"I tried positive reinforcement, but it didn't work."

"I tried positive reinforcement, but it didn't work"

From time to time, I will come across someone who announces, in a dismissive tone, that they tried positive reinforcement, but that it didn't work. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for shaping behaviour, so when I hear this, I want to know more. Positive Reinforcement isn’t just chucking treats at your dog and its success can be influenced by a number of things. Below are just some of the reasons why positive reinforcement may not have worked in their particular situation:

Inconsistent use of the Marker: A Marker lets our dog know when they got something right and promises something good is on its way. The marker is always paired with a reinforcer (i.e. something the dog likes, such as food). If you use the marker but don’t always pair it with a reinforcer it will lose its effectiveness.

Poor Timing: Timing is crucial when using a marker. The marker is used at the precise moment the behaviour you want happens. If you wait until after the moment has passed before marking the behaviour, you could be marking your dog walking away from you instead of coming to you.

Inadequate rewards: The key thing to remember here is that it is the dog that decides what is reinforcing, not you. The environment will also have an impact on how effective the rewards you use are. Kibble might work fine in the kitchen but that is unlikely to be sufficient motivation when your dog is out in the woods enjoying the scents of the countryside.

Not enough reinforcement: Sometimes, particularly in the initial stages of training, your dog will require more frequent and consistent reinforcement. If the reinforcement is too infrequent, then your dog may not make the connection between their actions and the reward.

Lack of clarity in expectations: It’s important that you have a clear picture of what you are about to train before you start. If you are not clear about what you expect, how on earth will you or your dog know if they’re getting it right.

Underlying issues: There may be underlying reasons for the behaviour that needs to be addressed. Food rewards, toys or games are unlikely to be reinforcing to a dog that is in pain or feeling poorly. When we see sudden changes in behaviour our first port of call should be to the vet to rule out pain or illness as a cause.

Competing reinforcers: Sometimes, there might be more powerful reinforcers at play, making the provided rewards less appealing in comparison. This might mean that we need to find a more valuable reward or that we need to do some more training in a less distracting environment. Sometimes, however, if we're smart, we can use the distractions as rewards.

Need for varied reinforcement: Over time, the effectiveness of a specific reward is likely to decrease if that’s the only reward you use. Imagine having your favourite dish for dinner every night for the rest of your life – you’d soon lose your enthusiasm for it. Using a variety of different rewards will help to keep your dog’s interest and motivation.

Skill acquisition: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again “Advance training is a strategic investment in preparedness”. If you have never taken the time to teach your dog how to settle on a mat at home, you can’t expect them to do it successfully on cue in a distracting environment.

In summary, when training using positive reinforcement, it is essential to reassess the reinforcement strategy, make adjustments based on your dog's responses, and consider seeking guidance from a certified Trainer or Behaviourist. Each dog is unique, and what works for one might not work for

another. Tailoring the approach to your dog's needs and preferences is key to achieving success with positive reinforcement.


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