Take a moment to think about what makes you motivated to do something, such as maintaining a healthy habit, doing chores, or working at your job. You’re likely getting some sort of reward from these actions, whether it be a boost of serotonin after a workout that makes you feel happy and relaxed or an external reward such as a bonus for performing well at work.
This positive reward makes you more likely to repeat these actions and behaviors. The same logic applies to your dog, and dog trainers refer to this concept as positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement-based training techniques are an effective way to help you communicate behaviors to your dog while making the process of learning more enjoyable — and more effective.
What Is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?
Positive reinforcement is an intuitive approach to dog training that’s a go-to technique for many new and seasoned dog owners. At its core, it follows the idea that dogs will repeat behaviors that are positively rewarded. Combine this tendency with a command, and you have a way to train your dog to learn and perform certain actions or behaviors.
The idea of positive reinforcement is based on the principle of establishing a relationship (in your dog’s mind) between behavior and positive consequences — or in other words, linking their actions to a favorable outcome. Most behaviors your pup exhibits will be met with an outcome on your end: a positive reward or a negative reaction. If a behavior is consistently rewarded, your dog is likely to repeat it
Positive reinforcement training uses this idea to associate an action or behavior with a specific command. If your dog completes this action or behavior on command, they will be rewarded. As a simple example: you command your dog to sit, in response your dog sits, and you immediately reward them with a small treat.
Tips for Effective Use of Positive Reinforcement
Although this concept seems straightforward enough, there are some important nuances to the technique. Below are a few ideas you should keep in mind to help practice effective positive reinforcement training.
It’s All About Timing
When it comes to effective positive reinforcement dog training, when you give the reward is everything. It is very important that the reward immediately follows the good behavior. This will ensure that your dog associates the reward with that specific behavior; if there’s a delay between action and reward, you risk your dog engaging in other behaviors, which if rewarded, can confuse them.
For example, let’s say that you are practicing the “lay down” command with your dog and they successfully do so upon command. You wait a tad bit too long before rewarding them with a treat and so they stand up, wagging their tail in excitement. If you reward them with a treat when they’re standing, they may be confused about what exactly they are being rewarded for: sitting or standing. In other words, be sure to give them their reward while they are doing the behavior you want them to do.
Consistency Is Key
Consistency is a good rule of thumb to follow for most dog training techniques, but it is especially important to keep in mind when using positive reinforcement. Everyone (your family, friends, and dog trainers) should be using the same commands and cues for each behavior. Otherwise, it can be easy for your dog to get confused about what action they are being asked to do.
You want to say the same command (accompanied by the same hand gesture or cue) every time, even once your dog has mastered the command. Do your best to make each command and gesture unique so that your dog can easily recognize what they’re being asked to do; for example, the hand gestures for “sit” and “lie down” should be very distinct from each other.
Create a Distraction-Free Environment
When you first begin positive reinforcement training with your pup, it’s best to be in a distraction-free environment. Not only will this help them focus on you and the task at hand, but it will also more effectively establish the correlation between action and reward. If you’re surrounded by an intriguing environment — say, outside with many fun smells, noises, and animals — your dog may struggle to focus on the reward you’re offering and instead find excitement in their environment.
Essentially, you want to make the training session more exciting than the environment, which is most easily accomplished by training in a quiet, indoor space. Once your dog has successfully mastered the commands, then you can move to practicing positive reinforcement in a more lively and distracting environment to “level up” and solidify the training.
What to Use as a Positive Reward
Essentially, you want to pick a reward that motivates your dog. For many, treats are a go-to option — what pup doesn’t love food?!
However, there are many other ways to reward your dog for good behavior, including a scratch on the head, toys, or brief play to name a few. The clicker training method can also be used in combination with positive reinforcement as an additional signal of good behavior.
If you do opt for treats or food, make sure you are using small pieces that are easy for your dog to quickly eat. This will ensure they don’t get distracted by the complexity of the food. Always make sure the reward is accompanied by verbal praise, like a simple “good boy” or “good girl”.
Ultimately, what reward you choose will be dependent on what your dog is most motivated by. As they progress through training, don’t be afraid to switch up the type of rewards you use.
When to Use (and When Not to Use) Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is great to use during a structured training session in which you are introducing or practicing a new skill. It also can be used more subtly throughout the day to help your pet develop good behavior. For example, you may have your dog sit before you open the door to let them outside or before placing their dinner in front of them. In these scenarios, going outside and food act as the reward for sitting.
This technique can also be used to help calm dogs prone to being over-excited and jumpy when greeting people. Let’s say you have some friends visiting and they ring the doorbell. Before opening the door and inviting your guests into your house, you command your dog to sit and wait. Only once your dog has calmly sat and waited do you let the visitors enter and allow your dog to greet them.
Be careful to not accidentally use positive reinforcement to reward poor behavior. In the example at the beginning of this article, we covered a scenario in which you use positive reinforcement to train your dog to sit. This is the desired way to use positive reinforcement — however, positive reinforcement can also be used accidentally or unintentionally to reward undesirable behaviors.
For example, let’s say your dog often barks at the door or window when they see distractions outside, such as birds or neighbors walking by. You may find this constant barking distracting or unpleasant, so to stop the barking, you let them go outside and give yourself some peace and quiet. While this may solve your problem at the moment, it actually reinforces this behavior. In your dog’s mind, they associate barking at the door with being let outside, which is a positive outcome. By doing this, you unintentionally positively reward their barking and they are more likely to do it again.
When to Wean Off Rewards
When you are first teaching your dog a new skill or action, continuous reinforcement with rewards is important to solidify the link between action and favorable outcome. This would mean rewarding your dog every time they successfully complete the skill.
Once your pup has started to get the hang of the new skill and good behavior has been effectively established, you should move to a variable rate of reinforcement, meaning that you reward them every few times they perform the good behavior.
Why is it important to make this transition? Research has shown that if you reward behavior continuously, the behavior will likely stop once you eventually cease the reward. With a variable rate of reinforcement, your dog will tend to demonstrate stronger and more consistent positive behavior, with the rewards being continued praise and cooperation from their owner, making the improvement of the relationship itself part of the end goal.
Work With Dog Trainers Who Use Positive Reinforcement
All pups should have a standard baseline of training as it promotes healthy socialization and offers your pet a higher quality of life by helping them adapt to society. Positive reinforcement is a great technique to make the training experience fun, positive, and safe for your dog. This approach helps foster a trusting and loving relationship between you and your pup.
If you’re interested in working with a dog trainer who uses the positive reinforcement technique , reach out to one of Greenlin Pet Resorts’ six Harrisburg locations to discuss our training services!