What is Reinforcement in Dog Training?
Reinforcement is anything which strengthens a dogs behaviour or increases the frequency of a behaviour occurring. What is reinforcing varies from dog to dog as it depends what that individual dog find rewarding. For some it may be food, toys, affection or even just verbal praise or eye contact.
If all the dogs resources are given for free (fed from a bowl twice a day, given lots of affection, constantly talked to or touched, toys scattered around and available all the time then there is little motivation to work for these items and it may be difficult to use these items as reinforcers/rewards for that dog. When these items are removed from the dog unless it works their value increases significantly and suddenly you will notice the dog is eager to please in order to receive them.
Why Use Reinforcement in Dog Training?
Dogs are quite simple minded, if a behaviour produces a desirable outcome they will repeat the behaviour. If a behaviour produces an undesirable outcome they will not repeat the beahviour. Therefore, if you training a dog it is important there is a method able to be used to communicate to the dog the behaviour they are offering you is correct and desirable. In doing this the dog is more likely to continue offering the desirable behaviour as it is then rewarded.
If reinforcement is never used when training a dog, so the dog is never told which behaviour is correct, and punishment or correction is the only method used, so the dog is told what not to do, the dog is only being given part of the story. This makes it very difficult for the dog to work out what is required of it. This will create confusion and lead to a dog who stops trying or working as there is no desirable outcome.
How to Reinforce in Dog Training
Firstly work out what it is that is reinforcing for your dog, for most dogs it will be food, toys or affection. Limit the availability of these items to the dog. So there is all of a sudden no free food in a bowl twice a day, this food is placed in a bowl on the bench or in a treat pouch at the beginning of each day. When the dog performs a desirable behaviour it is rewarded with a piece of food. As one daily allowance of food is quite a few pieces of kibble there are many training opportunities in that bowl!
If at the end of the day there is any food left, again do not allow this to be a "free" meal. The dog can continue to work for it. By throwing the food on the back lawn the dog must 'hunt/search' for it or put the food in a puzzle toy.
Remember work does not have to be the usual formal obedience training session that most people think of, it may be your dog waits at a boundary, sits quietly in its crate/bed, shows calm behaviour, walks nicely on a loose lead or doesn't bark at the door when a visitor arrives. What you consider work will vary from person to person depending on the requirements you have for your dog at that time. Dog training should not be something you have to make time to do in your day, it is a lifestyle. Similar to parenting dog training doesn't happen for just ten minutes a day, but is constant.
Remember reinforcement is not only highly effective at reinforcing behaviours which humans find desirable, it is also highly effective in reinforcing the not so desirable behaviours. Before interacting with your dog you should always consider if the action the dog is performing or the state of mind the dog is in at the time is something you want it to repeat, if not is your response reinforcing that behaviour!?