Dog Owners: Reinforcing and Learning
By Renea Dahms
Understanding reinforcement in dog training
Reinforcement is any consequence that increases the likelihood a behavior will repeat in the future.
Reinforcement must be something your dog actually perceives as worth gaining enough to want to work for it. What may seem reinforcing to you may not be to your dog. For example dogs as a general rule do not like to be hugged or in some cases petted or touched at all, so the use of petting such a dog for reinforcement would not work, even though you find it enjoyable.
The most commonly used form of reinforcement is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is adding something that increases the likelihood a behavior will be performed again in the future. When your dog comes to you, you give him a treat or play a game with him, the likelihood of him coming to you in the future goes up (assuming he likes the treat or game).
Your job is to find those reinforcers your dog will happily work for. Reinforcement has gotten a bad rap as being all about cookie training, which is simply not true, it is about finding what is reinforcing enough to your dog to make him want to work for it.
Learning in dogs
All dogs have the capacity to learn and become great companions. Certain breeds of dogs are generally easier to train as they are more biddable (willing to work with you), while other breeds are generally bred to be more independent thinking, and others yet are simply hard to motivate to do anything; and this is not even consistent within a breed itself.
Be sure to understand your breed (or the mixes therein) to better understand his thinking. Golden Retrievers are very biddable and bred to work with people (and have stuff in their mouths) while Dalmatians were bred to be independent thinking/working dogs that chased away intruders and were to guard their humans property, but each dog is an individual with his own traits and learning curve.
Age and length of ownership (and location) are also factors to your dog’s learning curve. A new puppy is not only sucking up stimuli like a sponge, but has no behavior history so is ripe for learning appropriate behaviors right from the start. A dog new to your home is also more likely to be receptive to learning what is appropriate in his new setting, but this must be done from the start. Trying to set rules mid-game just will not work well, you need to begin before old behavior patterns begin in his new location.
Your dog may not learn in an organized and orderly fashion. Learning does not happen in a straight line, but rather in spurts and setbacks. You will also find your dog go through testing periods. Sometimes your dog can seemingly forget what he has learned, add his own creative flair or just plain lose interest in performing a well worked behavior. Not only is this normal, but it can be a sign your dog is ready to learn more complex behaviors.