By Dr. Kelsey Woolsey, DVM
Positive reinforcement is when a desirable stimulus is presented after a behavior is performed such that the behavior is likely to be repeated in the future. For example, a trainer gives a dog a piece of yummy hot dog right as it goes to lay down in its bed. The hot dog is the desirable stimulus which reinforces the behavior of going to the bed. The dog wants to receive more of the desirable stimulus so it is more likely to go to its bed in the future, especially if reinforcement of the behavior is repeated and practiced.
Simply giving a pet a tasty treat it likes is not positive reinforcement. A reinforcer, like a treat, has to be given immediately following a behavior. If that behavior increases in frequency over time, then positive reinforcement has occurred.
Common pitfalls that trainers run into are 1) inappropriate timing of the reinforcer, 2) selecting a reinforcer that is not appealing to the pet, and 3) inappropriate environment or emotional state of the pet.
Reinforcer timing. The reinforcer must be presented immediately following the desired behavior. Take teaching a dog to sit, for example. As soon as the dog’s bum hits the ground, it is given a treat. If the trainer is slow and the dog gets distracted and stands up and that is when the treat is given, this will reinforce standing up, not sitting.
Selecting a reinforcer. Luckily, many dogs are food motivated and not particularly picky about what food they eat. This is not true of all dogs and some other species of animal can be harder to reinforce. Here is another example. Let's say you are trying to teach your cat to jump up on a platform to be brushed. You tap the platform, he jumps up, and you offer a nice crunchy cat treat. He sniffs the treat, takes it in his mouth, but then spits it out and jumps off the platform. Now when you tap the platform he will not jump up anymore. What happened? The reinforcement being offered was not reinforcing to the cat. In this situation, the trainer needs to find a treat that is more appetizing to the learner. Affection can also be used as a reinforcer!
Proper environment and emotional state of the pet are important to consider when training. Learning cannot happen when an animal is in a heightened state of arousal or fearful. A trainer is at the dog park working on commands with their dog but the dog is panting, distracted, anxious, and not engaging. This is likely because the dog is uncomfortable or fearful at the dog park and is not in an appropriate emotional state for learning. This same dog may do very well in the calm and quiet of its own backyard.
When properly implemented, positive reinforcement is highly effective and fun for the trainer (you!) and learner (your pet!). Get out there and start practicing!