You’ve probably heard expressions like “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” and every culture has their own version. In Spanish, the saying is “Logras más con una sonrisa que con una paliza,” which in English literally means “You achieve more with a smile than with a beating.”
What all of these proverbs basically mean is “You get more if you’re nice than if you’re mean.” Are the proverbs true? Well, that all depends.
It depends on who or what you’re trying to get something from. And it’s true — you will get more from being nice than mean from most people, and most dogs. Give your children rewards if they do something instead of timeouts if they don’t, and you’ll probably see positive results. Give your dogs treats instead of punishments, they’ll listen to you.
But it’s not true for some people, and these are the ones who wind up locked in prison because they cannot be nice to other humans — they don’t even know how to be. We call people like this sociopaths or psychopaths.
The same is also true of some dogs, which get labeled aggressive or “red zone” because it’s not safe to have them around other animals or people. These are the kind of dogs that tend to wind up with me, and these are also the kind of dogs that positive reinforcement will not work on — at first.
A red zone dog is only interested in escalating the attack and nothing else. Give a dog like that positive reinforcement, and it owns you. In these cases, you can only change the behavior by teaching the dog that it will always have a negative result. By using negative reinforcement like blocking, redirection, or leash corrections, the dog can eventually be brought to a place where positive reinforcement will work.
But you cannot stop aggression with praise and a cookie, just like you can’t stop a mugger from robbing people by smiling and handing over your wallet. In both cases, you’re just saying, “Acting like this gets you what you want, so keep doing it.”
However, positive reinforcement does have its place, and it can be a very powerful tool for training balanced dogs and teaching them the rules, boundaries, and limitations. Remember: dogs want their pack leaders (human and canine) to tell them how to behave and what they can or cannot do. They also love to earn our affection by working for it. Your dog is just as happy to learn that new trick as you are to teach it.
This is where discipline comes into the picture, but you have to remember that discipline is not a negative thing. A lot of people hear the word and assume that it means punishment, but it doesn’t. It’s related to the word “disciple,” which just means “follower.” You wouldn’t consider it punishment to make sure that your kids do their chores and homework, and it’s not punishment to teach your dog the rules.
Where people get into trouble, though, is in using positive reinforcement without realizing it, and they do it by showing a dog affection when it is not in a calm, submissive state.
Does your dog jump on people excitedly when they come into the house? Then you’ve probably unintentionally taught your dog to do this by immediately giving her attention instead of ignoring her until she calms down.
Have you ever tried to stop your dog from barking by petting it and saying “It’s okay” or by picking him up? What you’ve really told your dog is “Keep barking because I want you to.”
Imagine how our children would turn out if we rewarded them every time they misbehaved. “You scribbled in crayon all over the walls, so we’re getting you a new X-Box.” That kind of parenting makes no sense, and yet we accidentally do that with our dogs all the time.
Positive reinforcement definitely has its place, and it is part of my fulfillment formula of exercise, discipline, and affection. But until a dog is calm and disciplined, you’re actually doing more harm than good if you give the positive reinforcement of affection.
Dogs have to earn this and they want to earn it. It’s our job to make sure that we’re not letting them take any shortcuts to get affection. You and your dogs will be much happier that way.
Stay calm, and be positive!
Treats, toys, affection, what else? Tell us in the comments what are your favorite ways of rewarding your dog during training.