Every animal, from fish to primates, has needs and wants – and that is precisely what facilitates training. I am a firm believer that virtually any animal can be trained, at least to some degree, with the right approach. That’s where positive reinforcement comes in. Positive reinforcement is the use of those wants or needs as rewards for behaviours that you want to encourage, and the simple lack of reward for undesirable behaviours. When using the positive reinforcement method, you never introduce any element of punishment.
Firstly, let’s explore using punishment as a training tool and why it is not the most effective method. Many of us have witnessed poorly-trained animals, particularly dogs, and this is often caused by ignorant training methods being used. I once met a dog who had been given a shock collar by his owner. The owner shocked the dog a few times to teach him what the collar did, then removed it and simply showed it to the dog every time he displayed bad behaviour. Now, this might not sound that bad, as the dog only received the shock twice, rather than repeatedly, but this is still potentially cruel.
The initial shock came to the dog with no explanation; it was essentially a punishment for behaving entirely normally. If any of you have ever been insulted, you’ll know that sometimes an insult outweighs a hundred compliments. Negative associations are very strong, and this dog has now formed a negative association with normal behaviour, resulting in a paranoid, anxious, and jumpy dog. Furthermore, when shown the collar, that dog is now making the association between seeing the collar and receiving pain. Thus, its brain has divorced pain from its action. Collar now equals pain – not, as the owner intended, action = collar = pain.
I say all of this, not to criticise a well-meaning owner, but to point out that, all too often, punishment training is used without thinking about the way an animal is processing the experience. This kind of threat may work on a human being, who is able to use logic and reason to process a chain of events, but everything in a dog’s brain is immediate. Actions only equal their immediate consequence, so any training you do must be instantaneous.
The need for an instant response in slightly less intelligent animals like dogs and cats is another reason why punishment training can fail. If your response to bad behaviour is not immediate, the animal will then associate you with pain instead of their action. Therefore, you simply teach your pet to fear you. Even if it is apparent to a human what the bad behaviour was, it may not be obvious to the animal. For example, if you are rubbing your dog’s nose in its own mess, it may have done that wee or poo minutes or even hours ago. Just because it is in their face doesn’t mean they have made the connection; they are only experiencing the unpleasantness of having their nose forced to the ground by an owner they should trust. But giving your pets a treat only serves to make them happy and strengthen their bond with you, so even if your provision of positive reinforcement is too slow and your pet doesn’t make the connection between action and reward, there is, at least, no negative consequence.
Of course, for successful training, it is most effective if the reward is instant. And that’s where clicker training comes in. Clicker training works with a surprising number of animals, including dogs, cats, parrots and rodents. It works like this:
You begin by making a positive association between the clicker and a reward. All animals have different drivers. Of course, the most common reward is food-based, but really take the time to learn what it is that motivates your pet, and, however unusual it may be, work with it. I have even known a dog whose favourite reward was a little piece of tissue paper, while my bird would rather receive a scratch on the head than a treat. Begin by pressing the clicker and then immediately giving your pet their favourite reward. Repeat this until you notice them perk up at the sound of the clicker. Once they understand that click means treat, you can begin incorporating it into their training. This means that rather than fumbling with a treat pouch and delaying the reward, you can click instantly as your pet performs the positive behaviour. They then know that the treat is coming and they maintain that association between the action and the positive response (the clicker and, subsequently, the reward).
When your animal is engaged in training mode and they are attentive, all positive behaviour should be rewarded, while negative behaviour should be simply ignored. As mentioned, those driving wants and needs will make the animal, whatever it may be, desperate to do what is required to receive the reward, and therefore it will repeat rewarded behaviour. This is how you will be able to build on things and create more complex trained routines. For instance, ‘sit’, after being rewarded, can become ‘lay down’. This can happen either because the dog will naturally lie down at some point, and, upon instantly receiving a positive response, will repeat that behaviour again; or the dog can be led to perform the movement by having a treat in its face guiding them down to the floor.
Voice commands are extremely easy to incorporate into this. When you say ‘sit’, this initially means nothing to the dog, but once those actions begin happening in sequence, it will start building a list of associations, i.e. voice = action = reward. The animal will learn that when ‘sit’ is said and then they sit, that is when they will receive the positive outcome. So while at first all positive actions are rewarded, now only specific actions are rewarded, and only when they are asked for. The animal is now learning that it no longer just has to do good things – it also has to do the very specific good behaviour in response to specific cues.
I have spoken mainly about training dogs, as they are, of course, one of the most common animals that people attempt to train. But for any of you who noticed with curiosity that I opened by mentioning fish, I am not here to disappoint. This method of training relies on such a universal principle – the desire for positive outcomes – that it can be applied to almost all pets. Yes, including fish! I once had a tank of goldfish and one of them became sick. Medicating a fish is no easy task and it sometimes requires the fish to be netted, which, when you have a large tank, can be a stressful ordeal, so I decided to train the fish to swim into the net. This was surprisingly easy: I simply fed the fish using their net so that they would have to swim into it to get their food. I must have repeated this hundreds of times so that when I actually needed it, the positive association with the net meant that one bad experience – me lifting it up, with the fish inside, for example – would not undo their training.
Functional training in this way utilises the principles of positive reinforcement in everyday settings. I have also implemented this with my parrot. In this case, it is her desire to be let out of her cage that functions as a reward. I refuse to open the door until she makes a kissing noise (the only sound she can currently emulate), thus training her to ask to be let out of the cage by making this specific noise, as opposed to screaming. This is an effortless way you can incorporate positive reinforcement into your everyday life with your pet to result in an animal that is easier to live with, and with whom you can share a much closer bond. Positive reinforcement is for the day-to-day life of pet ownership, and not just for teaching fancy tricks.
In summary, positive reinforcement is the most versatile and pleasant training method for both human and animal. Not only is it easier and less cruel, it is also far more successful, with fewer opportunities for unintended consequences than any kind of punishment training. This is the method used not only in homes all around the world, but in zoos as well. And it’s never too late to start. If you’re currently using punishment training methods, try switching to positive reinforcement and watch how much of a positive impact – pun intended – it will have on your relationship with your pet.