Positive Reinforcement: A Guide to Training Your Dog

If you’re approaching a group of professional dog trainers with the concept of how to best train your dog, they will likely have a variety of approaches. Some will lean more towards positive reinforcement, which uses treats or some kind of reward to teach your pup good behaviors, while others might argue that more dominance-based techniques work better. Regardless of the foundation of the approach, most dog trainers would suggest a largely mixed approach to ensuring your dog behaves his best.

However, it’s important to know that the more dominant approaches are usually left best to the professional dog trainers who have a full understanding of what techniques benefit dogs, since they have the possibility of becoming too domineering. That’s why we recommend utilizing the toolbox of positive reinforcement, as demonstrated by puppy Moxie on TikTok.

@moxiesadventures

Here are some of Moxie’s first cues! We started training some of these at 8 weeks. We are working on a few others as well (leave it, kennel, off, kisses, wait) but she’s got these ones down pretty well! #dogtraining #clickertraining #positivereinforcementdogtraining #puppytraining #dogsoftiktok #nationalpetday #fyp

♬ original sound – Emma

In this post, we hope to share some of the best techniques and strategies for training your dog. These will come in handy in a number of situations, including when you’re trying to get your pup to stop barking or to calm down when he’s misbehaving, in general. Positive reinforcement training is all about using a reward (treats, praise, toys, etc.) to motivate your dog to repeat desired behaviors.

General Principles of Positive Reinforcement

1. Keep the command short

Complete sentences will likely get you confused head tilts or a blank stare. Instead, try demonstrating what you want your dog to do using body language and a treat to motivate. Give your pup the treat when he does what you show him, and then add in the one-word commands in a gentle voice. For example, if you’re trying to teach your dog to sit, start by encouraging him through body language and holding the treat in the air so he can see it. Once your pup consistently sits through this mechanism, begin using the word “sit” to keep the repeated behavior going. Other common verbal cues are: stay, down, off, up, heel, come, leave it, drop, and give. 

2. Be consistent

Your dog can become very confused if you or your family members mix up the verbal cues. If the commands or rewards change drastically, it will likely impair your training work until that point. This also means you should be careful not to reward undesired behaviors, which can easily happen, even if accidentally. For example, if your pup is barking to go outside, and you let him out, this is bad behavior being rewarded. Staying consistent will ensure your dog continues to carry out positive behaviors.

3. The reward doesn’t have to be a treat…but it’s a good place to start

Food treats are a good idea when you’re first starting out training your pup, but there are other options if you’re hoping to keep your furry friend slimmed down. Usually, giving verbal praise, petting, or a favorite toy will also work well. But since most dogs have food first and foremost on their minds, we suggest using small-sized treats that they can gobble up quickly before looking for more. Once you pair the reward of the treat with a verbal affirmation like “yes” or “good” said in an enthusiastic tone, then you can begin to wean off treats and rely more heavily on verbal praises. If you are giving fewer treats with the verbal praise, make sure to decrease the amount slowly, otherwise your pup can wind up confused and unmotivated. Eventually, your dog will be content with verbal praise and just the occasional treat.

What is Clicker Training?

A clicker is a small, mechanical noisemaker that can help with positive reinforcement. While your pup doesn’t need to learn commands and behaviors, it proves to be a helpful aid in teaching your dog which behaviors are desired. It works when you click the clicker the moment your pup performs the behavior, then rewards that positive behavior with something like a treat. 

The clicker only works with the reward because it symbolizes a reward on the way and therefore conditions an enthusiastic response from your pup. The consistent, distinct sound of the click adds clarity in ensuring your dog understands which behavior is being rewarded.

Shape Behavior with Positive Reinforcement

It takes time and consistency for your pup to learn new behaviors, especially in a habitual way. But if you approach each behavior with several steps, you’ll start to see your dog learning and improving each time. This shaping technique lets your pup figure out how to do the correct behavior and rewards him with each small victory. For example, if you are teaching your dog to lay down, you may first reward him for sitting, then work to get him to lay from that position.

Zoë Butler
Author: Zoë Butler

Content Writer for DogFriendly.com.

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