Find a course
Knowledge Hub » Animal Care » Understanding Animal Training – Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Understanding Animal Training – Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Introduction to Positive Reinforcement

There are millions of animals in the UK. According to the PDSA, 53% of adults in the UK own pets, with dog and cat ownership being the highest. There are also numerous animals in zoos, safari parks, aquariums, farms and sanctuaries.

Where animals are in homes or captivity, they will require training, which means manipulating their behaviour (ScienceDirect). Training is necessary for the following reasons:

  • It enables owners, keepers and carers to build positive relationships with animals and provide high-quality care.
  • It provides animals with mental stimulation, enrichment, physical activity and the necessary skills to live successfully and happily in homes or captivity.
  • It enables owners, keepers and carers to look out for any issues regarding their health, safety and well-being.
  • It helps people handle animals safely for husbandry and veterinary purposes and reduces stress during these activities.
  • It helps to reduce problem behaviours so people and animals can live in harmony.
  • It can help animals develop self-control and self-confidence.
  • It can benefit research, especially when animals are in zoos and aquariums.

There are various training methods, and the choice will depend on the animal, species and breed. One method preferred by many trainers is positive reinforcement training (PRT), which means “increasing the likelihood that the behaviour will recur by adding something the animal desires” (Danks, L. 2016).

Positive reinforcement teaches and strengthens desired behaviours by training animals to create an association with rewards, such as treats, praise and toys, while ignoring or redirecting undesired behaviours. By rewarding positive behaviour in animals, they are more likely to continue with these behaviours in the future.

Positive reinforcement is a powerful and humane approach to training animals across species, whether for obedience, agility, therapy, or other purposes. It is a widely used technique by trainers, as it is effective and doesn’t involve force, coercion or punishment. This blog post explains the principles behind positive reinforcement, its benefits, and practical tips for effectively implementing these techniques.

Understanding Animal Training - Positive Reinforcement Techniques

The Science Behind Positive Reinforcement

To understand how animals learn through positive reinforcement and to get the most out of training, it is helpful to look at the science behind this technique.

Firstly, knowing how an animal’s brain works is important, as it will influence their response to training. There are reward systems in the brain, which are a group of structures responsible for motivation, desires and learning. When an animal expects or receives a reward, their brain reward system is activated and responds by releasing more of a chemical called dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes animals, and also us humans, feel happy and positive.

As positive reinforcement is reward-based training, it triggers the release of dopamine, which motivates animals to work for things more by learning how to behave, act and think. Each time they receive a reward, it strengthens their brain connections and reinforces behaviours associated with rewards.

Not only is biology significant in reward-based training, but psychology also applies. Various psychological principles underpin positive reinforcement, such as operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

Operant (instrumental) conditioning

Positive reinforcement came from a theory of operant conditioning developed by a behavioural psychologist, B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. He created a device known as an operant conditioning chamber, lever box or Skinner box, which he used to study behaviour in rats and pigeons.

Operant conditioning is a behaviour modification technique that modifies an animal’s voluntary behaviour by the immediate consequences. Animals learn through repeated reinforcements and punishments. If their behaviour is reinforced (rewarded), they will likely repeat it. On the other hand, punishing their behaviour will decrease it.

Reinforcements can be positive or negative, for example:

Positive reinforcementadding something positive to strengthen the desired behaviours in animals.

  • For example – a trainer wants to encourage a dog not to jump up on people and gives them a reward when they do not jump.

Negative reinforcement removing something bad to strengthen the desired behaviours in animals.

  • For example – a trainer stops pushing a dog forcefully back and then down while they are jumping. As the dog does not like this punishment, it encourages them not to jump when the trainer stops.

Positive punishmentadding something unpleasant as a punishment to decrease undesired behaviours in animals.

  • For example – a dog is jumping up, and the trainer pushes them forcefully back and then down to discourage the behaviour.

Negative punishmentremoving something positive as a punishment to decrease undesired behaviours in animals.

  • For example – as a dog jumps up for attention, the trainer turns away from the dog and ignores them to discourage them from jumping.

Positive reinforcement is always better than punishment, and we will look at some of the reasons in the next section.

Classical (Pavlovian) conditioning

Trainers should also be aware of classical conditioning, another learning technique first described by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the late 1890s. His theory of classical conditioning came from his research into dog digestion when he discovered that dogs learned to associate food with a bell sound and would salivate as a response.

Classical conditioning is where animals learn involuntary responses through associations. It involves pairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to bring about the response, for example:

  • Neutral stimuli – these do not usually cause an animal to respond in a particular way, e.g. a sound, such as a bell, whistle or clicker.
  • Unconditioned stimuli – these cause involuntary reflexes and natural (unconditioned) responses where no learning is involved, e.g. salivating at food.

With repetition, animals can link the above two stimuli and modify their behaviour, which is known as a conditioned response to conditioned stimuli.  Here is an example to make it a bit clearer:

Before conditioning

  • No response to neutral stimuli, e.g. a dog does not salivate to the sound of a bell.
  • Unconditioned response to unconditioned stimuli, e.g. a dog salivates at the sight of food.

During conditioning

  • Unconditioned response to conditioned stimulus, e.g. a bell sounds on presenting food, and the dog salivates.

After conditioning

  • Conditioned response to conditioned stimuli, e.g. a dog salivates when a bell sounds even when no food is present.

While positive reinforcement training is a type of operant conditioning, classical training can also be used as part of the process, as it is basic training and one of the simplest types of learning. Here is an example of this in clicker training.

  • A trainer starts to use clicker training as they want an animal to associate the clicker sound with a reward to achieve a desired behaviour.
  • At first, the animal will not have a conditioned response. However, with repetition, the animal will begin to associate the clicker sound with the reward and over time, the clicker will trigger a conditioned response – classical conditioning.
  • The animal starts to modify their behaviour and learn new ones voluntarily and purposefully in response to the clicker sound and to earn a reward – operant conditioning.
Understanding Animal Training - Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Benefits of Positive Reinforcement

As training has a significant impact on animals’ mental, emotional and physical welfare, it is essential to adopt techniques that will achieve the best outcomes for the animals and trainers. Positive reinforcement is a preferred technique, as it has numerous benefits, such as:

  • It is a humane and ethical way to train animals.
  • It gives animals a choice to participate in and have control over their environment, which promotes welfare and reduces fear, anxiety and stress.
  • It is a fun way to train, as rewards-based training can develop positive bonds between animals and trainers.
  • It builds trust, respect and confidence between trainers and animals.
  • It encourages animals to think for themselves.
  • It promotes good behaviour overall and reduces the risk of behavioural problems in the future.

Some still think that punishment is an effective way to train animals. Punishments are actions taken to reduce the likelihood of a behaviour recurring. Some examples are:

  • Jerking collars and leads.
  • Verbal intimidation, e.g. shouting, growling or angry voice.
  • Hitting.
  • Nudging.
  • Kicking.
  • Poking
  • Electric shock collars – a ban is still being considered in the UK.
  • Ignoring.

Positive reinforcement is a much better option, rather than using force, coercion or punishment to train animals. If trainers use punishment, it can result in many negative effects, such as:

  • Physical injuries.
  • An increase in undesired behaviours. A study by Hiby et al. (2004) found that punishment was associated with an increased incidence of problematic behaviours.
  • Animals becoming confused and not understanding the behaviours expected.
  • Stress, fear and anxiousness, leading to long-term effects.
  • Lower motivation and an increase in avoidance behaviours.
  • An increase in aggressive responses, potentially resulting in harm to people and other animals.
  • Animals associating punishment with other events.

A review by Ziv, G. (2017) into the effects of using aversive training methods in dogs concluded that those working with or handling dogs should rely on positive reinforcement methods and avoid using positive punishment and negative reinforcement as much as possible.

There are so many other training techniques that do not require punishment and are better for the health, safety, well-being and welfare of animals. Positive reinforcement is one of the best methods as it achieves long-lasting results and is a more effective, gentle, safer and caring way of training animals.

Understanding Animal Training - Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Understanding Rewards and Reinforcers

Positive reinforcement is reward-based training, but what exactly are rewards? They are incentives to motivate animals to engage in desired behaviours. Rewards should be something animals enjoy and want to work for. Some examples include:

  • Food and treats.
  • Play, i.e. favourite toys and games.
  • Exercise.
  • Attention and petting.
  • Praise.

Animal training relies on effective reinforcers. These are rewards that are likely to reinforce positive behaviour in animals, and there are two types:

  • Primary reinforcers – these are innate and natural and do not have to be learned by animals, as their biological need makes them desire it, e.g. food, sleep, play and attention. These are not dependent on other reinforcers.
  • Secondary reinforcers – these are stimuli that reinforce positive behaviours in animals once they learn to associate them with primary reinforcers. Stimuli may include petting, praise, sounds (i.e. clickers and whistles), hand gestures, etc. For example, a trainer gives a dog a treat (primary reinforcer) whilst using a clicker (secondary reinforcer).

For training to be effective, it is essential to select the most appropriate reward (reinforcer) which an animal desires or is interested in. Rewards should also be appropriate for the animal species, breed, individual preferences and the environment, for example:

  • Animal species – a dog’s reinforcers will differ from those of a cat, bird, rat or exotic animal.
  • Breed – in domestic animals, each breed will have different traits. For example, some dog breeds are strongly motivated by food, e.g. Labradors, and others may desire play and toys, such as Border Collies who like to chase balls.
  • Individual – animals have their own characteristics, personalities, underlying physical/mental health conditions and needs, and will have favourite rewards. One dog may love sausage treats, and another may prefer biscuits.
  • Environment – an animal’s environment will influence their preference for rewards, e.g., a domestic pet in a home will have a different environment to an animal in a zoo, which will influence reward choice.

To determine the most effective rewards, trainers must carefully observe the animal’s behaviour after giving a specific reward. If the animal is showing no interest or is not showing the desired behaviour, it could be that they don’t want to work for that particular reward. Trainers should try various rewards until they find those that are preferred.

It is important to note that animal’s preferences for rewards may change. They may get fed up with the same treat, toy or game. Any changes to their physical and mental health and environment can also influence their preferences. Keeping a record of rewards that animals respond to can help trainers select the best ones in the future. Here is some guidance on choosing different dog rewards from the Dogs Trust.

Understanding Animal Training - Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Training Techniques and Strategies

Positive reinforcement aims to increase the chances of animals behaving in a specific way desired by trainers. Here are some practical tips to maximise the chances of success:

  • Have the right rewards – for the reasons we have already covered. Positive reinforcement relies on rewards animals desire and want to work for.
  • Be realistic – a trainer’s goals should be clear, realistic, and achievable, and they should not try to do too much too soon or overcomplicate matters. Starting simply and gradually can help animals build confidence and proficiency.
  • Be consistent – if a trainer is inconsistent with their training approach or rewards, it can confuse animals during training, as they will not understand what is expected. Be consistent by rewarding the desired behaviour and redirecting or ignoring undesired behaviours.
  • Keep training sessions short – trainers should do short sessions more frequently than longer ones where animals can get exhausted. For dogs, practice for about two to five minutes at a time and five to six times a day.
  • Communicate clearly – for an animal to understand cues (e.g. hand gestures) and commands, trainers must communicate clearly.
  • Keep timing in mind – trainers must reward the animal immediately after the desired behaviour for them to make associations and to reinforce. Delays can confuse animals, as they will not know which behaviour the rewards are for.
  • Be patient – it takes time for animals to learn, and there may be challenges along the way. Being patient with animals, even in moments of frustration, is key to reinforcing positive behaviours.
  • Avoid using punishment – for the reasons we have already covered. It is not about punishing bad behaviour but reinforcing good behaviour.
  • Stay positive – some animals, especially dogs, can pick up on human emotions. Researchers believe that dogs can mirror the anxiety and negativity of owners. Therefore, negativity during training could have negative impacts on animals. Being positive and enthusiastic and making training fun is essential.

To help trainers get started, here are some example step-by-step guides for basic commands and behaviours, such as sit, stay, and recall:

Dogs

  • RSPCA – has step-by-step guides on training dogs to sit, lie down and stay.
  • Petplan – advises on preventing dogs from jumping and teaching recall and sitting.
  • Blue Cross – has some videos demonstrating how to get dogs to respond to certain commands.

Cats

  • Petplan – details how to train cats to come when called, sit on a person’s lap and go into a car carrier.
  • Cats Protection – advises on how to teach a cat to sit down, lie down and rollover.

Other animals

Understanding Animal Training - Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Trainers can and do make mistakes when using positive reinforcement, especially when starting, as they are learning just like the animals they are training. Here are five common mistakes and how to correct them if they occur.

  1. Too many rewards

Positive reinforcement is reward-based training, but a common mistake people make is to overdo it with rewards or only give certain ones, such as treats.

If an animal receives too many rewards, they can become meaningless, and some may refuse to engage in the behaviour unless they receive a reward. Also, if the rewards are food-based, it can lead to obesity and health issues. On the flip side, too few rewards can make it difficult for them to understand which behaviour is being rewarded.

Trainers could avoid these mistakes by:

  • Not relying heavily on food as rewards and balancing them with others, such as toys, praise and petting.
  • Recording food rewards to ensure they are not overdoing it.
  • Using small rewards in the beginning and decrease the frequency gradually.
  • Only use rewards when necessary to reinforce positive behaviours.
  1. Poor timing

Timing is key when it comes to positive reinforcement. However, some trainers may reward too soon or too late, which can confuse and reinforce undesired behaviours. For example:

  • Giving rewards too late – a trainer asks a dog to sit and fumbles with the treats in their pocket. In the meantime, the dog stands and walks to the trainer, who then gives them a treat. In this scenario, the trainer has rewarded the dog for standing/walking and not sitting down.
  • Giving rewards too soon – a trainer starts to reach for the treats in their pocket before giving a dog the command to sit. The dog needs to understand that if they sit, they will get a reward. By getting the treats out too soon, the dog may not associate sitting with the reward.

Trainers could avoid these mistakes by:

  • Planning ahead with rewards to ensure they are close by and readily available to give immediately as soon as the animal does the behaviour.
  • Rewarding immediately after the desired behaviour and before another behaviour.
  • Using a clicker or word, the exact moment the animal does the behaviour and then reward.
  1. Accidentally reinforcing undesired behaviours

It is a common mistake in novice trainers, and it is usually when they unknowingly respond to an animal’s undesired behaviour and, over time, accidentally reinforce it. For example:

  • A dog jumps up and wants attention, and the trainer tells them ‘no’. By giving the dog attention when jumping, they have inadvertently rewarded them.
  • An owner allows their dog to continue pulling on the lead, giving them what they want, i.e. to get somewhere or to something more quickly.

Trainers could avoid these mistakes by:

  • Understanding which behaviours to respond to and which to ignore/redirect.
  • Establish clear training goals and know which behaviours they want to reinforce.
  • Making it clear which behaviour is desired by giving animals clear information.
  1. Inconsistency

Another error novice animal trainers can make is inconsistent reinforcement, i.e. rewarding animals for desired behaviours at some times and not others. Being inconsistent can:

  • Lead to confusion and frustration for animals.
  • Slow down training progress.
  • Undermine training efforts.

An example is letting an animal sit on the sofa one day and the next, telling them off for being there.

Trainers could avoid these mistakes by:

  • Setting clear rules, boundaries and guidelines for when to give rewards and adhere to them. A training schedule can help to stay focused.
  • Using rewards consistently to reinforce positive behaviours.
  • Providing clear information and simple commands.
  1. Punishing desired behaviours

Some trainers can accidentally punish behaviours they want during positive reinforcement, e.g.:

  • A dog runs off, and an owner calls them. When they eventually return, the owner shouts at the dog and puts them on the lead. In this case, the owner is punishing the dog for coming back (desired behaviour).
  • A cat has scratched the sofa while an owner has been at work, and they scold the cat many hours after the incident and when they are behaving desirably. Here, the owner is punishing the cat well after the undesired behaviour has occurred.

Some animals may also not like certain rewards, such as petting, and may mistake it for punishment.

Trainers could avoid these mistakes by:

  • Redirecting undesired behaviours with positive reinforcement at the time.
  • Realising that an animal’s bad behaviour may need correcting or redirecting, but that doesn’t mean punishment.
  • Ensuring the rewards are correct for the animal and training scenario and observing their responses. If an animal is showing signs of stress, anxiety or fear, the training should stop.
Understanding Animal Training - Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Real-Life Examples and Success Stories

Positive reinforcement, i.e. reward-based training, is recommended and supported by many animal welfare charities, such as the RSPCA, Dogs Trust and Cat Protection. The reason for this is that it is a kinder method that actually works. There have been many examples of animals successfully trained using positive reinforcement.

  • Isabel trained her rescue dog, Lucy, to become her own guide dog using clicker training and food rewards (BBC News).
  • Deaf Norfolk sheepdog Peggy learned ‘sign language’. Trainers used repetitive and positive reinforcement, and instead of pairing a verbal command with an action, they would use a physical hand gesture (BBC News).
  • A farmer used positive reinforcement to train his sheep to associate food with a drone (Farmers Weekly).
  • Chessington used treats and positive reinforcement to train parrots to carry WiFi routers around the park to keep guests connected (Yahoo News).
  • Owner teaches her dog to do household chores using treats and positive reinforcement (Mirror Online).
  • Owner used a clicker and treats to teach her cat to perform tricks and received a Guinness World Record for performing 26 tricks in one minute (Guinness World Records).

As the above stores show, trainers can use positive reinforcement to train a wide range of animals. They can apply the techniques to different species and training goals, for example:

Treat-based training

  • Trainers can use treats in positive reinforcement with all animals, whether in a home, rescue centre, zoo or other settings.
  • In training, they can pair treats with one or more of the following:
  • Verbal cues, e.g. ‘good boy’.
  • Hand gestures or signals.
  • Whistles.
  • Clickers.
  • This method can be used in most, if not all, training, e.g. basic commands, such as sitting and recall. Trainers can also use treats in other training goals, such as getting a dog to heel or a cat to stay still during grooming.

Clicker training

  • This technique uses a clicker sound, which can make it easier for animals to associate the behaviour with a reward.
  • Trainers have used it in positive reinforcement in dogs, cats, horses, rats, rabbits, parrots and even zoo animals.
  • This method can be used to teach basic commands, such as sit, lie down and stand. Trainers can also use clickers to help animals develop more complex skills, e.g. agility, help with phobias and separation anxiety, and fun tricks.
  • The Blue Cross has further advice on clicker training for dogs and cats here.

Verbal praise and affection

  • This technique is more likely to be successful in domestic pets, such as cats and dogs, especially when using verbal praise. However, using a positive and gentle tone can help in positive reinforcement of all species of animals.
  • Most species also like some manner of affection, e.g.:
  • Horses may like to be scratched or stroked.
  • Dogs may want attention, belly rubs, head pats or stroking.
  • Cats may like to be touched while curled up on someone’s lap.
  • Trainers can use verbal praise and affection alongside other rewards to teach basic commands and other desired behaviours, e.g. praising a cat for using their scratching post and not the sofa.

Play-based training

  • Trainers can use play as a reward in many environments and for many species.
  • It can involve engaging in a short play session with a toy after the desired behaviour, e.g. throwing a Frisbee for a dog, giving a horse a ball or using a toy to get a cat’s attention and rewarding them with playtime if they come.
  • This technique can help with basic commands and prevent undesired behaviours, as it can help with stimulation. It may also be useful in animal desensitisation and preparing animals for vet visits.

Whatever techniques a trainer decides to use and the goals they want to achieve, e.g. obedience, husbandry, veterinary care, agility, etc., they must train animals as individuals and not as a species. They all have different needs and preferences.

Understanding Animal Training - Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Training Progression and Patience

Like humans, every animal is an individual and learns at its own pace. Learning also varies between species and breeds and will be influenced by other factors, such as age, health and environment. Therefore, the time it will take to see results will depend on the type of animal a trainer works with.

Trainers mustn’t overcomplicate or try to rush training. Some may be too eager to see results, leading to mistakes and derailment of training. There should be gradual progression with positive reinforcement, for example:

  • Divide the desired behaviours into small steps (increments).
  • Start with easier behaviours first.
  • Increase the difficulty slowly when the animal is showing signs of proficiency.

Using this approach helps animals to build confidence and skills based on previous successes with each step. As they progress, trainers may want to consider advanced techniques such as shaping, capturing, chaining, and luring.

Training takes time and patience, and there is a lot of repetition. While it is understandable for people to get frustrated and impatient with the time it can take to train an animal, it is essential to remain patient. It can take many attempts for an animal to learn new behaviours at their own pace, so understanding this is key to being a successful trainer and for animal welfare and wellbeing.

There may be mistakes and setbacks along the way, but trainers should use these to learn lessons and improve their technique. With perseverance and the correct use of positive reinforcement, the desired behaviours will come.

Understanding Animal Training – Positive Reinforcement Techniques

Conclusion

Positive reinforcement is a humane, ethical and enjoyable way to train animals and encourage them to adopt desired behaviours. Punishment, on the other hand, can cause fear, anxiety and stress and have long-term impacts on animals’ mental and physical well-being and their welfare. Positive reinforcement can lead to better training outcomes and increase desired behaviours in animals, unlike punishment, which can have the opposite effect.

Research and real-life examples have demonstrated how beneficial positive reinforcement is to animals and trainers. By making training a positive experience and rewarding animals’ successes, it builds strong bonds with them, makes them more confident and helps them to learn better. The aim should be to have a fulfilling relationship with happier, healthier and safer animals. Therefore, trainers should use positive reinforcement techniques in their animal training endeavours.

Please feel free to use the comments section to share experiences and success stories with positive reinforcement. Here, you can create a supportive and informative community of animal lovers and trainers who want the best for the animals in their lives.

Understanding Animal Training – Positive Reinforcement Techniques
animal care level 3

Interested in an Animal Care course?

We offer the Animal Care Level 3 through our online campus.

Learn more about our Animal Care Level 3 course

Read another one of our posts