We always have things we want from other people or animals. The best way to get someone to change their behavior or give us what we want is to give them something nice when they do what you want. We all have heard “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar”, and that is very true with people. Rewards are much more successful at changing a behavior than punishment is.
Very basic positive reinforcement is about catching the behavior you want and giving a reward of some kind; attention, food, objects, when it is done. Positive reinforcement is about specificity and timing. I have to make sure my rewards are actually rewarding, and I have to make sure it really is a good time to train. This means knowing your trainee, if your girlfriend doesn’t like jewelry, then buying her a braclet when she doesn’t what you want won’t mean much because it doesn’t give her the brain “zing” that makes her want to do the behavior again. If you’re in the middle of a stressful time, it may not be the best idea to train your partner to give you more massages (or even to do the dishes). The training is about catching the behavior when it happens and rewarding it. Not 30 seconds later, not the next day, but when it happens.
When teaching a dog to sit he gets a reward every time his but hits the floor. This is when things get tricky, I have to make sure the bottom actually hits the floor, because in the case of my dog it will sit about three inches above the floor, and that isn’t want I want. I can’t wait for 30 seconds after it hits the floor because by then he has moved on and won’t understand what it is getting rewarded for. I need to be specific in my goals and my rewards. If I don’t catch the sitting or I punish it, I will confuse the dog and set myself back. The thing to remember about training is if the trainee isn’t getting trained it is the trainer’s fault, not the trainee. If my dog isn’t learning what I want it to learn, it is because I am not teaching correctly, not because the dog is bad. I’m not catching the behavior correctly, I’m not using something that the dog finds rewarding, I’m training at a bad time, whatever.
When you have a large goal it is often best to use shaping. Shaping is reinforcing behaviors that move your dog, cat, or person closer to doing what you want through the concept of “successive approximations”. This comes when you have a large goal you are trying to work toward, and you break it down to smaller goals and using positive reinforcement to reward each lesser goal when it is met. Think of the game “Hot and Cold”. The “hot” is the reward, letting your subject know when he is moving in the right direction. The “Cold” the equivalent of “whoops!, nope that isn’t what I want, try again!”. The “Cold” is not punishment, but giving the message in neither a positive or negative manner that isn’t what I want. For example: Teaching my dog the “beg” command (sitting back on his haunches with his front paws in the air). Because he is a lab and bigger dogs don’t do this easily, I had to start small. In the very beginning I would reward him every time he lifted both of his paws off the ground. Then as he became more comfortable with that level he had to lift his paws higher and higher to get the reward. If at any point he hit the ultimate goal or begging I would “jackpot” him, and make the reward large to know that he did something I liked. As he moved forward to the goal he stopped getting rewarded for doing the lesser goals. If he missed the goal he would hear me say “whoops!” as a marker that he didn’t do what I want, without punishing him.
The above example can be used for potty training a dog, potty training a kid, or ever training your partner to give you massages more often. For example; If your goal is to get your partner to give you more back-rubs, When your partner puts his hand on your shoulder or on your back you can smile at him, say “It feels good when you touch me”, etc. Once he realizes (consciously or not) that you’re nicer to him when he touches your back, he will touch your back more. Then you let go of the reward until he is actually lightly rubbing your back. Once he does that more often, you let go of the reward until he massages with pressure. When you have him rubbing your back regularly, always reply with at least a “thank you” or “I really enjoyed that” as a small reward, and at times give a bigger reward to keep the motivation up.
The key is using the reward consistently at the beginning until the behavior is understood. Until it is understood that a reward is possible either the task isn’t understood, or it is undesirable enough that it is avoided. After the task is understood, or trained enough you can slowly remove the reward, randomizing when it is given. The use of random rewards (never knowing when a reward is going to be given) is the single best way to encourage a behavior. This is why gambling is so addictive. It uses a reward or the possibility of a reward and randomly gives smaller rewards to encourage us to work harder for a big one. Once it is understood that a reward is possible often the trainee will work twice as hard for the reward.
Don’t ever remove the reward completely or you will extinct (allow the behavior to die) what you just “trained”. When training something like cleaning of rooms for children (when it is a new expectation), start with them something small, such as putting laundry in the bin. Every time they do so, they get a reward. As they move forward toward keeping a cleaner room, start only rewarding for doing most, then all of what you expect. At this stage it is important to avoid using punishment as much as you can, as it will set your progress back.
The use of food as a reward should be used sparingly, as well as physical rewards. The reason for this is simple; especially with children the use of food or objects as a reward externalizes the reward system so that kids loose the ability to find intrinsic rewards through success, as well as the possibility that food rewards can be a cause of obesity. Verbal rewards actually still release the “happy” chemicals in the brain the same as money or food can, and teaches that rewards don’t have to be physical (today it seems that the younger generations are only in something for what they can get out of it, they don’t care for the accomplishment. I personally find this rather annoying).
You can also use rewards and punishment to train yourself. I personally hate unloading the dishwasher. If I get a small reward after I do it, maybe just a small piece of chocolate, I will be more willing to do something I don’t like to do because I enjoy the reward. There is an alarm clock that will take $10 out of your account and give it to a fund that you hate every time you hit snooze. If you’re a Democrat, think of giving $10 to the Repulican National Party or the Coch brothers every time you hit snooze. Talk about a punishment. Giving yourself little rewards of a small (you did catch the word small, right? Not 30 minutes) abreak on FaceBook, or a small piece of chocolate or a nice massage when you reach a goal then you get the “zing” and will want to meet the goal again.
Parents argue that they don’t want to give rewards for behaviors that a kid should be doing anyway. There are two parts to the response to this. First; they aren’t doing it in the first place and punishment is used to teach people to avoid something, and thus is not good when you want to teach them to do something. Second; We as adults get rewarded for doing what is expected all the time in the form of a paycheck. It is an expected reward, but a reward none-the-less. Final rewards once a behavior is learned can be in the form of an allowance, thus “payment” for work completed. When teaching something that isn’t being done already, if you want it to work you need to use rewards, plain and simple.
As working through the “training” of your partner, child, employee or dog remember: patience is key. In the above example of teaching my dog to “beg” it took about three months to get the complete behavior. It was incredibly important to “catch” the behavior I wanted and reward it, even when I wasn’t specifically asking for it. If I missed him offering the behavior it confused him as to what I wanted and he would take longer to learn. In the example of teaching a child to clean his room, if he at any time he picks up his plate after dinner, picks up his room, cleans more than you expect make sure to “catch” him and reward the behavior. Believe me, he will notice if you don’t and begin to wonder why he should bother. This is not an easy fix, or a quick process but if you stick with it you will find that results last longer and you will overall be happier with yourself and your child, dog, partner etc.