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Why the positive reinforcement approach is failing you and your dog

Whilst correction-based training was once the norm, thankfully things have changed as new studies continue to emerge revealing the damaging consequences this approach can create.


It warms the cockles of my heart with every dog parent I speak to, to know that the vast majority of us are trying to embrace using positive reinforcement to teach our dogs and are enjoying more rewarding and trusting relationships with our best friends.


But what if the positive reinforcement approach isn’t working for you and your dog???


By the time most people come to me for help with their Spaniels and Retrievers, they have been through puppy classes and often worked with other reward-based trainers but are still not seeing the progress they would like.


Sometimes pet parents are just expecting way too much too soon from their young dogs, but often, it’s more than that.


If you have a Gundog breed in the great outdoors, eating a treat is not going to be high on their list of priorities.


Because treats are what we consider to be a “reward”, we assume that they should effectively reinforce behaviour, but…


...it just doesn’t work like that.


There is just one thing that determines whether a “reward” is an effective reinforcer of behaviour and that is, of course, the dog.


And just to make your training journey a little more complicated…


…what your dog considers to be an effective reinforcer one day, will change on other days and in other contexts depending on lots of things such as the environment, other motivators, learning experience, and their emotional state.


Teaching and reinforcing behaviour by popping a treat into their mouth in the living room, is unlikely to have the same effect with your Gundog breed in the countryside. We need to be much more creative with these dogs.


Don’t get me wrong, I use a lot of food in my training and value it as an incredibly powerful tool for teaching dogs, but to make the best progress possible and experience the best relationship with our dogs, it’s important that we do not limit ourselves to only popping treats into their mouth.


There are currently more online training resources and local dog trainers at our disposal than ever before.


Both of these things are perfectly capable of destroying an owner’s determination to use positive reinforcement to teach their dog and leave them feeling that the only option is to use corrections and punishment, if the advice received takes the “one size fits all” approach.


The definition of positive reinforcement is to make a behaviour more likely to happen again in the future by adding something pleasant as a consequence of that behaviour.


So, if a behaviour isn’t becoming stronger and more frequent, that’s not because positive reinforcement doesn’t work, it’s because positive reinforcement is not happening.


Sometimes it's down to an unsuitable learning environment so neither you or your dog stand a chance, but often it’s because the “reward” is just not an effective reinforcer in that moment, in that context, with that dog.


Positive reinforcement is so much more than feeding a treat.


We can make those treats come to life so that it's about more than just eating. We can use toys, play, praise, affection, movement, favourite activities, the environment…whatever the dog loves, we need to learn how to include it in our training.


Until we know what are reinforcers for our dogs and how we can use these in our training, how can we reinforce behaviour?


If you'd like to learn how to be more creative when teaching your Gundog breed and how you can enjoy a more rewarding and cooperative relationship together, take a look at the next Pet Gundog Life Skills courses in Hurworth , or private 1-1 training in Hurworth or Richmond.


You can schedule a free 15-minute call to chat about your dog and your training options here.

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