Behavior training puppy with positive reinforcement

Dog Training: The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Maggie Marton | August 29, 2018

Our dogs are perfect! But… even the best of them have needed a little training at one point or another!

Dogs need some basic manners to thrive in a human world. Dogs aren’t born knowing it’s not OK to jump on people or how to stay in place. It’s up to us to teach them how to behave appropriately! 

When it comes to dog training, there are nearly as many philosophies as there are trainers. The reason we focus on positive reinforcement is because it has been thoroughly researched in scientific settings, and the peer-reviewed data show that positive reinforcement is as effective, and many times even more effective, as other training methods. Plus, wouldn’t you rather train your pup in a way that builds your bond and increases his trust in you because you’re having fun together rather than scaring or hurting him with negative corrections?

So, what is “positive reinforcement” training?

You might see it called “force-free” training, or you might be most familiar with a type of positive-reinforcement training called clicker training. No matter what you call it or the tools you use, “positive reinforcement training uses praise and/or treats to reward your dog for doing something you want him to do. Because the reward makes him more likely to repeat the behavior, positive reinforcement is one of your most powerful tools for shaping or changing your dog's behavior.”

It’s a lot like your day job: You work at your desk all week long and receive a paycheck on Friday as a reward for your hard work. For your dog, he gets praise or a treat instead of a check, but the concept is the same.

Put It Into Practice

Decide on some cues you want to work on, like “sit.” Then, as you train your dog to sit, each time he does, give him his treat reward immediately. (It has to be immediate because dogs can’t link rewards to past actions.) Over time, you can fade out the treat reward or alternate it with verbal praise. 

If, while you’re training “sit,” your dog isn’t sitting, don’t punish him! It just means he hasn’t learned it well enough yet, so back up a couple steps in your training and start again. 

Positive Reinforcement Isn’t Bribery

One of the biggest criticisms is that positive reinforcement is basically bribery. The reality is, you’re paying your dog for working, so if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid. The rewards come after your dog performs the behavior, not as an enticement offered beforehand. 

Behavior Modification

Let’s say your dog has a problem behavior, like jumping up on people when they walk in your front door. Positive reinforcement training can be used to modify that behavior to something desirable, say, waiting patiently on a mat near the door when someone enters. You can shape that kind of behavior by starting super slowly. For instance, first teach your dog how to wait patiently on a mat. Then, teach him to wait on his mat while you walk towards the door. Once he accomplishes that, ask him to wait on his mat while you walk toward the door and touch the door handle. Etcetera. Build up, or shape, slowly and incrementally from the easiest piece of the desired behavior until you hit on what you want! (This is how people teach their pups complicated series of tricks like running into the kitchen to get a drink out of the fridge!)

By the way, the data show that these methods work just as well for kiddos and spouses, too! Obviously you can’t follow your kiddo around with a clicker and bag of cookies, but you can strive to apply the same positive methods to your family and see if you can get everyone as well-behaved as your dog!