I have been working in this field for a long time now and yet, I still hear stuff that makes me think “What the heck!”
I admit, I am a rewards trainer. What does this mean? Basically dogs learn what behaviours to do more often because the dog gets rewarded for those behaviours. A reward can be treats, toys, attention, praise, a smile, touch, ANYTHING your dog loves.
I sometimes work with clients who “tried rewards but it didn’t work, so I saw a dog trainer who told me I was being too soft. But now my dog is showing aggression to other dogs, so my vet told me to see you.”
This prompts a question from me “What problem did you see the dog trainer for and what methods did the dog trainer suggest?”
“My dog was barking and I tried rewards but it didn’t work!”. Hmmm! How can you use rewards in barking? “Well I tried to ignore it, but that didn’t work”. Ignoring a behaviour is not rewarding it. Doing nothing is an option, but not usually a very useful one. We need to look at WHY the dog is barking. Boredom? Fear? Frustration? Protection? Panic? Breed trait? Attention seeking?
When using rewards training a dog you need to be skillful. Firstly, you need to understand the motivation to perform a behaviour and then you need to decide how to deal with it.
I am getting tired of hearing that people tried rewards and it didn’t work so they resorted to using a trainer who suggested a shock collar and that fixed the problem! IT DOESN’T FIX THE PROBLEM. IT JUST STOPS THE DOG EXPRESSING THAT HE HAS A PROBLEM BECAUSE THESE EXPRESSIONS GET PUNISHED! THEN THE DOG BLOWS A FUSE MUCH LATER AND SOMEONE GETS HURT. This is why they end up seeing me several months later. It didn't work. Dogs associate whatever they see at the time the shock is delivered with the shock. This can be children, dogs etc. This can lead to dogs later showing them aggression as they feel the dog/child caused the shock.
If you have tried using rewards and it didn’t work, please see a qualified or experienced positive dog trainer. Not someone who just calls themselves a dog trainer because they can temporarily suppress behaviour through punishment. Rewards DO work if you understand what is being rewarded, and that is harder to do than you might think.
What I can say for sure doesn’t work, is permissiveness. This is when a dog is allowed to do what he wants to do without any guidance. This dog will find a behaviour that he enjoys and do more of it. It is likely that this behaviour will annoy the owner, so the owner tries to stop the behaviour, thereby rewarding it with attention. Dogs need to be educated to do behaviours that we find acceptable and that they enjoy; then we need to seek out opportunities to reinforce these behaviours. This way, we get dogs that behave well and are smart because they are not afraid to try new things. If you don’t like a new behaviour, then make sure your dog is not rewarded for it. This is technically punishment. For example, you have a dog that counter surfs. Each time he jumps on your side board he finds a sandwich, so the sandwich is the reward. So, he keeps jumping up hoping to find a sandwich. It is your job to make sure he NEVER finds anything worth his while on the sideboard. This way he gets disappointed and gives up trying this behaviour because it is never rewarded. You could also teach the dog to go to a specific place in the kitchen. Our dog sits on a mat when in the kitchen. If she is sitting on the mat, she can’t be counter surfing. I have taught her a behaviour that is incompatible with counter surfing. She has never even once counter surfed.
So, please don’t be fooled by those who say rewards don’t work, they just lack the skill to help you at this time. Sure, permissiveness is a problem, but this is not the same as reward/positive reinforcement training. Rewards do work if used with intelligence. They do work if you understand dogs. They do work if you understand the motivation behind a behaviour; and they work without any adverse side effects. You simply can’t go wrong when using rewards in dog training as long as your DOG finds it rewarding. So, if you feel rewards don’t work, or they haven’t worked for your dog so far, book an appointment with an accredited dog trainer listed on the Animal Behaviourists and Trainers Council (this is the regulatory body for accredited dog trainers) website who uses rewards/positive reinforcement and watch them work their magic on you and your dog! You will become a true believer!