how to use positive reinforcement training

How To Use Positive Reinforcement Training | cavalier king charles spaniel learning "sit" command
Posted by Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, CPDT-KA on Sep 03 2014

Dog training has come a very long way over the years! As little as 5-10 years ago, we thought that appropriate training included giving strong corrections to teach compliance and respect and that we needed to “dominate” our dogs until they submitted to us. But behavioral science and learning theory have shown that training through motivation instead of intimidation is healthier for your pet. And today we understand that if your dog is behaving undesirably it is not because he doesn’t respect you or that you have a “dominant” dog – it is more likely that he doesn’t understand what you’re trying to communicate or hasn’t had enough practice performing (and being rewarded for) the right behaviors. Let me explain:

Positive reinforcement training

Positive reinforcement works by presenting a motivating (reinforcing) stimulus to the dog after the desired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future. For example, if every time your dog sits in front of you instead of jumping up, and you give him a treat and some words of praise, the likelihood of him continuing to sit in front of you for a reward increases. This incredibly powerful concept can be harnessed for just about any behavior that you want your dog to do, from simple behaviors like not stealing food from the table or going to the bathroom in an appropriate place (outside) instead of an inappropriate place (in the house); to more complex behavior modification like your reactive dog focusing on you instead of another dog walking by, or conditioning your fearful dog to cope with a stressful situation like nail clipping.

The different types of reinforcement

All dogs’ behavior can be reinforced by something, but as they are all individuals, what motivates each dog is different. What you use to reinforce behavior during training must be something that your dog wants badly enough to work for, and that is easy to deliver rapidly and repeatedly. The most common kind of reinforcement for training is treats. When training with treats, be sure that they are tiny (about the size of a pea), and very palatable so that you can give many of them without the dog becoming full or having to stop the working session to chew a large treat. While many dogs are reinforced with food, for some, it is not an option. Other reinforcement may include toys, balls, praise, and play sessions. You can get more intricate with your reinforcement by incorporating secondary reinforcers to mark a desired behavior, including clickers or simply the word ‘yes’!

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How to get started

It’s as simple as picking a behavior that your dog already does and reinforcing for it. Let’s say your dog is watching you make a sandwich in the kitchen. Instead of jumping on the counter to grab that slice of cheese you were putting on the sandwich, he sits down and looks at you politely. Mark that awesome behavior with the word ‘yes’, and follow it with a small treat (maybe a tiny piece of the lunch meat that was going onto the sandwich next...). After a few repetitions of being rewarded for that polite behavior, I’ll bet your dog will start offering it again and again! You can mark and reward everything that your dog does that you like. And chances are your dog will think that this is an awesome game and try his hardest to get you playing the training game with him. That’s the power of positive training!

Should I punish bad behavior?

Dogs get a bad rap for trying to defy or dominate their owners by doing bad things (pulling on the leash or running through doors before their owner are two problem behaviors that are often mistaken for dominance).In reality, they just haven’t been practiced with enough to learn appropriate behaviors. Instead of punishing your dog for pushing into you to get through the front door on a walk, how about reinforcing a good sit-stay at the door? Sure, it will take some patience and practice, but the rewards are well worth it!

Need some help getting started on training? Check out Petplan’s new YouTube series – starring certified dog trainers Nicole Laracco-Skeehan and Kelsey Rich from Philly Unleashed

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