Society as a whole has long relied on punishment as a way of controlling behavior. Many of us naturally hone in on all of the things we dislike or want to change and respond with disapproval—often in a highly punitive manner. But punishment is unpredictable in how it will impact behavior and may cause additional negative behaviors. In contrast, control based on positive contingencies can create a social climate in which everyone can flourish.
The Kids-4-K9s Humane Education Program offers students and teachers an opportunity to focus on positive changes, instead of failures. “I like the way we ignore Bella when she doesn’t get it right and wait to praise her when she does,” one third grade student shared as part of his journal entry for the session. It is this kind of reflection and sharing that promotes real learning and growth that can extend far beyond the classroom.
Positive reinforcement training focuses on the learner’s success (a dog in this case), developing and shaping behaviors and skills, unlike punishment, which may help the learner understand how to avoid an aversive, but doesn’t necessarily teach an acceptable alternative. Teachers participating in the program at Yorkwood Elementary School commented about the usefulness of ignoring unwanted behavior in order to eliminate it. “I didn’t realize I was actually reinforcing the wrong thing every time I acknowledged the student for interrupting,” said one teacher after a classroom session in which I described the difference between correction-based methods and positive-reinforcement specific to training the family dog to sit for petting instead of jumping up on them to say hello. It’s counterintuitive to wait for the appropriate response to reinforce; it takes some practice and a lot of patience, but once we recondition ourselves to pay attention to and praise the good stuff instead of continually correcting mistakes, the results are reinforcing and become second nature.
Animal assisted activities and therapy programs like Kids-4-K9s can help young people and their families empathize with animals and learn useful behaviors using positive reinforcement to influence one another’s behavior positively, without resorting to coercion.