How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Train a Dog

A dog trainer offers a treat to a dog laying on a dog bed.

Positive reinforcement in dog training works by rewarding the behavior you want and ignoring the behavior you don’t.

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 if the trainer has no available treat. 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, whether it's behaving while you put on their collar and leash, or remaining calm while traveling in the car. 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.

Aversion Dog Therapy

This type of therapy is still used by some trainers—you create an unpleasant sound with a shake-can or a high-frequency whistle that startles and frightens the dog, who will then associate that sound with her behavior and avoid doing it in the future. This is a training technique requiring split-second timing and should be administered by a professional to get the desired result.

Doggy Time Out

This is a powerful tool with dogs, who are pack animals. A dog who is ostracized for even a few minutes experiences the isolation as a much harsher negative response than it might seem to you. This is different from ignoring your dog—it means actually putting her by herself, whether in a crate or closed room, for just a short time.

If the dog “knows better” and does something you have forbidden—like jumping up on furniture or on you—don’t get mad, get even. In a neutral tone of voice say “Too bad. Time out,” and put the dog on the tether for a few minutes. If she lies quietly on the tether, tell her “Good dog,” and give her a treat. If she continues lying quietly give her another treat or two and then release her from the tether.

You must react quickly to a problem so it’s clear to the dog exactly which behavior you did not like. The correction must come right when the behavior happens (otherwise, don’t bother correcting at all). Your precision in responding is critical. The correction must not make the dog fear or distrust you, but should also leave no doubt about what displeased you.

Ignore the Dog

If the dog is staring at you at the table, carrying a forbidden item in her mouth, or whining at the door, try to become deaf and blind to her. If you deny her what she wants—attention and praise—and don’t react at all, she may correct herself. Not getting attention—or being purposely ignored—makes most dogs miserable and could be considered their punishment.

Verbal “explanations” are probably experienced as “blah blah blah” nagging by a dog. Don’t think like a human when it comes to registering a negative reaction to your dog’s behavior. Think like a dog. Dogs crave our attention—it means the world to them. Withhold it to make your point.

Remote Dog Punishment

One way to correct unwanted behavior is to administer an unpleasant punishment without the dog’s realizing it came from you. This could be a spray of water or a shake-can crashing to the floor. The punishment (the offending water or noise) must be timed in such a way that it affects the dog like a thunderbolt from above—and most importantly, appears to be a direct result of whatever she was doing at the time.

Because remote punishment must occur immediately after the undesirable dog behavior, and you must be forearmed, you may have to pull a “sting operation” on the dog: you may have to set her up for some of the behaviors you don’t like (stealing food off the counter, chewing household items, etc.) so you are ready to administer the surprise retaliation.

Sequence Of Events In An Effective Dog Correction

  1. Say “No” in a low and quiet voice.
  2. Startle her right away with a loud noise to make her stop what she’s doing—make a big noise with a slap on a hard object with your hand, or drop a book or a shake-can on the floor.
  3. When she looks up, startled (thinking her action caused the noise, not you), immediately say “Good girl!” Always praise her for stopping whatever she was doing, so she associates you only with good feelings, but the scary noise with her behavior when it occurred.
  4. Instantly redirect her attention to a sanctioned substitute activity instead.
  5. If the dog is too excited to hear you, put a yummy treat right under her nose and make a “kiss-kiss” or clucking noise—this way, you can keep her attention until you can hand her a fun toy to play with. This is similar to giving a young child a safe toy in lieu of the forbidden object you discover in her hand.

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:

  • A Squirt Bottle A squirt bottle of water can work with a small dog. A “sport bottle” (with a twist-open nozzle) can work well with a large or small dog indoors. However, it requires practice and some adeptness to squirt the dog without being obvious. Standing around a corner or behind a door, counter, or piece of furniture can work to hide your involvement in the watery correction.
  • The Kitchen Sink Hose You can use your sink hose to good effect in an emergency. I’ve used it to break up food-related fights in the kitchen by just aiming it at the heads of both dogs. You need only soak your kitchen with spray once, and thereafter merely threaten the dog with the sink hose. Say “Ah!” to catch the dog’s attention while you grab the spray attachment— and when it is pointing at her she’ll probably slink away at the memory of being soaked, without so much as a drop of water spilled.
  • The Garden Hose When a problem behavior occurs outdoors you may be tempted to use your garden hose on a large dog, but for a small dog it may be too strong. Be advised this strategy can give your dog a lifelong terror of garden hoses once she understands the source of the water; this can make misery for all concerned if you ever want to rinse or cool her down with a hose.

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