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Positive reinforcement is a widely accepted and effective method for addressing behaviour problems in pets.
What is positive reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is a technique used in behaviourism, a theory of psychology, to increase the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated by adding a desirable consequence or reward after the behaviour occurs. An example of this would be giving a child a reward such as a cookie after they clean their room. The child learns that cleaning their room leads to getting something ‘great’, so they are more likely to clean their room again in the future. Another example would be an employee receiving a bonus for meeting their sales quota. The employee learns that meeting their sales quota leads to a bonus, so they are more likely to work harder to meet their sales quota in the future.
This method focuses on rewarding desired behaviours, rather than punishing undesired behaviours, such as shouting “No” or spraying water/pressurised air at the dog if he was jumping up or the cat was scratching at furniture.
Using positive reinforcement-based handling methods not only strengthens the desired behaviour, such as teaching all our dog to keep all four paws on the floor or our cat to scratch appropriate items (enabling these natural behaviours to still be exhibited but in an acceptable way to the owner), but it also improves the overall relationship between the pet and owner – and what could be more important than that?
There are lots of reasons why we should focus on using up to date science-based reinforcement methods to help our pets learn and below highlight some of these…
3 reasons why we should train using reinforcement-based methods
- Positive reinforcement has been shown to be more effective than punishment in a number of studies. For example, a study conducted by the University of Portsmouth found that dogs trained using positive reinforcement were more eager to participate in training and had better overall behaviour than those trained using punishment-based methods (Bradshaw, et al., 2009). Another study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that cats trained using positive reinforcement were more likely to perform the desired behaviour and had better owner satisfaction compared to those trained using punishment-based methods (Herron, et al., 2009).
- Positive reinforcement also has the added benefit of reducing fear and aggression in pets. A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found that dogs who were trained using positive reinforcement were less likely to show fear or aggression compared to those trained using punishment-based methods (Polsky, et al., 2001).
- In addition to being more effective, positive reinforcement also promotes a more positive relationship between the pet and owner. A study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that dogs trained using positive reinforcement had a stronger bond with their owners compared to those trained using punishment-based methods (Herron, et al., 2009).
It’s important to note that positive reinforcement should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution. Some pets may require a combination of positive reinforcement and other training methods, such as desensitisation or counterconditioning, to address certain behaviour problems.
When looking for the right support for you and your pet, do check out the list of practitioners registered under the Animal Behaviour & Training Council’s website at www.abtc.org.uk. That way you can be assured the listed animal training instructors and behaviour therapists are using the most up-to-date methods, have been rigorously assessed, and are working to a set of standards within their registered role.
- Bradshaw, J. W., Blackwell, E. J., & Casey, R. A. (2009). Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4(3), 135-144.
- Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., & Reisner, I. R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(1), 47-54.
- Polsky, R., & Dunbar, I. (2001). Effects of punishment on the behavior of dogs in a rescue shelter. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 4(3), 245-255.