if you do not mean for them to be random rewards. So, just watch your dogs behavior and decide what drives or motivates the dogs behavior. Leave out human emotions that do not apply. Keep it simple. Just look at the behavior and decide what is the pay off. Typically it is your reaction, but not always. Some behaviors are self rewarding.
These self rewarding behaviors will have to be dealt with in another manner. They will not simply go away if you ignore them. An example of self rewarding behavior is chewing. If the dog is chewing your furniture if is most likely because it feels good to do so. So, they will not just quit if you ignore them. Some other form of motivation will have to come into play to create avoidance of that behavior even though the dog enjoys doing the behavior. I personally would enjoy not having to pay taxes. But, I do pay taxes to avoid having to pay the penalties associate with not keeping the IRS happy.Ok, that is a brief sum up of the four methods of using positive reinforcement to get rid of bad behaviors. Over a long period of time positive reinforcement is more effective and will maintain a behavior much more effectively than negative reinforcement will. We use negative reinforcement to stop a behavior quickly, such as pulling on the leash, or barking at horses, but in the long run it is better to change the dogs attitude and get them looking to you for direction.Master Trainer David Harris is available for consultation, private one on one lessons, and offers a wide range of services at his two commercial pet care facilities in Kentucky.502-542-9746