Praise and Punishment

by Debbie Cerda-Pavia

The building blocks

Most animals and humans respond better to positive situations than negative ones. Golden Retrievers, being a breed that live to please their owners are more likely to flourish under a training program that is geared towards positive reinforcement than punishment.


When we are training our dog to perform a particular new task, we are effectively asking him to have a go at the unknown.  For example: the very first time we ask a dog to sit, he has absolutely no idea what we require of him.  He has two options: do nothing, or do something.  The secret to dog training is for the dog never to be afraid of doing "something".  As long as the dog makes an attempt to do "something", we can be assured that sooner or later he will hit on the first step towards the correct behaviour.... which we then have the opportunity to praise/reward.  But if the dog is afraid to do "something" and opts for "nothing" the job is almost impossible.

The pleasures of positive reinforcement

Using the positive reinforcement approach, the dog comes to believe that every action is a valid one, but at times some are more rewarding than others.  Assume that I have taught my dog to sit and drop (lie down).  If I tell him to drop he can perform either of these actions.  However he knows that only one of them will bring the reward that he's after, the other action is not wrong as such.... But it doesn't bring a reward at this time (it might later under different circumstances).  So the dog chooses to perform the action that is most rewarding to him, which also happens to be the one I want!  The dog that has had this sort of upbringing/training is not the sort that collapses under pressure.  Dogs (and people!) that have trouble performing under pressure generally are scared of making a mistake.  Dogs trained with positive reinforcement have nothing to fear from making a mistake.... They just don't get rewarded.  So they are striving to achieve well for their own benefit (which you have groomed to match your goals), not to try and avoid punishment.

The problem with punishment

Punishment often gets out of proportion to the crime.  People tend to get emotional with a dog that doesn't perform as expected, especially if there is an audience to exacerbate their embarrassment.  The tendency to "tell the dog off' is used more as a vent for the owners frustration than for any benefit of the dog and we've all done it.  The dog that is persistently punished is learning through fear and a fearful environment is not conducive to learning.  Such dogs might learn not to perform specific actions (ie not to steal rubbish from a bin), but it is very difficult to teach such dogs to perform actions where they need to use some initiative and creativity.  For instance the Utility Obedience exercise of running out to the box and sitting in it, is harder to teach to such a dog.  They don't have the confidence to try "something" and see what happens, they are always expecting that nasty punishment to fall from above.

The reward

The reward can be anything that tickles the dogs fancy: verbal praise, a pat, food, a toy, the opportunity to fetch something (Goldens love that one!).  Use your imagination and try a number of items to find what the dog likes best.  You can also vary the reward to help keep the dog interested.

So how do you get the message across that you don't want "that' 'action?  The key point is that we need to let the dog know that a particular action is not the desired one (at this point in time) and encourage him to try a different one.  Behaviours are not "bad" they are just unwanted at this time.

See each "failure" as an experiment.  Each one brings you closer to success.  So we need to find a way to tell the dog that this action at this time is not the one we want.

The "Try Again” Word

Now that we have a whole new perspective on "bad" behaviour we should use a different word to make sure we don't fall back into our old habits.  The problem with "No" is that it has so many decidedly negative applications in life that we tend to over-emotionalise its use.  It's hard to keep your tone neutral and say "No" when the dog has performed an action that we aren't after.  It tends to become "Nooooooooooooooooo" and becomes a word that causes fear in the dog.  Remember we don't want to scare the dog, just make him aware that we're after a different behaviour.  The word you choose isn't really important, as long as it isn't a word you use very often (or the dog will hear it all the time when it doesn't relate to him).  I use "wrong".  It's an easy word to use in a neutral tone, and is not in common use.  I know someone who says "that's nice, but what else can you do?"  Note that it's almost impossible say that with a harsh tone, or even a slightly disappointing one.

Putting it together

With the dog paying attention and the reward handy just watch the dog and see what behaviours it offers.  If he just stops dead and won't do anything, walk around a bit and try to get him moving.  If, for example, you want the dog to lie down you are waiting for any sort of knee-bend or head lowering action.  When it occurs, praise the dog and offer the reward.  Note that the first few times the dog gets rewarded ihe probably has no idea what he did to "score".  Be patient, you need to get the first step happening regularly before you increase the criteria.  For instance you might be happy with a head lowering at first, but when it happens regularly you might want a head lowering and a knee bend.  When that's regular, maybe you want a definite bow etc.  "That's fine as far as praise/reward goes, but what about the "wrong" part?" I can hear you ask.  Let's assume the dog barks to get the reward and we want him to be quiet.  You'd probably temporarily suspend the original activity (getting the dog to drop) and concentrate on teaching "quiet".  Whenever the dog barks, you say "Wrong....... Quiet" in a quiet tone (no point getting the dog all fired up with an enthusiastic command, he needs to settle a bit) and otherwise ignore him.  If he's quiet for a second, reward him as you repeat "Quiet, good quiet".  Tell him "Quiet" again and try to extend the time the dog will remain quiet.  Each time the dog barks repeat "Wrong... quiet", this lets him know that what he did last is not required right now (although it might be later) what you want now is "Quiet".  Remember not to get all worked up about giving the command, you should sound almost detached, as if reading the shopping list!

The end result

If you are able to raise a pup under the principles listed above, you should have a responsive dog that is not afraid to try new things.  He will learn quickly and be eager to please.  Remember that no dog is perfect.... as no person is perfect.  If the dog should misbehave the important thing is to teach the dog not to repeat the behaviour, not to "punish" the dog for the offence.  Punishment teaches nothing, except to fear the punisher.  Remember also that a pup trained with these techniques may also seem generally more "naughty" than those trained under more standard "punishment type" methods.  This is because he's not afraid to try new activities, whereas the other dog may be too inhibited to do much at all.  Don't be annoyed or frustrated with your puppy if this is the case, rejoice in the fact that he has an outgoing personality and is easy to train.

What about my older dog?

The above techniques can be used on older dogs that have been trained in a different manner, or not trained at all.  Results will not be as effective (or as quick) as they are with a pup, but any improvement is worthwhile.  An older dog will be less likely to offer a variety of responses due to inhibition caused be previous training methods.  A dog that dislikes the whole process will be difficult to convert ... but not impossible.  Be patient with an older dog, they need more time and understanding.

Further information?

The techniques outlined above are extended by the use of a "clicker" as a secondary reinforcer.  

A book called "Don't Shoot The Dog" by Karen Pryor discusses the theory of the techniques and the principles that they are based on.

David Weston’s' book "Dog Training: The Gentle Modem Method" shows how to teach a number of exercises using positive principles.

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