How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Train a Dog
Positive reinforcement in dog training works by rewarding the behavior you want and ignoring the behavior you don’t. Read on to learn how.
HOW TO REWARD GOOD DOG BEHAVIOR
USING FOOD TREATS IN DOG TRAINING
Some trainers say food treats should not be an ongoing part of dog training, believing it’s “wrong” for a dog to work for food, and when food is expected the dog won’t continue to respond. That being said, trainers who are generally opposed to the continued use of food during dog training still think food rewards are a great (but temporary) tool to improve a dog’s attitude or temperament, or to get an adult dog or puppy started in his training. This is especially true for adult dogs who may have had bad previous experiences and are shy, afraid, or so full of energy they have trouble focusing.
Unpredictable food treats are best when you train a dog. Studies of a wide range of animals have shown that intermittent (or sporadic) treat-giving is a stronger training reinforcement than giving the most delectable treat every single time the animal performs. Once a dog responds consistently, become inconsistent with treat-giving: dole out the goodies only after two or three good responses in a row. Reward only the best responses to the command—the quickest reaction or the most complete or precise response. This way you not only keep the dog coming back for more (not knowing when the next treat will be forthcoming) but you also keep the quality of your dog’s learning at a high level.
Phase out the dog training treats. These trainers also suggest phasing out treats as soon as your dog consistently responds well. Whenever you start teaching a new behavior, you can begin with treats, and if you give generous verbal or physical praise, the dog will not mind the absence of treats over time.
USING AFFECTION IN DOG TRAINING
Some trainers believe a dog owner’s approval and acceptance are the most powerful things in a dog’s life. In order for your affection to work most powerfully as a positive reinforcement, the kind of affection you deliver has to be suited to the individual dog.
Dog Affection Favorites Most dogs love to be scratched behind the ears, under the chin and on the butt above the tail. Stroking the ear flap between your thumb and finger or gently grasping the entire ear where it joins the head and running the ear flap through your fingers in a stroking motion can be especially soothing and pleasurable for many dogs. Run your hand down her back in a massaging motion. Rub her chest. Some dogs will lie down and offer their stomachs for rubbing.
To discover what your dog loves most, watch her expression—some dogs smile, others just look more relaxed. Whenever you’re showing affection to your dog you know she loves it when she wags her tail, comes close to you, or nudges you with her paw or nose to continue when you pause. Pay attention to your own praising style: does it suit your dog, or do you need to modify your behavior?
WHEN AND HOW TO PRAISE YOUR DOG
Well-timed praise from you is fundamental to the dog’s learning process. Since the foundation of training is so simple and universal, what makes the difference in an effective dog trainer—or a happy dog owner—is how and when the praise (or lack thereof) is doled out. Quickly link a new command to the action you want through immediate praise.
Give your dog lots of praise. You won’t “spoil” your dog by lavishing her with enthusiastic words and affection. Praise her for trying, not just for succeeding. Learning is hard for a dog, and can be stressful, too. Praise her at every opportunity.
HOW TO CORRECT UNDESIRABLE DOG BEHAVIOR
AVOID PHYSICAL PAIN AND INTIMIDATION IN DOG TRAINING
Earlier dog training techniques relied on a punitive philosophy as the way to respond to mistakes (punish the dog for not doing something or for doing it incorrectly). But those beliefs about learning have now been discarded. Current thinking is that we should ignore the bad behavior or unwanted responses. Without reinforcement, the poor behavior will stop. Keep in mind that anything a dog does is just behavior—at least until you’ve taught her and she understands what you consider to be misbehavior.
HOW TO USE WATER TO CORRECT DOG BEHAVIOR
A spray of water is a valuable dog behavior modification tool because it is shocking to the dog, yet causes no harm:
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