What is force-free, positive reinforcement training?
Positive reinforcement is a method of training that utilizes rewarding a dog (or another animal) for desired behaviors. Force-free means that there is no use of physical (or mental) coercion, intimidation, or painful punishment to “correct” unwanted behavior.
The front-line treatment for unwanted behavior is to work on training behaviors we DO want a dog to do instead of the unwanted behavior. We want to teach dogs how to do something and consistently reward them for good behavior. In tandem with this, unwanted behavior is also managed through redirection (if possible), removal of attention and delay of reward, and by avoiding putting dogs in situations in which they cannot succeed.
Animals learn best when they are set up to succeed. Practicing in a controlled environment in which mistakes can be avoided and slowly building up to more and more difficult situations ensures that there is no room for confusion, reinforcement of failure, or excessive stress on the animal. This is sometimes known as “errorless learning”.
A perfect example is that of potty training a puppy. If from day one, you are perfectly diligent and are always able to get the puppy to a place where they can have a successful bathroom experience and properly reward, they will never have the (very fun!) experience of peeing on carpet, towels, or somewhere else they are not supposed to. They will, from the very start, always know that they are supposed to pee on their pads or outside, so peeing anywhere else does not even cross their mind.
Of course in the real world, this is very difficult to achieve, but it is possible to get very close! I have seen several new puppy owners who have had less than a handful of accidents in the first months because of proper errorless training!
Removal of attention and delay of reward are boundaries. Attention is the biggest reinforcer a dog has, and any kind of attention, “good or bad”, is reinforcing. If the front-line training and redirection are not effective at a given time or situation, unwanted behavior is managed with the removal of attention. A puppy that nips gets a 60-second time-out in its playpen. A dog that barks at you for your dinner results in you leaving the room and ignoring them until they are calm. There are many safe and effective ways to remove attention, and these all create necessary boundaries when working with an animal.
Of course, the best way to work with an animal is to LISTEN TO THEM! Dogs are particularly expressive as to how they are feeling with their body language, and somebody who is acutely tuned into that can tell what the appropriate action is for a given situation. Knowing how a dog is feeling is crucial to proper training. All the techniques in the world won’t help if they are not applied properly by somebody who listens!
You might also be interested in: Is positive reinforcement training enough for my difficult dog?