Are you tired of yelling at your dog to get them to listen?
Do you feed your dog their food by putting it in a bowl?
Are you looking for a more fun, effective and positive way to train and bond with your dog?
Let's talk about the power of positive reinforcement.
By making a conscious effort to notice and reward good behavior, you can build a stronger bond with your dog and create a well-trained and well-behaved companion who understands what you want and how to get what they want.
In this article, we'll explore the techniques and tools you need to incorporate positive reinforcement. From understanding your dog's behavior to choosing the right rewards, we'll cover everything you need to know to make training a fun and rewarding experience for both you and your dog. So grab some of your dog's favorite things and let's get started on transforming your dog into a well-behaved member of your pack!
Understanding How Dogs Think & Learn
Dogs are social animals who enjoy attention and affection from their owners and will generally work for food, treats, toys and play, making them great candidates for training centered around positive reinforcement.
Dogs don't think exactly like humans. They live in the moment and respond best to immediate consequences that, over time create patterns and expectations. This means that any reinforcement given needs to be immediate and consistent for a complete understanding. For example, if your dog goes pee outside and you bring them inside to reward them, they will think they’re being rewarded for walking inside, not peeing outside
Dogs also respond well to routine, so it's important to establish a regular training schedule.
One common mistake that many dog owners make is assuming that their dog's unwanted behavior is a result of defiance. In reality, most unwanted behaviors or lack of compliance are a result of miscommunication or lack of training. By routinely and consistently working with your dog, you can get the results you’re looking for.
The Basic Principles of Training
Positive reinforcement training is based on the notion that behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to continue. This means that instead of focusing on punishing bad behavior, you should focus on rewarding good behavior. Rewards can be anything that your dog finds enjoyable, such as food, treats, toys, play, or praise.
When using positive reinforcement training, keep in mind the following principles:
Timing: Rewards should be given immediately after the desired behavior occurs. This helps your dog associate the behavior with the reward.
Consistency: Rewards should be consistent and predictable. This helps your dog understand what is expected of them and what behavior will be rewarded.
Motivation: Rewards should be motivating for your dog. This means that you need to choose rewards that are appropriate for your dog's age, breed, and personality.
By following these principles, you can create a positive training environment that encourages good behavior and strengthens the bond between you and your dog.
Choosing the Right Rewards and Reinforcers
Choosing the right rewards and reinforcers is an important part of positive reinforcement training. Rewards should be motivating for your dog and appropriate for the behavior you are trying to reinforce.
Food and treats are a common reward used because all dogs eat and you can keep the momentum going when using food.
When choosing treats, choose something that is healthy and appropriate for your dog's diet. I recommend using their regular food as much as possible - they’re going to eat it anyway.
One tip is to get the same brand of food but get a different flavor. Most dogs will view this new flavor as a treat.
All food and treats used for training should be small and easy to chew, so your dog can quickly consume them and get back to training. So stay away from milkbone-type treats that are large and crumble.
Toys can also be used as rewards in positive reinforcement training. Toys should be appropriate for your dog's age, breed, and personality. I recommend using toys as a reward during “play training” (where you play with your dog and incorporate obedience behaviors.
Praise, attention, and affection can also be a powerful reward in positive reinforcement training. Use a happy and enthusiastic tone when praising your dog, as this will reinforce the behavior and strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Keep in mind that if your dog is easily excitable, you should use a more calm tone and approach.
Preparing for Training Sessions
Before you begin training your dog, it's important to prepare for your training sessions. This means choosing a quiet and distraction-free environment, gathering your training tools, and setting aside enough time for the session.
Training sessions should be short and focused, typically lasting between 5-15 minutes. Start with basic commands, such as sit, stay, and come, and gradually build up to more advanced commands and tricks.
During training sessions, remain calm and patient. Dogs respond best to positive reinforcement, so avoid yelling or punishing your dog for unwanted behavior. Instead, redirect your dog's attention with a lure to the desired behavior and reward them for their good behavior or even for refocusing on you.
A Few Basic Commands - Sit, Stay, Come
Basic commands, such as sit, stay, and come, form the foundation for more advanced training and can help improve your dog's behavior and attention to you.
To teach your dog to sit, hold a treat directly in front of their nose, say “sit” and slowly move it above their head and back towards their tail. As your dog follows the treat, their butt will naturally lower to the ground. When their bottom touches the ground, give them the treat as a reward. Then say “free” and guide them up and out of the sit to release them. Repeat that 10-20 times!
To teach your dog to stay, start by adding duration: have them sit and begin intermittently rewarding them every few seconds with the goal of extending the time in between rewarding them, and teaching them to wait just a little bit longer. A good goal to start with is 15-30 seconds. Next, add distance: take a step back and wait a few seconds, then step forward and reward them. Repeat 10-15 times with the goal of standing about 6 feet away for about 30-60 seconds. Continue to gradually increase the distance and duration your dog stays in the stay position. If your dog gets up before you release them, say “no” or “ah-ah” and quickly and calmly guide them back in the sit where they originally were.
To teach your dog to come, start by having food in your hand and in their face. Say “come” loud and clear and immediately start to back up about 3-6 feet. Reward them when they get to you. Do about 15-20 reps. Next, Toss a piece of food away from yourself and let them get it. As soon as they do, say “come!” and start clapping your hands to encourage them to come to you. Reward them when they get to you. You can also put them in a sit and walk away, then call them. Gradually increase the distance and distractions during the come command.
Troubleshooting Common Challenges
Even with positive reinforcement training, there will be challenges along the way. Common challenges include too big distractions, lack of motivation, and only listening if you have food.
To address distractions: Choose a quiet and distraction-free environment when first starting to set your dog up for success. You can also gradually increase the distractions during training sessions to help your dog learn to focus.
To address a lack of motivation: Use their food for training. A hungry dog is a motivated dog. In addition, it's important to choose rewards that your dog loves. You can also try mixing up the rewards to keep your dog interested and engaged.
To address only listening if you have food: Don’t hold food in your hand every time you train. It’s okay in the beginning to lure and help them pay attention, but you should use a training bag and reach in it AFTER they have completed the behavior once they understand it. Also, don’t ask them to do something only to be ignored and then go and get treats to make them do it. They’ll learn to keep ignoring you in order to make you get treats.
Incorporating Positive Reinforcement into Daily Life
Positive reinforcement training doesn't have to be limited to training sessions. You can incorporate positive reinforcement into your daily life to strengthen the bond between you and your dog.
For example, you can use positive reinforcement by petting your dog after you ask them to sit. This can also help to prevent jumping.
If you make a habit of noticing the good behavior you like and consistently communicating it to them through petting and praise, you’re guaranteed to see a difference in their behavior and strengthen your relationship.
Conclusion and Next Steps
Positive reinforcement training is a powerful way to teach your dog and strengthen the bond between you and them. By understanding your dog's behavior, choosing the right rewards, and following basic training principles, you can create a positive training environment that encourages good behavior and improves your relationship.
If you're still struggling with training your dog, don't hesitate to seek the help of a professional dog trainer.
For more training advice about Leadership and teaching your dog behaviors like Place Training, Door Boundaries, and more - check out my Pack Leadership Course