Sunday, January 24, 2010

You can't do behaviour modification if you don't know jack about it

You'd think that would be obvious, but it mustn't be, considering how many blogs I've read this week alone on the topic of "I'm going to train my dog with only positive reinforcement".

Well, first of all, that's not how dogs teach each other in the wild, so don't think you're doing your dog a favour. The only person who benefits from this little New Year's Resolution is you, because now you've created the appearance of a good excuse not to step outside of your little limp-wristed Oprah sentimentality for the sake of your dog.

Second, it's by definition impossible to do behaviour modification using only positive reinforcement. All you're doing is ignoring all the behaviours that aren't within the realm of positive reinforcement. Yay you!

For those who actually want to train their dog, not just make themselves feel all fuzzy and Care-Bear-esque, here is the actual bird's eye view of behaviour modification:

I do something or give somethingI stop doing something or remove something
to make you do something more oftenPositive reinforcementNegative reinforcement
to make you do something less oftenPunishmentExtinction

Let's have some examples.
  1. I give Tinky-Winky a treat whenever she executes the command "roll over." (Positive reinforcement)
  2. I stop giving corrections with the leash when she walks beside me nicely. (Negative reinforcement)
  3. I show teeth and growl at strange dogs when they try to jump on me. (Punishment)
  4. I stop petting a known dog if he starts trying to jump on me. (Extinction)
Is positive reinforcement effective? Of course it is. Is it sufficient? No it's not. You can only increase a behaviour with positive reinforcement, you cannot decrease one.

Unless of course you're using some specious word-play to fit your little personal world to reality. For example, if your dog jumps, and you decide to give him a treat every time he doesn't jump, and call it "positive reinforcement only", you're wrong. You may be positively reinforcing "four on the floor", but you're also using extinction by not giving a reward for jumping. If you're continuing to reward your dog for jumping, it doesn't matter that you're giving treats for four-on-the-floor, the dog is still going to jump. And if your friends are rewarding the dog for jumping, the dog is still going to jump. The only way the dog is going to stop jumping is through punishment and/or extinction. Why? Because by definition, a behaviour modification technique that aims to decrease a behaviour is either punishment or extinction. There isn't really a work-around.

So if you're going to use only positive reinforcement to train your dog, either you don't know what you're talking about, or you've made the decision not to suppress any behaviour that comes naturally to your dog, such as jumping, humping your leg, pissing in the house, chewing your stuff, barking at the door, and demanding food on his own schedule. Hey, good for you. Wish you joy of it.

Yeah... Training is a lot easier when you have an idea what you're doing.

1 comment:

Masako said...

I love this. It makes perfect sense - and I really wish others would get this, too! :)

Fantastic job!