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What exactly is 'positive' reinforcement training?

The secret to all good animal training is to understand that behaviours that are rewarded are likely to happen again. The rewards develop and strengthen the behaviour - they 'reinforce' the behaviour.  Dolphins have been taught this way for years and modern trainers now realise that dogs trained the same way will give equally fantastic performances.

In the late 1930s Professor B. F. Skinner from Harvard discovered that rats and all animals can be taught to perform a series of complex operations voluntarily in order to obtain the benefit of obtaining an essential need such as a piece of food.

Skinner's views that there was no need for punishment in training any kind of animal were at first ridiculed and/or ignored. However, over the years, many people seeking to improve human and animal education have increasingly understood his ideas and adopted his methods.

Positive reinforcement for training dogs was first used in Australia in 1976 at the Kintala Dog club in Melbourne founded by the late David Weston.

In 1966 he had acquired a Miniature Schnauzer puppy that he took aged 6 months to a nearby dog obedience club. He says, "during the next few years I worked hard at learning and applying the knowledge which the club had to offer, and as a consequence I became a Kennel Control Council certified instructor, a full panel obedience judge and President of the Club. During this period 'Fred'  gained his Companion Dog (C.D.) and Companion Dog Excellent (C.D.X) titles.

However, I became increasingly disenchanted with the method of training used by dog clubs in general. Much of the knowledge that supported their method appeared to be based on archaic principles and involve a great deal of punishment and compulsion. Training essentially consisted of jerking the dog in the neck with a choker chain, physically pressuring it into position, and growling at the dog using commanding voice tones.

When the dog responded in a way that was favourable to the handler it was rewarded with a pat and verbal praise. Many of the responses generated were accompanied by a strong fear reaction in the dogs, as could be seen by the lowering of their ears and tails, and an unwillingness to return voluntarily to the handlers''.  ( 'Dog Training , the Gentle Modern Method '(1990) - page 9)

At Kintala Dog Club traditional training methods with check chains, physical force and manipulation were totally banned by David Weston.  More than 30 years later his gentle modern methods are still used there exclusively.

Nowadays many other dog clubs and organisations such as the RSPCA also prohibit the use of check chains. They only use positive reinforcement methods where:

* A new behaviour is broken down into several individual parts, each of which is learned before taking the next step.
* The dog is set up to succeed at every step.
* Any improvement is rewarded - at first usually with food. Food is essential to survival and therefore a much more powerful motivator than a non-essential such as a pat or praise.
* A poor behaviour is simply ignored. The punishment is "not rewarding" and the habit soon extinguishes - as with humans where a poor joke is not rewarded with laughter.
* Once a desired behaviour is learned, food is almost phased out and given on a random basis once in a while. It is replaced with other reinforcements such as praise, toys or life rewards doing whatever the dog most wants to do next.
* The dog realises that it has the ability to affect what happens to it. It will be paid, or reinforced, in return for working correctly.
* Training becomes a win/win situation with both sides co-operating with each other rather than it being an adversarial war of wills. 

Many dog trainers have seen the incredible results of positive reinforcement training with the family pet dog, as well as in dog sports and competitions. Reward based reinforcement training makes rapid progress and is fun for both teacher and student. These trainers have welcomed the accelerated learning curve, as well as the vitality and initiative to experiment, that comes when animals learn because they want to and not because they have to

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