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A popular example among positive dog trainers to illustrate the ineffectiveness of punishment is traffic tickets. North American culture tends to focus on punishing unwanted behaviors like speeding instead of recognizing desirable behaviors like driving your car at the appropriate speed. Now Cape Town Traffic Services in Africa is experimenting with positive reinforcement to see if it can improve road safety.

The department will be rewarding motorists for “gold star” behavior with engraved pens and key rings. Good behaviour will include not getting angry or upsetting other road users, signalling well in advance when changing lanes, slowing down on freeways to allow space for motorists entering from an on-ramp, keeping intersections clear in heavy traffic, and raising a hand to thank fellow motorists instead of using the emergency flashers. Of course, this is creating debate almost as hot as a Victoria Stilwell vs. Cesar Millan dispute with the nay-sayers chiming in with their usual pessimism.  Hopefully the department will measure and publish the results of this experiment.

Cape Town police are not alone in thinking positive reinforcement can change behavior. Volkswagen launched their “Fun Theory Campaign” this fall and it is already a viral sensation with millions of views on You Tube. The car manufacturer’s ad agency DDB Stockholm, based their new campaign on the idea that “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.” For example, the team set out to see if they could increase the number of people who would opt to take a set of stairs instead of a nearby escalator by making it fun to take the stairs. They changed the stairs into a giant, functional piano that was activated when people stepped onto the stairs. They found a 66% increase in the number of people who chose the stairs when they were made “fun.” You can view this and the two other videos the company has created in the first stage of their campaign at www.thefuntheory.com.

What does all of this have to do with dog training? Well, if we can change people’s current perception about rewards and punishment in human learning then it will be much easier to get people to Train Humane with their pets. Once reward-based principles become mainstream, we will see an increase in people treating their dogs with respect and love and getting great results.

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