Positive reinforcement is the key to the heart

When I adopted my beautiful cattle dog Stitch, he was a handful. In fact he still is and I’m forever appreciative (as I’m sure he is) of my patient parents who are his current guardians.

At the animal shelter, I was apparently the first person that he actually stopped jumping around for and came and sat quietly next to. It’s like he was on his best behaviour and he just decided that he wanted to go home with me.

Nevertheless, I took him to puppy school to learn some discipline, manners and to bridge the communication gap. The key takeaways of training a dog – it’s not about punishment and force but rather correction, positive reinforcement and reward.

When trying to teach them a new thing such as ‘come’ in order to have them return to you and not continue down the street, it’s easy to bark the order and sound angry. After all, it’s annoying that they’ve run away. The problem is that you sound scary and angry and who would want to run back to that?

Instead you have to make it sound really exciting to come back to you and when they do, you have to give them lots of cuddles and praise for a job well done – despite that the little so-and-so ran off in the first place.

This is the way you teach little poochy that coming back is a great thing! Who would have thought you’d to take a deep breath and give positive praise in order to teach new behaviour when frustration, anger and a short temper seems to come more naturally?

Sure, you must correct the behaviour you don’t want but you can’t leave it there if you want them to truly learn and make the effort to repeat good behaviour. After correcting them, you must patiently watch for good behaviour then give reward and praise.

Sometimes you might have to correct ten times before they get it right, but in time it gets better. If you don’t remain patient and consistent then not only do they get confused about what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviour for your command but they also lose confidence in your leadership skills.

Like dogs, I’d argue that we’re not far removed from being pack animals too. We can live independently but prefer (and at times require) to belong to a clan who accepts and helps us.

As a result, I’m not the first to compare other types of relationships to training a dog. From a boyfriend/girlfriend, friends, family, employees and children, it turns out that most relationships grow more productively with a correction and positive reinforcement approach.

My rowing coaches over the years have been a perfect example of this teaching style. Some execute the correction/positive reinforcement technique beautifully and end up creating a tight crew culture where the individuals don’t want to let their team and the coach down. This is the ultimate team culture because rowing becomes rewarding.

The other coaches bark abuse, always quick to point out what you’re doing wrong thus creating a boat of nervous individuals more focussed on staying out of the firing line rather than playing as a team.

We are naturally attracted to people who praise us for a job well done opposed to yell at us when we do the wrong thing. Rather than try to create more instances of ‘jobs well done’, we instead try to prevent doing the wrong thing.

It’s very easy to correct people and it’s what most people immediately do if given the chance. It’s not so easy however to be patient, to keep correcting with a firm unaggressive tone and then be full of praise, happiness and reward when they get it right – particularly when it might take a while.

If you want true change from the individual, respect as a leader and implicit trust from your disciples, patient correction then positive praise goes with the territory.

Now, once they start getting it right all the time, it’s incredibly important to continue giving occasional praise to re-affirm their exemplary behaviour.

It’s too easy to take good behaviour for granted and just like humans, dogs not only feel unappreciated but try to push boundaries to see what they can get away with before you get grumpy again. Just like in any one-sided relationship, by the time they announce that they don’t feel appreciated, it’s often too late to recover your trust and leadership position.

It’s just expected that you understand this important technique before announcing your leadership so please take note!

At times I’ve probably looked like a downright weirdo as I talk to Stitch telling him how wonderful his walking and behaviour is but each time I do, he looks back at me looking for approval which he’s met with a big smile and a pat.

I don’t want a barking and shouty relationship with my dog. I don’t want a resistive and confrontational relationship with my friends, my partner or my colleagues. I want to lead, to be lead and most of all get the most in life from myself and others.

If I do a good job, praise me. If I do a bad job, help correct me, be patient until I get it right then praise me when I do. Then continue to praise me occasionally when I’m getting it right so that I know I’m still doing a great job.

In exchange for doing this for me, I’ll be sure to do the same for you with the same level of patience, diligence and positivity. Together we’ll improve, we’ll grow and we’ll develop a long term respect and trust for each other.

But don’t yell at me, neglect to praise me and then expect me to come back loyally to you. It might work for a short while but in time I’ll be in search of things that make me calm and happy rather than nervous and unhappy.

Remember: correction is good for highlighting the immediate problem but if you want life-long belief, trust and loyalty, you must take the time to positively reinforce.

Update: Nov 9, 2011 – Here is a great video showing a father and daughter singing Adele’s song Rolling In The Deep. What you see here is her now performing self-correction and seeking positive reinforcement. Wait until the very end when you hear her ask – “did I do great?” We all want to do well and we all ask this question of ourselves regardless of age. It’s clear that teaching, mentoring and leading carries a lot of responsibility.

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