What is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?

| by Tamsin Durston

What is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?

Reinforcement means making good behaviour much more likely, and the positive part, well that’s all about us using things our dogs like to help them really enjoy being good! Put simply, positive reinforcement means training with rewards and giving your dog something they really want and like when they’re behaving in a way that you like, so that they will be more likely to behave in this way again!

Training with rewards is all about teaching your dog that good things happen when they make a good choice. When your dog gets a reward they will associate this with whatever they are doing or have just done – and will be more likely to do that same thing again in future. For example, if you give a treat when your dog raises a paw, they are more likely to do this again the next time they are in the same situation!

Why do we recommend training with rewards?

Training with rewards is the best way to encourage your dog to behave as you would like on a day-day basis (for example learning to settle themselves down when people are busy, instead of pestering!).

  • Science tells us that reward based training is the best way for dogs to learn!
  • Training with rewards is fun and helps build trust and a positive bond between dog and owner.
  • Owners that train using rewards report fewer behaviour problems in their dogs.
  • Reward based training can help build confidence and encourage dogs to think for themselves.

How to use rewards to positively reinforce good behaviour

  1. Find out what your dog likes and is willing to make an effort to work for

Rewards can be anything that your dog likes, for example being groomed or travelling in the car! It all depends on what your dog enjoys! All dogs are different so they will naturally find different things rewarding, however most dogs enjoy food, toys and our attention!

  1. Reward your dog for good behaviour

Whenever your dog is behaving in a way that you’re happy with be sure to let them know by giving them a reward. Always use a reward your dog really wants. Think about using rewards such as a gentle fuss, stroke or just speaking calmly to your dog when they’re behaving quietly and calmly so the reward doesn’t get them too excited all of a sudden. If they’re doing something active, like running straight over to you as soon as you call them, then rewarding this with an active and energetic game is a wonderful prize – as long as they’re enjoying it, it’s rewarding!

  1. When training, reward every time and think about changing rewards over time

When you start training a new skill, it is important that you reward your dog every time they are successful. When they have learnt the new behaviour, and can do it well in a variety of environments, the type of reward you give them can be changed – so you won’t need to give them a treat for sitting for the rest of their life, you can say “good dog” instead and occasionally give them a treat!

For example, when using food to train a new behaviour reward your dog with a treat every single time to begin with, then alternate a treat with praise or a fuss instead, then always praise or fuss (as long as your dog likes this of course) and give the treat every third time! And so on, from then on mix up when you give the food reward, so your dog doesn’t know when to expect it and stays interested!  

  1. Timing is important!

It is useful to have a marker which is a signal that tells your dog exactly when they’re doing something you’re really happy about! The marker tells the dog “yes, you’ve got it right and I’m just about to give you a reward very quickly”. It must always be followed by the reward so your dog can be confident they’ve got things right! Some people use a short punchy word such as “yes” or “nice”, but you can also use a mechanical clicker device, or even give a thumbs up! Choose a marker and make sure everyone sticks to it so your dog never becomes confused! When you’re teaching your dog a new behaviour, use the signal exactly at the precise moment when the dog is doing what you want them to, so they know that their reward is on its way and exactly what action to do again to get their next reward!

  1. Positive Reinforcement as a Way of Life

As long as you remember that any behaviour your dog finds rewarding is behaviour they’re likely to do again, you can set things up so that you always have means to reward them for doing good things. This means planning so that you’re always able to give your dog something they’ll find enjoyable whenever you see good behaviour! And good behaviour will soon become the norm!

  1. Different rewards for different times and places

There might be times when they need an extra or different reward! Sometimes what your dog found easy in the comfort and calmness of their own home becomes much more difficult to do when the environment is busier and more distracting, and what they found rewarding at home is no longer exciting for them outside! If your dog finds responding to you hard because of distractions you might need to find something different to reward them with in that location – for example, your dog might be happy to sit for a piece of biscuit at home, but when they’re out and about in the park and there’s lots of other dogs playing and people having fun that piece of biscuit might have lost its appeal and instead you might need to use something extra tempting such as a piece of cheese to reward your dog with, or a game with a toy instead!

If your dog is behaving badly…

Think about whether they might be getting a reward of some sort in response to their behaviour, even though you may not mean for them to! For example, think about a dog jumping up on someone who tells them “no, get down” while staring at them and pushing them away. If the dog enjoys being looked at, spoken to and handled by people then even this interaction can be seen as a reward, so they’ll be more likely to jump up again despite the person thinking that they haven’t given any sort of reward at all!

In these types of situations think about getting ready to guide your dog into making a good choice – for example asking them to sit and rewarding this before allowing them to meet someone. In fact, if they like meeting people then getting to do so can be the reward for keeping their feet on the ground! You can think about using rewards within the environment to help positively reinforce good behaviour. For example, if your dog loves running off lead then this can be a reward for walking along nicely on lead for a few paces! Think about all the things your dog enjoys and how you can use them to reward good behaviour – this will mean your dog learns how to behave in a very happy way indeed!

Enjoy your training sessions and have fun!

Want to progress and learn more? Find out about your local Dog School.