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If you’ve been scoping out the world of dog training, or have been hanging out on this blog for a bit, then you’ve probably seen the term “positive reinforcement” being thrown around a bit!
It’s one of the 7 most common types of dog training, and has a lot of benefits.
When I first got Mini Poodle Baloo I didn’t really know what kind of training method I should be using. I’ve grown up with a Golden Retriever and we’ve always used a mix of positive reinforcement and positive punishment. No wonder he didn’t listen very well…
So when I first got Baloo I pretty much did the same because I didn’t know any better. Again, it was total chaos. And it took me quite a while to figure out why.
Nowadays, I’m basically only using positive reinforcement. The only exception is that I have a keychain with some metal plates that I can throw on the ground when Baloo is off leash and I need to get his attention when he’s super focused on something else, like another dog. That’s to startle him and get him out of his intense focus. Because honestly, he just doesn’t hear me anymore in those moments. But that’s really just to get his attention and keep him focused on me.
But for the rest, I just reinforce the kind of behavior that I want him to display.
As a result, Baloo has become much calmer and our relationship has tremendously improved.
Learn from my mistakes and go with only positive reinforcement right away!
What Is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?
But what exactly is positive reinforcement dog training, and how does it work? And, more importantly, is it effective?
Before we get into the specifics, let’s talk about what positive reinforcement looks like.
Reward Good Behavior
Positive reinforcement is all about encouragement. Essentially, what that means is whenever your dog displays a behavior you like, you reward him for that.
For example, if you’re working on teaching your dog a command like “sit,” you give your dog a treat when he sits to encourage that particular action.
But it goes beyond simple obedience tricks! You can use positive reinforcement to train your dog to be respectful and polite.
So if you’re working with your dog on something like not jumping on strangers, whenever your dog keeps all four feet on the floor when you have visitors over, you reward him. That shows him exactly what behavior you like, and encourages him to repeat it.
Ignore Bad Behavior
Many people believe that part of training and disciplining a dog involves punishing your dog in a particular way. For instance, smacking a dog on the nose when he does something you don’t like. The idea behind this is that dogs will fear the undesirable consequence, and will cease the behavior. This is called positive punishment.
It’s a very common misconception that this is the best way to stop a dog’s bad behavior. But the truth is that there are many risks involved, including your dog becoming aggressive and fearful—especially of you.
Instead, ignoring bad behavior is a much more effective option. Most of the time, what your dog wants is some attention. When he’s acting out, ignoring him shows him that behaving this way isn’t going to get him what he wants. It’s a much safer, more humane way of disciplining your dog.
Work with Treats and Praise
The two most important tools to have when you’re training your dog are treats and praise. Most dogs are super motivated by tasty snacks, and rewarding dogs with treats when they show good behavior will help them learn.
Likewise, your dog values your opinion a lot. And as I said, a lot of the time they’re looking for your attention when they display certain behaviors. So if you give your dog your attention when he does actions that you like, that tells him to keep performing those behaviors!
You don’t really need any other tools besides treats and praise. Some people prefer to also use clickers to help with the timing of the rewards, and they are definitely useful. But they’re also not necessary, and you can get away with just a baggie of treats and your love!
Does Positive Reinforcement Dog Training Work?
In short, yes, positive reinforcement dog training really does work! Many people don’t believe it does, especially for cases of extreme fearfulness and aggression. But the truth is you just have to use it in the right way!
So how do you do that? Well, let’s go over the most important elements of positive reinforcement.
Timing Is Key
Dogs have short attention spans, so you need to be on the ball when you’re training. And, since you can’t verbally explain to your dog what you’re rewarding him for, you have to make sure you treat him at the right time.
If you’re teaching your dog not to jump on people, you would reward your dog as soon as all his feet are on the floor. If you wait too long, or if your dog jumps up again, your dog will be confused about what you’re rewarding him for.
He might end up thinking that you’re encouraging him to jump!
Use High Value Treats
To have positive reinforcement training be as effective as possible, you want to reward your dog with something he really, really likes. Using high value treats, which means treats that are his favorites, will give him the most encouragement.
Make sure that your treat pouch or pockets are well-stuffed with your dog’s favorite treats before you get to work.
Stay Calm During Training
When you’re training your dog, consider yourself a model for behavior you like. If you get too loud or excited, then your dog is going to get loud and excited too. This may be fun during playtime, but during training it means that your dog is not going to listen to you.
Combining loud and excited behavior with rewards also means that it encourages your dog to act super excited all the time!
So stay calm during training. You can still act happy and give your dog lots of pats and praise when he does something you like. But overall, keeping a relaxed demeanor will help your dog focus, and teach him to be calmer in general.
This is especially important for dogs who get worked up easily. For more information, check out How to Calm a Stressed Dog Naturally.
And trust me, I know how difficult it can be to stay calm with a hyper dog! This took me lots of training and I now manage to stay calm about 90% of the time with Baloo. But sometimes, I just get annoyed when he gets all worked up, like during Agility training.
These are the moments when I have to remind myself: the calmer I am, the calmer Baloo will get…
So, you’re not alone with this!
Speaking of hyper dogs, make sure to download my free guide for a calm dog that includes all the tips and tricks that helped me get Baloo to calm down a lot!
Use a Clicker for Stronger Reinforcement
As I already mentioned, adding in a clicker for positive reinforcement can really help with the timing. The first thing you need to do is condition your dog with the clicker. Basically, that means whenever you click, your dog gets a treat right away.
Clicker training allows you to be more precise with your training and your rewarding. For example, if you’re teaching your dog not to jump, instead of having to reach for a treat and give it to him when his feet are on the ground, you can click your clicker.
You’ll still need to reward your dog to keep up positive associations, but the sound of the clicker will let your dog know right away that what he did was good, and a treat’s on the way.
How to Use Positive Reinforcement Dog Training If Your Dog Is Not Food Motivated
Not all dogs are motivated by food and treats! In these cases, you’ll need to adjust your rewards. Sometimes giving your dog extra love is enough of a reward, or you can use playtime to reward your pup.
If your dog isn’t food motivated, it just means you need to get more creative. iheartdogs has a really great article on the subject!
Positive Reinforcement Dog Training Examples
Here’s an overview at what positive reinforcement will look like when you’re training your dog! You can apply these examples to these 11 easy dog tricks for beginners too.
Sit, Stay, Down
These three tricks are some of your doggy basics! The AKC has some great guidelines on teaching your pup these tricks.
Whichever one you’re working on, make sure you have treats at the ready. As soon as your dog sits down, reward him with his favorite treat and give him lots of praise. With consistency and practice, your dog will be able to perform these tricks right away on command.
Barking is one of the more annoying habits dogs can pick up—not to mention the loudest! Zak George has a really great video on how to teach dogs not to bark using positive reinforcement.
As you can see, the trick is to redirect your dog’s attention towards something else and rewarding that instead. Again, the key here is patience, consistency, and some high value treats!
Recall is one of the most important things you can teach your dog, especially if you plan on doing a lot of exploring together.
The most important thing is to reward your dog as soon as he comes to you, even if it’s not right away! Treat and praise your dog to show him that this is behavior you like, and that you want him to keep doing it.
For more help with recall, check out these 13 tips to teach a dog to come when called.
Stop Leash Pulling
Walking on a leash is one of the most important things you can teach your pup! To stop your dog from pulling on his leash, the best thing to do whenever he pulls is to just stop moving and ignore your dog.
Your dog will want to keep going, but by not moving and ignoring him you’re showing him that tugging isn’t how he gets to keep exploring!
Once your dog stops trying to pull and brings his attention back to you, then you can praise your dog and keep walking.
Many people don’t believe that positive reinforcement is an effective way of training a dog. But the truth is that it’s actually one of the most effective!
By using positive reinforcement, you show your dog exactly what he does that you like, while also acting as a model for him. It’s also the most humane way to train a dog.
Even better, positive reinforcement will strengthen the bond between you and your pup. So grab your treats, get your hands ready to give your dog some serious love, and start training!