From the foundation of operant conditioning to the idea of mistake avoidance through positive reinforcement training
I have a problem and, as with many of the problems in my life, it has to do with dogs. Specifically with Spinoni. I love their drooly faces, friendly dispositions, and hunting ability delivered with style. That said, their body language can be subtle and they can be stubborn. This got me in a bit of a pickle while trying to force fetch Windy City’s Cattle Kate. Simply put, the traditional force fetch process was not working. So I called my mentor, Jonathan Paranjothy, who has 30-plus years of experience training spinoni. After much banter and degradation, it was agreed that Jonathan would take Kate for a month to figure where I was going wrong.
At the end of that month Jonathan and I talked and we were both disappointed. Kate’s retrieving wasn’t improving—in fact, it was regressing. It seemed nothing would work. At that time, Jonathan was a self described “Old School Trainer” which refers to the idea that the default training method is rooted in negative reinforcement. In a moment of reflection, Jonathan explained a lesson his father taught him about training protection dogs. “Scott, my dad always told me you have to be open to what works. I think we need to step back and rethink this.”
I did. What I eventually landed on was a positive reinforcement training approach. At the time I did not understand the model, which I will describe below. I did understand that the techniques worked and worked fast. Once I switched to positive reinforcement, Kate’s retrieving went from complete avoidance to acceptable in a matter of days. It then went from acceptable to field reliable much faster than I had experienced with traditional force fetching other dogs.
Based on this experience, and many more experiences to follow, I became more interested in positive reinforcement training. To understand what positive reinforcement training is we need to understand some theory first. This will be a bit academic, but understanding this will give you the ability to grasp any training method or technique and will provide a great starting point to comprehend any possible advantages or disadvantages contained within. Basically, understanding these concepts will make you a better trainer without consideration to technique or methodology.
Understanding the theory of operant conditioning
To gain a complete understanding it is necessary to zoom out and take a look at dog training in a broader sense. Modern dog training is derived from the theory of Operant Conditioning researched by B.F. Skinner and his contemporaries starting in the early 1900s. This model has been used widely but I will attempt to keep it germane to dog training.
Positive and negative punishment
Skinner and his contemporaries set out to define a model that describes learning through the use of rewards and punishments. Punishment is a training technique used to reduce the likelihood of a behavior. A dog receives a punishment directly after the undesired behavior. There are two types of punishment, positive punishment and negative punishment.
Positive punishment is an adverse event that occurs directly after the behavior. A good example of this is an electric bark collar. The bark collar is a training aid that provides a positive punishment to reduce or eliminate unwanted barking. This is done by automatically giving the dog an electric shock directly after the collar detects a bark.
Negative punishment can be thought of as removing something the dog wants after an undesired behavior occurs. I have seen this used when training pointing dogs for steadiness on game. If, during the steadiness sequence, the dog breaks point the dog is not allowed to retrieve the shot bird. The dog is not given the implied reward (the retrieve) because the dog did not satisfactorily complete the steadiness sequence.
Reinforcement is a training technique used to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior. There are two types of reinforcement: negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement has two variants, escape and active avoidance. An example of escape is using an ear pinch during force fetch training. The dog is given a negative reinforcement (ear pinch) when the dog takes the training bumper, the ear pinch stops. To escape the stimulus of the ear pinch a dog must perform the desired behavior.
The other type of negative reinforcement is active avoidance. I have seen this method used when training a dog to go away from the handler—for example, when teaching a dog to cross a body of water to search and/or retrieve. An often used technique is utilizing the e-collar to “drive” the dog away from the handler into the water. The stimulus of the e-collar is given until the dog moves in the desired direction.
When describing negative reinforcement, I provided examples of escape and active avoidance. In one example the dog is escaping the ear pinch and in the other it is avoiding the e-collar stimulation. Considering negative reinforcement, it got me wondering if a dog might make the secondary association that the negative stimulation is coming from the handler, activity, or training context. If so, would the theories of escape and active avoidance apply directly to the handler, activity, or training context? This is exactly what Robert Milner posits in his book “Absolutely Positively Gundog Training.” Milner roots this idea in his real world experiences training search and rescue dogs and their rookie handlers after 9/11.
Finally, the last type of training is Positive Reinforcement. Positive reinforcement increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur by providing a positive stimulus directly after a desired behavior. An example of this is a method for teaching a puppy the sit command. You simply follow your puppy around until it naturally sits. When the dog sits you immediately provide it with a treat. Do this a few times and the dog will start sitting in your presence to get the treat. Next, you overlay the “sit” command as the dog sits, still providing the treat. Most dogs will associate the behavior and command with the treat remarkably quickly.
I believe the evidence is mounting that positive reinforcement training methods are more efficient in the training of the dog and handler. The reason for this efficiency is that when positive reinforcement training goes wrong, escape and/or active avoidance is not triggered. In other words there is a dramatically reduced chance of missteps between the handler-dog team. Jason Carter describes the dangers of a misstep using a negative reinforcement method in his article “Understanding Timing In Bird Dog Training.” Jason describes what happens when e-collar training goes wrong.
“In that moment, the handler unraveled nearly two years worth of work with the press of a button. It took five years before that dog eventually learned to trust decoys again. It had taken hundreds of hours of training to get to that point and within less than a second, all was dismantled. Negative experiences—especially with young dogs—can cut like a knife.”
Most hunting dog owners are not professional trainers and do not have the experience needed to properly utilize negative reinforcement training. They are going to have to gain that experience with their dog and all too often it goes dramatically wrong as Jason describes above. One could argue that the skill set needed to effectively train a dog with negative reinforcement is the exact same skill set needed to use positive reinforcement methods. I wholeheartedly agree with this. But, when positive reinforcement training goes wrong, training progression may slow but is not reversed. And, most importantly, the mental well being of the dog and handler is not negatively affected.
Based on my experiences, the experiences of professional trainers using positive reinforcement, logic and reason, I believe positive reinforcement training not only to be more efficient but also reduces the likelihood of mental harm to the dog. Should positive reinforcement methods be the default training methods for our communities’ clubs, professional trainers, and individual handlers?
I want to hear about your experiences. Have you incorporated positive reinforcement training? Do you think that I am completely misguided? Do you think that I couldn’t be more correct? I am especially interested in scientific evidence and real world experiences. Please comment below.
Scott Frasier is a Michigan-based freelance outdoors writer who has been wrapped in the tradition of hunting his whole life. A former police officer, Scott has been hands-on in a variety of dog training methods, from police canines to bird dogs, for more than a decade. When not writing, Scott can usually be found in the grouse woods, training dogs at a NAVHDA event, or helping his wife with their latest litter of Spinoni.