Positive Reinforcement is a motivational theory used in operant conditioning. It describes the introduction of an appetitive stimulus for the purpose of reinforcing a particular behaviour in order to increase the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated in the future.
Positive = To add or introduce.
Reinforcement = To strengthen or maintain.
A very simple example of this would be to introduce a desirable stimulus (such as praise, a toy, a tasty treat, etc.) to your dog immediately (within 1 second) after she correctly responds to a cue. This is Positive Reinforcement because the introduction of the pleasant stimulus to reward the desired behaviour strengthens (or increases) the likelihood that the desired behaviour with be repeated.
Effective, Humane and No Negative Side-Effects
Positive Reinforcement training for dogs has found favor and has rapidly grown in popularity in the last decade because it provides an effective, more humane and less risky alternative to dog training than 'traditional' methods that may employ punitive punishment, force and intimidation.
Using Positive Reinforcement for animals of ALL species has been substantiated by leading behaviourists, trainers and animal welfare advocates worldwide because:
By rewarding and praising appropriate behaviour, the animal is more likely to repeat it.
Animals learn more quickly when they are rewarded for their successes, rather than being punished for failing.
Being rewarded and praised builds an animal's confidence.
There are a number of negative behavioural side-effects that stem from the use of punitive/aversive punishment, whereas the use of positive reinforcement has no known negative behavioural side-effect.s
It is less risky for the handler than using forceful or intimidating training methods.
Ongoing positive interactions enhances the relationship you have with the animal.
B.F. Skinner, the researcher who articulated the major theoretical constructs of reinforcement and behaviourism deemed positive reinforcement to be superior to 'punishment' in shaping or altering behaviour. Skinner maintained that, instead of punishment simply being the opposite of positive reinforcement, positive reinforcement results in lasting behaviour modification whereas punishment only temporarily changes behaviour while presenting detrimental side effects.
Reward... Or Bribery?
There are certainly detractors of Positive Reinforcement dog training who dismiss it as mere bribery. The most commonly used criticism being that it only teaches the dog to work for a pay-off.
When positive reinforcement is done properly, it is most certainly not bribery. As an example: Let's say your dog is lying on the couch and you want her to get off. To use a tasty treat as a lure to coax the dog off the couch could be considered a bribe (ie: do you see this treat I've got in my hand? If you get off the couch I'll give it to you). Alternatively, to call the dog off the couch and then introduce/provide the positive reinforcement after the fact is a reward for displaying desirable behaviour.
There's A Right Way... And A Wrong Way
There is a right way to employ Positive Reinforcement training and there is most certainly a wrong way.
One of the most common mistakes that I see take place, is that the human introduces the food item to the environment (ie: the dog is aware of it) before the dog has successfully performed the requested behaviour. To do this makes the food item a part of the chain-of-events that you teach the dog: Food is present + cue to sit + sitting = delivery of food reward. Because dogs tend to learn very context-specific lessons, to then 'break' the context of that learned behaviour by removing the food item, yet still expecting the behaviour to be performed, is completely unfair on the dog, and demonstrates and lack of knowledge by the human.
When done properly, Positive Reinforcement becomes a reflexive response to acknowledge your dog's desirable behaviour by using a variety of stimuli that motivate your dog - be that spoken words, physical touch, body language, play, and much more. Again, it's important to keep in mind that the positive reinforcement needs to be introduced and delivered AFTER the behaviour is successfully performed.
Food rewards are highly motivational for dogs and are an excellent way to get a dog off to a quick start when learning something new. Once the dog shows you that she understands what is being asked of her, it's time to move to an intermittent reward schedule and then start to mix in a variety of positive reinforcers (often referred to as 'life rewards') to reward her for a job well done.