What can pet owners do when their pets exhibit unwanted behaviors, such as damaging furniture or jumping up on people? The first instinct may be to yell or punish the pet by being cross with him or her. However, many animal behaviorists believe that positive reinforcement training is the most effective way to address pets’ behavioral issues.
Positive reinforcement training, according to The Humane Society of the United States, utilizes rewards for desired behaviors. The reward, whether it is a treat, praise, toys, or anything the pet finds rewarding, will eventually get the pet to repeat the behavior that earned him or her that reward. Rather than punishing a bad behavior, pet owners who utilize positive reinforcement reward good behaviors.
Positive reinforcement also is known as operant conditioning. It is a similar concept studied by famed Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. When the dinner bell rang, Pavlov’s dogs salivated. The American Kennel Club says that was classical conditioning because the dogs salivated involuntarily. However, operant training conditioning is when dogs learn to associate their behavior with certain results, all the while learning there are good and bad outcomes. The goal is to increase behaviors with pleasant consequences, such as receiving a reward. Experts say that by focusing on the positive, pet owners will see fewer side effects than negative punishment training, such as aggression, fear, anxiety, and avoidance.
Timing is the key to positive reinforcement training. The reward must occur immediately after the desired behavior or the pet may not associate it with the proper action. So if the dog sits, then the reward has to come as soon as it gets on the floor. If the reward comes when he has stood back up, then the pooch may think the reward is for standing.
When practicing positive reinforcement, keep commands short and training sessions brief so that dogs can understand before they get restless. Dogs don’t understand sentences, says HSUS, and they will lose interest if sessions are too long. Consistency also is essential. Each person interacting with the pet should use the same commands and cues to achieve the desired result, which is a well-behaved pet.
It may take time for a pet to acclimate to commands and training. But with patience, positive reinforcement can be effective.