Part 2 – Positive Reinforcement – R+

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Learning by trial and error part 2 – Positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement (R+ for short) is defined by adding something (+) to the dog’s environment after he does a behaviour in order to increase (reinforce) the likelihood that the behaviour will re-occur.

The “positive” part is not to define good or bad, it is a scientific term which means adding, like in mathematics. R+ is good however. The dogs likes positive reinforcement because the the thing which we are adding has to be enjoyable for it to reinforce the behaviour. We cannot add something unpleasant after a behaviour and expect that behaviour to increase.

So a few examples for both us and our dogs.

1. Dog sits and gets a treat, sitting is reinforced by the treat.

2. Dog barks and we throw the ball. Barking is reinforced by the ball throw

3. Dog jumps and we tell the dog to get down and push him away. The jumping is inadvertently reinforced by the attention and touching (this is not desired)

4. Dog barks at the window and we shout at him. Barking at the window is unintentionally reinforced by the shouting/attention (again, not desired)

5. I eat a donut and like the taste, it makes me happy (Pink Jammie on a Friday for me). The taste and release of the feel good hormones in my body reinforces the eating of the donut (even though I know they are not good for me).

6. I watch my favourite TV programme. The enjoyment I get reinforces watching it, I am more likely to watch it again next week.

7. I do a good job and the boss gives me time off. Giving me time off (addition of free time) reinforces the work I have done, so I am more likely to do a good job in the future.

Now please remember, it is the effect that addition has on the learner’s behaviour which is important not the intention of the person who is applying it. To give some examples of intended reinforcement (reward) which do not reinforce behaviour –

1. I clap my dog on the top of the head after he recalls and tell him “good boy”. Since most dogs don’t like being clapped on the top of the head, even though I am trying to be nice and praise him, if it doesn’t actually reinforce the recall, i.e. make it more likely the next time, it’s not positive reinforcement.

2. My dog is feeling ill and I give her a treat after she sits. She does not want to eat, so the treat is not reinforcing.

3. My boss, who I don’t like tells me the work I have done has made his life easier and thanks me for doing it. I don’t like him, couldn’t care less about his life at work being easier and he can stick his thanks. He is meaning to reinforce my willingness to work but it doesn’t as it doesn’t mean anything to me.

So in the last three examples, something has been added which the person adding it thinks is pleasant, but if it doesn’t change behaviour then it’s not reinforcing.

On the other side of that, in the example of the barking at the window above, we are not intending to reinforce behaviour, but we may end up doing just that.

Last year I had a client with a big dog, over 35 kilos, who had trained 4 really obnoxious behaviours really reliably all by telling his dog “NO!”.

If your dog is still doing some unwanted behaviour then something is reinforcing it.

If your dog isn’t doing a wanted behaviour, then we are not reinforcing that behaviour well enough.

Questions and constructive comments are welcome as ever.

I will cover negative reinforcement (removing something unpleasant to increase behaviour) in the next part.

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