Dog Training Methods: Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement dog training is the most common and popular and effective training method which makes training a fun and enjoyable experience for you and your pet.

There has been a great deal of research into the best methods for training dogs. The results show that resorting to harsh punishments for disobedience, such as using a choke chain, shouting and hitting a dog, or pinning him down, is simply not effective.

Such treatment is likely to cause more problem behaviors, including aggression and anxiety. The most successful way to train a dog is to find out what motivates him and use that to reward him for behaving in the way you want. In other words, the most effective way to train your dog is to reward good behavior rather than punishing them for negative behavior.

Once you know the methods of positive reinforcement training, you can begin training your dog to stay off the furniture.

Positive reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning which aims to induce a desired behavior by introducing a favorable stimulus right after the target behavior. It’s not just used to train dogs, either. Positive reinforcement can be found in business where bonuses are used to incentivize employees to work harder and perform specific tasks.

How Do Dogs Learn?

Dogs learn by establishing relationships between behavior and consequences. There can be different outcomes of behavior which can be positive or negative. When there is a positive relationship established between a behavior and consequences, the more your pet exhibits a specific behavior. If there is a negative relationship between behavior and outcome, then the more of that behavior your dog exhibits, the less of the consequence it receives. For example, if your dog barks at the mailman and the mailman then leaves the property, the aggression has been reaffirmed (though your dog doesn’t know that he’d have left anyway). Most of a dogs learning comes through negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is increased by associating it with a reward.

Types of Reinforcement

Before you begin positive reinforcement training, it’s important that we make some clarifications around positive versus negative reinforcement and punishment.

  1. Positive reinforcement is a reward for performing the behavior correctly. It should come soon after the behavior is performed. It is usually in the form of a quick vocal praise (“nice pass”), a clap, or a supportive gesture (like a head nod or fist-pump).
  2. Negative reinforcement follows a correct performance, but involves removing something undesirable to reinforce the desired behavior. A simple example is taking away a difficult conditioning workout if players perform well on some behavior, like paying attention during a tactical drill, or vocally encouraging their teammates).
  3. Punishment happens in response to an incorrect or undesirable behavior, and involves the presentation of something unpleasant (like making the player run or do push-ups). Punishment is usually psychological, like ridicule or embarrassment, and it often trends towards abuse.

Training is all about capturing good behaviors and then immediately providing rewards. Dogs aren’t intelligent enough to understand negative reinforcement and punishment just creates emotional distress.

Finding A Motivating Reward

Reaffirm your dogs behavior by rewarding them with verbal praise and a treat they desire.

To do this, you need to find out what works with your own dog. All dogs are individuals and react differently to rewards, but there are some common motivators that can be used as training aids for the majority of dogs. Simple praise is a very effective reward for a young puppy. Dogs are sociable animals and find positive contact with people in their family unit deeply rewarding. Most dogs will happily do what you ask of them in return for praise.

However, for some dogs the situation in which they find themselves can be so distracting that the desire to please may temporarily be taken over by more impelling urges. For instance, your dog may choose to ignore your calls when he is running after a rabbit. This is not because he no longer loves or respects you; it is simply that for a few thrilling moments he finds the unusual excitement of the chase more rewarding than your praise, which is always on offer. To overcome such distractions during training, you must find other things that are particularly rewarding to your dog.

The most powerful motivators used in dog training are toys and food. Use something that your dog really loves and will therefore be strongly motivated to receive. We cover the five primary types of positive, motivating rewards later in this article.

The importance of timing

Probably the most important skill for you to master as a dog trainer is good timing. Dogs learn exclusively by association. This means that if they do something and immediately receive a reward, they are more likely to repeat that behavior. Of course, this also causes some behavior problems. For example, if a dog that wants attention jumps up and gets pushed off or shouted at, he has received the attention he wants. Effectively, he has been rewarded for jumping up and is therefore more likely to jump up again.

If this is repeated, jumping up becomes a learned behavior—one that is repeated frequently.

Nevertheless, the way that dogs make associations is also extremely useful in teaching them how they should behave. If every time your dog sits he receives a food treat immediately afterward, he will start sitting more frequently. An association has been made between the behavior of sitting and a reward. It is then fairly simple to insert a voice cue as he folds into a sit, creating a learned behavior that your dog will produce on command. However, if you keep your food treats in your pocket and take a few moments to get them out, your dog will have sat, got bored, and jumped up at you by the time he gets the treat. Again, he learns that jumping up is a rewarding behavior and will therefore repeat it more often.

5 Types of Motivating Rewards

  1. Using Praise: One of the best forms of reward is praise. This requires no training aids—you simply have to make a big fuss of your dog. Talk to him in a friendly tone and stroke him.
  2. Motivating Food: All dogs find food motivating. Treats used for training should be small, bite-sized pieces of a food that is particularly tasty to your dog. Go for healthy choices such as cooked chicken or cheese.
  3. Favorite Toy: Many dogs are motivated by toys. If your dog loves to play, keep his favorite toy aside and bring it out only as a reward during training.
  4. Timing Rewards: Giving rewards too slowly may make your dog learn the wrong thing. If his attention is distracted, by the time he receives the reward, he may not make the connection between it and adopting the desired “sit” position (see above). Be prepared to give your dog his reward as soon as he follows your command (see right) and he will learn very quickly.
  5. Sleep Time: Your puppy will learn better if he sleeps between lessons. A young puppy tires easily, so keep training sessions short with frequent breaks.

Timing Rewards

Probably the most important skill for you to master as a dog trainer is good timing. Dogs learn exclusively by association. This means that if they do something and immediately receive a reward, they are more likely to repeat that behavior. Of course, this also causes some behavior problems. For example, if a dog that wants attention jumps up and gets pushed off or shouted at, he has received the attention he wants. Effectively, he has been rewarded for jumping up and is therefore more likely to jump up again. If this is repeated, jumping up becomes a learned behavior—one that is repeated frequently.

Nevertheless, the way that dogs make associations is also extremely useful in teaching them how they should behave. If every time your dog sits he receives a food treat immediately afterward, he will start sitting more frequently. An association has been made between the behavior of sitting and a reward. It is then fairly simple to insert a voice cue as he folds into a sit, creating a learned behavior that your dog will produce on command. However, if you keep your food treats in your pocket and take a few moments to get them out, your dog will have sat, got bored, and jumped up at you by the time he gets the treat. Again, he learns that jumping up is a rewarding behavior and will therefore repeat it more often.

Giving rewards too slowly may make your dog learn the wrong thing. If his attention is distracted, by the time he receives the reward, he may not make the connection between it and adopting the desired “sit” position. Be prepared to give your dog his reward as soon as he follows your command and he will learn very quickly.