Understanding Positive Reinforcement: More than Giving Treats

Dog waiting to take a treat

Positive reinforcement is a concept many of us have heard of, especially when it comes to training our furry companions. The basic idea is simple: reward a behavior you want to see more of, and it’s likely to be repeated. However, when it comes to addressing aggression in dogs, the application of positive reinforcement isn’t always as straightforward as giving treats as a way to deal with unwanted behavior.

Instinctively, many dog owners may resort to offering treats when their canine companions display aggression, hoping that the dog will associate good things with the behavior they’re trying to change. But what happens when this approach fails?

Often, individuals instinctively resort to offering treats to change a dog’s attitude. This is not the worst thing to do, but when it doesn’t have the desired effect, dog owners are vulnerable to trying other (ultimately riskier methods for aggressive dogs) that seem to promise more effective results short term such as punishment based methods.

In reality failure usually occurs because there’s a misunderstanding of the complexities involved in treating aggression. Positive reinforcement training isn’t just about giving treats; first you need to build on a foundation of skills, and gradually introducing desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques.

Overlooking the dog’s heightened anxiety, can not only hinder a dog’s ability to appreciate the treat and learn anything from the event, but without addressing the anxiety the dog is unable to undergo any significant mindset shift regarding the triggering stimulus.

This is why we somtimes see dogs not taking a treat when its offered, ignoring or dropping the treat in certain situation. It may be the food reward is just not high value enough, but more often it simply can’t comopete with the anxiety the dog is experiencing, and this clearly means, the dog is too anxious to learn anything positive from the situation.

Building a foundation of basic obedience skills, such as sit, stay, and leave it, provides a framework for managing and redirecting the dog’s behavior. This foundation sets the stage for more advanced techniques, like desensitization and counter-conditioning, which involve gradually exposing the dog to the trigger of their aggression while pairing it with positive experiences.

Treats are indeed a powerful tool in positive reinforcement training, as they provide immediate feedback and reinforcement for desired behaviors. This can be incredibly useful for foundation training and when your dog is ready, the more advanced stage of behavior modification.

However, timing is important. If the dog’s stress, anxiety or aggression is sufficiently around, the appetitive system, which governs the desire for food rewards, can be in conflict with the system that controls the fight or flight response. In cases of aggression, the dog’s instinctual response may override the desire for treats, making them ineffective as a sole means of behavior modification.

On the other hand, if the dog’s fight or flight response has not been set into motion, engaging the appetitive system may override the fight or flight system from engaging at low levels of stress, making the use of treats more valuable than many other positive rewards.

In conclusion, while treats are an important component of positive reinforcement training, they are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing aggression in dogs. Effective treatment programs require a comprehensive approach that incorporates timing, foundational skills, and techniques like desensitization and counter-conditioning.

By understanding the complexities of positive reinforcement and employing a multifaceted approach, dog owners can better support their canine companions in overcoming aggression and building a positive relationship based on trust and mutual understanding.


The Dog Aggression System Every Dog Owner Needs E-book

Anxious Dog T-shirt available in our shop  https://k9aggression.com/shop/

Anxious Dog Shirts only available in our shop

Stand Back Dog Training Shirt

Keep people away with our Stand back shirts