Positive Reinforcement Training
What’s involved in the Positive Reinforcement Toolbox?
The ‘toolbox’ refers to the selection of positive reinforcements we use to reward Guide Dogs for good behaviour in training.
The methods can change over time and can be tailored to meet the unique personalities or preferences of each individual Guide Dog, but there are a couple of things we keep in mind when applying PRT for every pup.
- Food Is usually the fastest and most reliable initial positive reinforcer, for learning new skills, or new situations., but positive reinforcement involves more than food.
Although there are many reinforcements in the toolbox, we find snacks and treats are the most effective reward for pups learning new skills, or in trust and bonding situations. Studies prove conclusively that food is the strongest primary reinforcer for most dogs in training. Food is fast and reliable—from an evolutionary standpoint, food is linked to strength and physical conditioning, so it’s a natural motivation for most growing pups.
Once they know that food is potentially on the table (so to speak) training pups keenly take on new challenges for the chance to earn such a high reward. Food is ideal in skills development or new personal bonding scenarios, and it’s also a great way to quickly build a ‘bank of trust’. Our dogs also learn to earn -a good work ethic that means they can make reliable decisions when working with their clients. We use the meals for daily training and motivation so that our dogs do not become overweight.
There is skill required in using food as an effective reward. Our Puppy Raisers receive thorough training so they can reward cleanly and understand the subtle differences between ‘rewarding’ and ‘bribing’. We can also use the Positive Reinforcement method to train pups and dogs not to grab at, or become too distracted by, food.
In addition to food, praise and pats are known as ‘secondary reinforcers’. They may not initially be as strong a motivator as food rewards, but they can build into strong motivators as dogs develop relationships with specific people: over time, your dogs will learn the value and meaning of pats and praise. We always reinforce every dog with pats and praise, irrespective of whether we use food rewards in training.
- Positive reinforcement and training is a continual process. Learning is always occurring in the brain. After the initial training involved in skills development and bonding exercises, we transition dogs onto intermittent food rewarding, or pats and praise only, to keep their skills sharp over time.
- Methods of reinforcement can change over time. We have a range of different techniques for motivating dogs that respond differently to common reinforcers. Some dogs are motivated by retrieval play more so than treats; some dogs are ‘body sensitive’ and don’t like being patted.
Throughout training, it’s essential that we understand and accommodate a dog’s motivations or sensitivities in any given situation. Our trainers are experts at reading each dog’s body language and communication techniques, and have the skills to switch between reinforcement rewards to encourage the right behaviour.