Can you train a police dog using only positive reinforcement?
It is much easier if you are starting your training with a puppy but it is possible with an adult dog. For the absolute purists I would have to say that there is a small sprinkle of negative punishment in my regime. For those that don’t know the technical terms then why not buy Positive police dogs:Philosophy. This will tell you everything you need to know about the theory of learning and some useful insights into how and why traditional punitive training is not as effective as some would have you believe.
I actually have a few routines I use to create a conditioned negative punisher (negative punishment is withdrawing/withholding something the dog wants or is expecting) so in reality I am actually only using a verbal cue. This verbal cue means to the dog “what you are doing or about to do isn’t going to be rewarding”.
I use absolutely no violence, hitting, slapping screaming and shouting, physical manipulation or punitive methods at all, even in bite work.
This is not to say that I have never or will never again lash out in anger or frustration. I am human after all and at 3am when I’m tired and things aren’t going my way I am susceptible to allowing my frustration get the better of me. The difference is that because this is not my normal state of mind or my usual approach with my dog, it serves as a wake up call to me and I then take a deep breath and reassess the situation. If need be I will put the dog away until I am in a better frame of mind. I am no more likely to hit my dog than I am my wife or kids because that just isn’t the kind of relationships I wish to have (twenty years with my wife so far but I hear the next twenty are the hardest so i’ll keep you posted).
If you aren’t going to punish what you consider bad or unwanted behaviour then you must have an alternative approach.
As humans we are aggressive and punitive by nature which is why we sometimes find it hard to resist our natural urge to punish (think of a country that has a justice system not based on punishment). There is another way though but it does involve learning a few new things and like any new skill some practice is required. With time will come experience and so things will become easier. The joy of positive reinforcement is that the same theories apply to your kids, wife and even yourself.
With positive reinforcement based training you need to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and how you hope to achieve it. You have to have a good idea about your students and what makes them tick. You need to understand what they like and don’t like and what their natural behaviours are.
Without this knowledge you wont know what your student(dog) is likely to do in any given situation if left to its own devices. You wont know what they like or want and that is important because you will use these things to reward the behaviours you want.
The point that a lot of people fail to realise, especially those that are currently relying on punitive methods is that you can’t just train as you always have but substitute a reward instead of a punishment. You need to build exercises up first gradually, firstly making appropriate associations between command (cue) and action and then ensuring you are reinforcing it sufficiently. You need to create the habit of performing the cue on command and the belief that doing so is more rewarding than any other alternative before you increase the difficulty, distraction and high-octane elements of training.
You cannot teach a good recall whilst the dog is chasing a criminal. You cannot teach the out whilst the dog is biting. These things need to be established and built up before you get to this stage.
Trying to do so is what often leaves people feeling like there is no option but to punish non compliance.
Positive police dogs:patrol dog will be available soon and will talk you through the process step by step. In the mean time Philosophy and many of the articles on this site will help you get the right mindset.
Using positive reinforcement to the exclusion of punitive methods not only produces more confident dogs, but it reduces stress and confusion for the dog which in turn has a knock on effect for the handler. It also requires that you learn the basic theory which helps you solve problems and just makes you an all round better trainer and handler. All this plus the knowledge that you will be above reproach in relation to your training style.
Check out this short video. It shows my mali when he was young, performing what some would consider a difficult recall but this was some time ago and he is just getting better with age. He doesn’t break from the sit as some have suggested. He sat of his own volition. He has learned a very high level of self-control and doesn’t show a lot of the nervous, anxious behaviours you see in a lot of high drive working dogs.