Positive Reinforcement Isn’t Reliable Enough for Performance Sports

Recently while browsing the internet, I came across several comments that stated that positive reinforcement doesn’t create reliable behaviors for performance sports. One comment in particular shocked me:

“Anyone who wants a dog in Schutzhund to get top points tends to have switched to marker training. This is because of the need for expression. However to have reliability you need to have the other side, corrections.”

To me that screams that the trainer does not understand how to use positive reinforcement correctly. The definition of positive reinforcement is: adding something good so that the likeliness of the behavior occurring in the future increases. Basically, if the behavior does not occur more often in the future, then it is NOT positive reinforcement.

Lets go through some common mistakes handlers can make when trying to use positive reinforcement:

  • Bribing the Dog: Holding the treat where the dog can see it will teach your dog to work only when food/reward is visible. Instead, put the reward in your pockets so that the dog cannot visibly see it.
  • Failing to Fully Generalize/Proof the Behavior: Just because your dog can do the behavior in your living room or back yard does not mean the “know” the behavior. Dogs have a hard time generalizing – that means they have a hard time connecting the dots that sit means sit in the home, at the park, or in the ring. When people see dogs that “blow them off” it usually means training has not occurred thoroughly enough.
  • Putting the Cue to an Unfinished Behavior: Many people are rushed to put cues to behaviors. The worst thing you could do is to put a cue to a behavior that isn’t perfected yet. Your dog will learn the approximate performance of the behavior rather than the exactly correct behavior you want.

Like I always say – “There is a strategy behind the treats!” You don’t just hand out treats whenever you feel like it. Each treat has a purpose to educate the dog about what you are looking for. The human part has to understand the technique so that the dog can understand the goal behavior. The human has to have a plan for each step of the training process – what specific behaviors to mark until the goal behavior, when to add the cue, how to generalize, and what rewards to use when are all part of the expertise the trainer needs to know ahead of time. If you throw treats at your dog without knowing those details, of course you will get unreliable behaviors or incorrect behaviors.