Positive & Negative Reinforcement

Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal

April 2010

Last fall I wrote about the number of first-time puppy owners who had contacted me with training questions regarding their pup’s first hunting season. This past winter I continued to hear from new puppy owners asking questions about starting their pups this spring. There is often a common thread in these inquiries; which involves the very core of training. That core is that every living critter learns, lives and reacts through association.

Association is simply a result of cause and affect. Depending upon the intelligence level of the critter, association may be learned with only one cause and affect occurrence. At the top of the food chain (I think that’s us), if you hold a nail with one hand and a hammer with the other hand and then deliver a blow that smashes your thumb, it should only take that one occurrence to modify your technique.

In general, it’s thought that at least two cause and affect occurrences are needed for canines to grasp the consequence. In dog training, that consequence is called “reinforcement”. Reinforcement can be both positive and negative.

In my opinion, positive reinforcement is always used in early puppy training. Positive reinforcement is rewarding your dog for a job well done. That reward should be both verbal and tangible. The tangible reward is a treat such as a small piece of hot dog. If teaching come or here, you reward the pup each time he comes to you. The pup associates his response with the reward (cause and affect). You’ve reinforced that response in a positive manner. You do not punish him when he doesn’t come; you simply repeat the drill.

Positive reinforcement for a job well done is used in almost all command training, i.e., sit, stay, come, heel, fetch, whoa, etc. All of these commands center around “control” and a puppy should be taught them in the first six months.

The amateur trainer often misunderstands negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is not a punishment. Negative reinforcement simply means that the affect comes before the cause. The trainer/handler delivers a negative condition to the dog. When the dog responds in the correct manner to a command, the negative condition is removed. With negative reinforcement, the dog associates the negative condition with a positive result if he performs correctly. A simple example would be a choke collar. The dog is pulling but being choked which is a negative condition. When the dog stops pulling, he realizes that the negative condition has been removed. With an e-collar, you provide a negative condition with a very light stimulation and continue that stimulation until the dog performs correctly. I’ll repeat, however, avoid using e-collars on pups.

Negative reinforcement isn’t always about physical annoyance or discomfort. An example would be the check-cord. The trainer/handler has his pupil on a check-cord and then an assistant plants a bird and the young dog locates and points. The assistant flushes the bird and the young pupil breaks point and wants to chase. Of course, he’s restrained by the check-cord. For the dog, that’s a negative condition. That negative condition (the check cord) won’t be removed until he remains steady with the flush.

For puppy owners new to training, always think “association”. Think about the cause and affect of your actions. It’s much easier to teach a pup the correct way rather than correct a pup from a bad habit.