What is positive reinforcement dog training?
Decided it’s time to get your dog’s naughty behaviours in check? You've come to the right place.
What works for you and your dog in terms of training will differ depending on your dog’s personality, what motivates them (food, praise, toys) and how both you and your pooch are feeling on that day.
Among the population of dog owners, everyone has differing opinions on what they think is the best way to train your dog. However, as researchers, trainers and owners are continually understanding more and more about how the canine mind works, positive reinforcement is now generally agreed to be one of the most successful dog training methods.
We’re here to tell you all about positive reinforcement, what it is, how to do it and why it works so well. We’ve got no doubt that you’ll have your pooch sitting, staying, heeling in no time!
What is positive reinforcement dog training?
Positive reinforcement dog training is a method of training your dog by reinforcing and rewarding all the behaviours that you like with something that your dog likes. All in all, dogs like to repeat things if they know they’ll get something really good at the end of it, and for most dogs, that’ll be a super tasty treat.
That’s what makes positive reinforcement training so successful. You use non-confrontational tactics to utilise your dog’s mind to establish routine and good behaviour.
When it comes to training, many trainers split methods into 4 sections:
- Positive reinforcement: Good things start
- Negative reinforcement: Bad things end
- Positive punishment: Bad thing starts
- Negative punishment: Good things end
So, let’s explain these in a little more detail. It’s important to remember here that positive and negative don’t necessarily mean good and bad, the idea is that positive = adding something and negative = removing something. Kind of like a mathematical equation.
As we know, positive reinforcement is where you give the dog a reward for good behaviour (adding something to reinforce).
Alternatively, negative reinforcement is removing something your dog views to be bad to reinforce the good. For example, if you were teaching your dog to sit, negative reinforcement would mean pushing their rear end down with your hand so they move into the position you want, removing the unpleasant pressure when they’ve sat down.
The idea behind it is that they’ll be happy when the pressure is removed so when they’re asked to sit in the future, they’re more likely to do it straight away to prevent the unpleasant feeling. This forceful type of training isn’t the best idea, using relief as a reward isn’t effective.
On the other hand, negative punishment is where you take away something that your dog likes. For example, if they’re naughty, you’d take away something they really value, such as their favourite ball, or even turning around from your dog when they’re jumping up all over you in excitement.
Your dog is craving your attention when they jump up at you, so by turning away you’re removing their opportunity to get your attention. When it’s utilised in this non-confrontational way, negative punishment can work quite well with positive reinforcement.
Positive punishment is the act of adding something your dog dislikes when they’re doing something you don’t want them to, such as shaking a can of coins, shouting, shock collars and more. This was considered to be the appropriate way of punishing your dog and ‘asserting dominance’ over them for many years.
These methods have since been disproved, your dog will just become fearful of you and they’re more likely to act out in response.
Why is positive reinforcement the best way?
Positive reinforcement is all about building good communication between you and your pooch, it doesn’t need to be difficult, you don’t need to use a stern voice or any kind of force, it simply relies on communication and bonding with your dog.
Punishment can often be misconstrued by dogs, as it’s hard to time your punishments perfectly, so your dog often mistakes what action they’re getting punished for. For example, if you punish your dog for having an accident indoors during toilet training, your dog might misunderstand the punishment as it being unsafe to go to the toilet when you’re around.
As a result, they may continue having accidents in the house when they’re home alone as you’ll never catch them doing it, which is the complete opposite of what you want. This is all one big miscommunication problem, your dog fearing you is not an effective way for them to learn.
Also, if you choose to use punishment of whatever kind on already aggressive or timid dogs, they’re likely to become even more aggressive or timid as a result of the punishment.
So, think of positive reinforcement as you and your dog being a part of one team, you’re not the ‘pack leader’ who needs to dominate. It works by communicating to your dog what’s right and what’s wrong, reinforcing all those good behaviours.
Expand your team and get the whole family involved too. Training is a great way for you, your family and your friends to bond with your pooch, and it can actually be really fun too!
Training keeps your dog’s brain ticking, so even though they might not always be physically active, they’ll be mentally active, which still burns off their energy, preventing destructive behaviours and giving you the chance for some peace and quiet later. Win win!
Things to consider with positive reinforcement dog training
How rewarding is your reward?
Rewards need to be high-value and exciting to reinforce good behaviours.
You might think that any old dog treat you pick up is enough to please your dog, but do they get excited by them? Do they look at you with puppy dog eyes and a waggy tail whenever you get them out? If not, it might be time to switch up your treats and get something that’s super rewarding from your dog’s point of view.
This reward might even be praise, their favourite toy or the opportunity to play a game, such as fetch. Some dogs really aren’t that motivated by food, we know, shocking, right?! If that sounds like your pooch, something simple like a tennis ball might do the trick.
As owners, we can often underestimate how much our dogs love our attention, they love it when we just give them eye contact, so by touching, looking at and talking to your dog, you’re always influencing and reinforcing their behaviours.
Use different rewards for different situations too. List everything your dog responds well to, whether that be a tennis ball, a piece of chicken, or just the sound of your praising voice (you know, that high-pitched, cutesy voice we reserve for our furry friends).
Put the list into a hierarchy of which is the most rewarding, using the higher-valued treats when your dog is faced with tricky training challenges or distracting environments, for example when you’re training recall in a busy dog park.
So, when your dog comes running straight back to you in the park, you might want to reward them with a piece of delicious chicken, or you might want to speak in a really excited voice and jump around to play so your dog is super giddy that they’ve decided to come back to you.
Your reward needs to be more rewarding than the environment. Also, if you have a dog who is always on the go and just never seems to settle, you might want to reward calm behaviours, in which you want to give them a reward that isn’t too exciting.
For example, a gentle stroke and verbal praise in a soothing voice should do just the trick. You don’t want to introduce their favourite toy into the mix when they’ve finally settled down!
On the other hand, choosing the wrong reward can regress your training, if your dog doesn’t like the reward you’re giving them, they won’t have any desire to keep repeating the behaviour that you desire. A good example of this is a pat on the head.
Many dogs actually really don’t like it when you pat them on the head, so if you choose to reward your dog with a head pat, they’ll start associating this behaviour with this negative ‘reward’. This is called poisoning a cue.
Essentially, rewards can be completely tailored to your dog, if your dog is enjoying themselves, it’s classed as a reward.
Some tricks and behaviours can take a while for your dog to learn, whereas some might be mastered in a few short training sessions.
So, for the ones that are taking a little longer for your dog to crack, you can use a technique called ‘shaping’. This refers to the act of reinforcing and rewarding a behaviour that is close to the end result and then gradually shaping it more and more until you reach the exact response you desired.
For example, when teaching your dog to roll over, it’s unlikely that they’ll be willing to roll over fully on the first try. So, you might want to ‘shape’ their behaviour into a full roll over, luring them into lying on their side with a reward, and then onto their back and finally all the way over. We’ve got a full guide on teaching your dog to roll over if you want to impress your friends with this cute little trick.
Rate of reinforcement
When you first begin training your pooch, you need to be constantly on the ball with reinforcing those good behaviours. When your dog is running around off lead, the environment around them provides many fun and interesting sights and smells, whether that be other dogs, birds, muddy puddles or other people.
You’re constantly in a competition with all of these distractions, so you want to make sure you give your dog exciting rewards frequently, so you can keep your training sessions much more interesting than the distracting environment around you.
If your rewards aren’t exciting or given in short successions, the wrong behaviours (such as running off from you to chase another dog) can be reinforced by rewards that are totally out of your control (the chance to play with said dog). Your dog will start thinking that they won’t get anything out of you if they come back, so clearly the better, more rewarding option here is going up to the other dog.
Once your dog has started to master their skills, you can slow down the rate at which you reinforce good behaviours with a reward. Don’t worry, you won’t have to give your dog a treat every single time they sit, lie down, walk well on the lead and so on, a little fuss and a ‘good dog’ will be enough after a while.
However, it’s always important to never totally stop reinforcing good behaviours with treats, nothing is ever perfect! A yummy treat will be a bonus if you hand them out sporadically.
Right on time
Timing is everything when it comes to training. You need to have your reward ready and waiting when you’re training, if you take too long faffing about trying to find a treat in your pocket, your dog is very likely to get confused about what they’re actually being rewarded for.
This could mean that different behaviours are being reinforced, not the actual thing you were trying to teach.
This is where a clicker or a ‘marker’ can come in handy, giving your training precision when it comes to training.
So, when your dog does what you want, you can use your clicker, or use a marking word such as ‘yes!’ at exactly the right moment, so your dog knows that is the exact behaviour you were searching for, and they know that the click or marker will soon be followed by their proper reward.
Placement of rewards
Even though our canines are super clever, how you place your rewards can cause confusion, just the same as giving them their treat too slow can.
So, for example, if you want to teach your dog how to sit, they must get the reward while they are sitting. If your dog needs to get up and walk over to get their reward, they won’t know whether the reward was for sitting or getting up and walking.
If your dog is behaving badly…
Training can be a fun way to build that pet-parent bond, but it can easily become frustrating and tiresome when your dog disobeys and just will not listen to you.
The only way to crack positive reinforcement training is with a lot of patience, practice and positivity, dogs feed from your mood so if they can tell you’re frustrated, they’re less likely to respond in the way you want.
Keep in mind that you might unintentionally reward bad behaviours, it’s really easy to do. As an example, if your dog jumps up at people coming through the door, and they respond with ‘get down!’ while looking at your dog and pushing them down, they might just be accidentally making the scenario a whole lot worse.
Most dogs love to be looked at, spoken to and touched, so this means that this whole interaction could actually be a good thing for your dog. At the end of the day, they’re still getting attention even if you deem it as negative attention.
Instead, your visitor should be turning their back and totally ignoring your dog until all four paws are on the ground. You can help guide your dog to the right decision too, asking your dog to sit before someone enters so that they don’t jump. If they love people, the fuss and attention they’ll get after sitting calmly instead of jumping acts as the reward.
Another example is when you’re trying to train your dog to walk well on the lead. If they walk politely without pulling your arm off, the reward at the end could be a short off-lead play session.
To make positive reinforcement training work, you really need to know and understand what makes your dog the happiest and work around that.
Positive reinforcement training is one of the best ways to get a perfectly trained pooch, it works by utilising the things that make your dog the happiest, making your dog easier and more inclined to train and respond, making you happier as a result.
It’s a situation that’ll benefit you both, you get a well-behaved dog, and they get loads of exciting rewards.
- Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare Animal Welfare, 13, Feb 2004, 63-69