There's been a lot of discussion lately on my Facebook and Twitter feeds regarding the power of positive training versus punishment and dominance-based training. Most of you know where I stand on this issue, and luckily, modern behavioral science has effectively ended the debate.
The decision to use force-free, reward-based training methods when working with dogs is not simply a case of doing something that makes you feel good or seems like the right thing to do. In reality, science has shown us for some time that using positive reinforcement is more effective, longer-lasting and safer than the employment of physical or emotional punishment, yet the popular myths about 'alpha dogs' and 'pack leadership' still abound thanks largely to widely spread misinformation. What's more, for most of us, our definition of humane treatment of animals sits much more comfortably with positive training than dominance-based methods.
One of the most oft-repeated myths we hear from opponents of modern dog training philosophies is that using food in training is tantamount to bribery, and that our dogs should simply want to work for us because they like and respect us. Goodness me.
I've tackled this pile of baloney once and for all in my recent article which you can read in its entirety here
Many who discount the power of positive training often frown upon the use of food in training and claim that it is tantamount to bribery. Having heard this argument from traditional trainers ad nauseum, I have finally determined that it is usually motivated by one of two things (or maybe both):
1. A desire to have the dog ‘work’ for his food simply because it’s what we want, and given that we’re smarter, stronger and in charge, that should be enough,
2. An unnecessary and unfounded fear that once the food stops flowing, the unwanted behaviors will return.
As for the first point, there’s not much we can do with someone who feels the need to dominate such an eager-to-please species, so we’ll leave that one for their human psychologists. And while the second point above is a more understandable concern, this frequently-repeated myth not only completely disregards the scientific fact that food literally alters an animal’s brain chemistry, but also suggests a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the basic scientific principles of how reward-based training (conditioning) works.
To truly comprehend why food is so powerful, you must first understand the influence it has on the dog’s brain. Food has the power to not only enhance a dog’s ability to learn but also helps a dog overcome fear or anxiety by raising the levels of dopamine in the brain and stimulating the desire to seek or move towards the food reward. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-driven learning and helps regulate movement and emotional responses. If a dog is presented with food before he reaches a high stress level in the presence of a stimulus that scares him, a positive emotional response occurs. There are circuits in the dog’s brain that encourage seeking or hunting behavior and circuits that elicit the fear response. When you present food to your dog you turn on his seeker system, effectively turning off the fear. This is one reason why using food for activities such as scent work is so valuable for fearful/aggressive dogs. Turning on the thinking brain deactivates the emotional brain, enhancing a dog’s attentiveness with positive motivation and allowing him to move into a calmer state where learning can take place. Therefore, because food is incompatible with fear, using food treats for teaching is incredibly valuable, especially when it comes to modifying a dog’s anxiety and stress.
The food that is used to motivate your dog to learn must be of high value to him until he is responding reliably. Once this has been achieved, the high-value food should only be used intermittently, meaning that your dog doesn’t always get rewarded with food every time he responds to a cue, but with an alternate reward that might be of lesser value to him, such as praise. Because the dog never knows when a treat is coming he will continue to respond in anticipation that food will appear again in the future.
Such intermittent reinforcement actually makes your dog respond faster and more reliably because this learning is based on the same concept that makes a casino slot machine so addictive. It would be wonderful if a slot machine gave out money every time you played it, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen. The potential…… read more