Most training revolves around giving the dog consequences for his behavior, in the hope of influencing the behavior the dog will exhibit in the future. Operant conditioning defines four types of consequences:
Positive reinforcement adds something to the situation to increase the chance of the behavior being exhibited again (for example, giving a dog a treat when he sits).
Negative reinforcement removes something from the situation to increase the chance of the behavior being exhibited again (for example, releasing the tension on an uncomfortable training collar when the dog stops pulling on the leash).
Positive punishment adds something to the situation to decrease the chance of the behavior being exhibited again (for example, hitting a dog to make it stop barking).
Negative punishment removes something from the situation to decrease the chance of the behavior being exhibited again (for example, walking away from a dog who jumps up).
Modern trainers say that they use “positive training methods”, which is a different meaning of the word “positive” from that in operant conditioning. “Positive training methods” means preferring the use of reward-based training to increase good behavior over that of physical punishment to decrease bad behavior.
However, a good trainer understands all four methods, whether or not she can put operant-conditioning terminology to them, and applies them as appropriate for the dog, the breed, the handler, and the situation.
Positive reinforcements can be anything that the dog finds rewarding – special food treats, the chance to play with a tug toy, social interaction with other dogs, or the owners attention. The more rewarding a dog finds a particular reinforcement, the more work he will be prepared to do in order to obtain the reinforcement.
Some trainers go through a process of teaching a puppy to strongly desire a particular toy, in order to make the toy a more powerful positive reinforcement for good behavior. This process is called “building prey drive”, and is commonly used in the training of Narcotics Detection and Police Service dogs. The goal is to produce a dog who will work independently for long periods of time.
It is important that the dog is not “bribed” to perform. In dog training, the term “bribery” means that the dog is aware of the presence of the reward before he is asked to complete the command. Experienced trainers will hide the reward from the dog, and only produce the reward once the dog has already complied with the command. The goal is to produce a dog who will perform even on occasions that the handler has no reward to offer, since the dog’s training has taught him that the handler may have a reward even if the dog cannot see it.
“Positive punishment” is probably the consequence that is least used by modern dog trainers, as it must be used very carefully. A dog is generally only given this type of punishment if it is willfully disobeying the owner. Punishing a dog who does not understand what is being asked of him is not only unfair to the dog, but can make the dog a fearful or unwilling worker.
Punishments are administered only as appropriate for the dog’s personality, age, and experience. A sharp No works for many dogs, but some dogs even show signs of fear or anxiety with harsh verbal corrections. On the other hand, certain dogs with ‘harder’ temperaments may ignore a verbal reprimand, and may work best if the reprimand is coupled with a physical punishment such as a quick tug on a training collar. Trainers generally advise keeping hand contact with the dog to positive interactions; if hands are used to threaten or hurt, some dogs may begin to behave defensively when stroked or handled.
Keeping a puppy on a leash in challenging situations or in his crate or pen when not closely supervised prevents the puppy from getting into situations that might otherwise invite an owner’s harsh reaction (such as chewing up a favorite pair of shoes).