The Benefits of Positive Reinforcement


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Imagine how you would feel if all you were told was: “This is wrong! Try again!” If you do not give any additional information what are the chances of the next trial being more successful? The chances of getting the next attempt “right” are pretty much close to zero.

I had a tutor once who was supposed to help me translate Latin texts. As soon as I was ready to translate my work, he would ask, “Are you absolutely sure this is going to be the correct answer?” And I would answer, “Well I am pretty sure, but I can’t be absolutely positive.” And so then he would tell me to be quiet until I was absolutely sure. Obviously not much was uttered in these sessions. I was pretty good at Latin and usually my answers were right, I never uttered a word because of the pressure.

Positive encouragement and a safe space to make mistakes makes a huge difference in the learning process.

In one of Karen Pryor’s books, she talks about meeting a couple of Labrador Retrievers who were perfectly behaved dogs. They had a history of aversive training and all initiative had been corrected out of them. They never did anything. Wonderful?

Frankly I don’t want my dogs to be too afraid to try something.

Dog Training with Trust & Encouragement

I recently encountered two other cases of dogs that had a history of aversive training and all initiative had been corrected out of them. Except they had been scared so badly that aside from becoming fearful to the point of being aggressive in certain situations, they did not even have the confidence to follow directions.

I felt particularly bad for one German Shepherd who came from a breeder who “trained” him for a year with a shock collar, a prong collar, and various other cruel means. The German Shepard was structurally damaged on top of being psychologically scarred.

I started to work on restoring his trust, if he ever had trust. The exercise was simple enough: I asked him to go settle on his bed. I pointed, guided and rewarded him each time. Usually a dog can figure this game out after a few reps, but not this dog. It wasn’t because he didn’t understand; it was because he was too afraid to take the leap of faith and risk being punished. Finally after a couple of sessions he mustered up enough courage to do it! It was a wonderful breakthrough for him and we celebrated.

My fervent wish is to raise awareness of how much psychological damage is done by baseless physical and emotional abuse. I recall a conversation with someone who told me, “I used the shock collar and it worked for a while, but now I cannot even touch my own dog and I am afraid of him.” That is major fallout.

We’ve learned about “punishment or correction” in theory, and the negative side effects, but to experience it first hand is far more troubling. Don’t let it come to that!

Elisabeth Weiss is a highly certified, experienced dog trainer in Manhattan, NYC. To learn more about dog training services, contact us by phone at (917) 783-1473 or our contact form.

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