I’ve been thinking about positive reinforcement and how learning to train dogs primarily by reinforcing the behavior I want (and ignoring or redirecting behavior I don’t want) has literally changed my life.

Becoming a positive trainer (especially for those of us who started out with traditional methods using punishments and rewards, choke collars, and the like) requires a paradigm shift. Positive training isn’t just a different way of training — it’s a different way of looking at the entire training process, at the dog/human relationship, and at the world itself.

With traditional training, the trainer tends to focus on what the dog does wrong, and then does something to correct that (a leash pop, a “No!” followed by repeating the command, physically shaping the dog into the desired position by manipulating him with hands, or whatever). Of course the dog is rewarded for doing the right thing, but the traditional training methods tend to put the trainer and the dog into conflict. “Must” and “should” and “have to” are pervasive concepts — the dog must do what I tell him to do when I tell him to do it, or there will be unpleasant consequences.

With positive training, the focus is on what the dog does right. The “right” behavior is reinforced, “wrong” behavior is ignored. When a dog makes a mistake, the positive trainer takes that as an opportunity to further analyze how she has set up the training exercise to improve her ability to communicate to the dog what she desires, to make that desired behavior easy for the dog, and to motivate the dog to perform that behavior. A mistake is a learning opportunity for both dog and trainer, rather than something to be avoided or dreaded.

The trainer makes some adjustments to the environment, or her communication methods, or her timing of marker signals and reinforcements, and tries again. Successes are celebrated (reinforced), while “failures” are simply small bumps in the roadway or even necessary learning experiences that trainer and dog take in stride while moving on.

A funny thing happens when the trainer starts focusing on what goes right — the things she is going to click and reinforce — and ignores what doesn’t go right:

She starts seeing the good far more than the “bad.” Training sessions go from possible sources of frustration and anger and disappoinment (”My dog did this wrong, and that wrong, and the other thing wrong!”) to enjoyable interchanges between two partners and friends (”yes! That’s what I’d like you to do, thank you!”)

If she’s a truly positive trainer, the trainer will start employing positive reinforcement techniques on herself as well as her dog. A mis-timed click isn’t met with an “aarrrgghh! I clicked too late!” — it’s just ignored and the next click is timed better, with an internal celebration (”yes! that was good timing!”) while rewarding the dog.

Sometimes that simple shift in focus from paying attention to bad things to looking for good things changes everything. Not only does the trainer see more good than bad in her dog, the trainer starts focusing on the positive aspects of just about everything and everyone in her life: spouse, co-workers, strangers, whatever. Just a slight shift in perception, and the whole world seems better!

Unfortunately, far too many “positive” trainers get stuck in the early stages of this paradigm shift. They apply their principles to their dog training, but it stops there. Or perhaps they become more encouraging to themselves as well, but they continue in their old habits of responding negatively to things they don’t like outside of their interactions with their dog. I’ve seen this with professional trainers who are great with the dogs, but don’t use the same techniques of positive reinforcement and absence of punishment with their human students.

I also see this on email lists where “positive” trainers discuss training methods. When someone mentions something they disagree with, some “positive” trainers will practically jump down the poster’s throat in their efforts to convince the poster how “wrong” they are.

Email lists and online forums are actually great venues to practice positive reinforcement in your own life. With the partial anonymity that email lists provide, people may post things they wouldn’t say face to face. And the lack of social cues (tone of voice and body language) can lead to posts being misread and misunderstood. Thus are flamewars born….

To gain maximum benefit from your time spent on email lists and online forums, teach yourself to apply the positive training paradigm and philosophy to your email-list reading. Look for the “good” in the posts you read, and ignore the “bad.” If you feel the need to “correct” someone you’re corresponding with, do so gently, by starting out with responding positively to any part of the person’s writing you can agree with. Then continue on with interruption and redirection and “no-reward markers” (”I respectfully disagree” is an example of a “no reward marker” in human conversation) rather than any overtly punishing response. Acknowledge the situation, take whatever good you can out of it, and move on.

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