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Best Practices for Positive Reinforcement Dog Training

Posted by Dr. Roth on August 31, 2022

Training & Behavior
Lifestyle
Puppy & Kitten
positive reinforcement dog training

Nothing makes a trained dog happier than hearing “good dog,” which is why positive reinforcement dog training is so effective. Dogs long to please, and pet parents can make the training process much easier by showing their dog that good behavior comes with great rewards.

What Is Positive Reinforcement Training?

Positive reinforcement training is a training technique that rewards dogs for desirable behavior. The ultimate goal of this method is getting a dog to associate good behavior with pleasant experiences and motivating the dog to repeat this good behavior.

As for unwanted behavior? This training method does not punish bad behavior and encourages pet parents to stay calm even during frustrating moments. When using positive methods like this, pet parents focus on their dog’s good behavior so that the process remains enjoyable and their dog stays happy, engaged, and open to learning new tricks.

It’s worth noting that dog training can be divided into two categories: active and passive training.

Passive training happens when pet parents aren’t necessarily focusing on training because their dog is still learning from their pet parents’ actions, attitudes, and treatment of them.

Active training is the time spent focusing on a specific trick, command, or task. This doesn’t need to happen for more than 20 minutes per day for most dogs. Why? Because dogs have short attention spans. Squirrel!

4 Best Practices for Using Positive Reinforcement Training Methods

When researching “how to positive reinforcement dog training,” pet parents might become overwhelmed by tips, tricks, and tips about those tricks. For the best positive reinforcement dog training experience — and to avoid inefficient methods that may require untraining — pet parents should concentrate on the following four dog training fundamentals.

1. Be Consistent in Rewarding Positive Behaviors

Show a dog positive reinforcement training is their friend by promptly and consistently rewarding their good behavior. A reward should immediately follow if a pet parent says “sit” and their dog sits.

Dogs can also be rewarded for less obvious good behavior. If they stay silent while the neighbor’s dog is barking next door, take that opportunity to offer a nice scratch behind the ears. If they wait patiently for their dinner, offer verbal praise.

It is important to note that not all dogs are food motivated. If a dog is praise, play, or toy motivated simply reinforce the positive behaviors with their motivator and affirming verbal or clicker cues.

2. Ensure Mental Stimulation During Training Sessions

Pet parents must provide their dog with enough mental stimulation to ensure an engaged pupil during positive training sessions. Simply barking commands at a pup won’t be enough — unless the pet parent wants the dog to start barking back.

Giving a dog mental stimulation can be as simple as making training more like a game. It’s important to house train a dog and to teach basic commands, but many other training activities can provide a bit more excitement for both pets and pet parents — like “go find,” for example.

To teach the "go find" command, hide a favorite treat somewhere in the house and instruct the dog to find it. Help them by using a lower voice when they’re far away from the treat and a higher voice when they’re getting closer. When they find the treat, try to match their puppy-like joy. 

After a successful training session, pet parents can also reward the dog with interactive puzzle toys for additional mental stimulation.

3. Identify the Type of Rewards Prior

If a dog knows what reward to expect for good behavior, they're more likely to perform the good behavior that will help them get it. For instance, pet parents can hide their dog’s favorite stuffed alligator toy until it’s training time. When the dog sees their parent holding the toy, they’ll know it’s time to behave so they can play with it.

Saving specific rewards for specific behaviors can give the dog a sense of routine (which they like) and also show them that their parents control the rewards. Pet parents know their pet’s tastes best, but the following rewards will get most dog tails wagging:

  • Food. Food rewards are a safe bet because most dogs love food. When choosing a food reward, select tasty but healthy dog treats — there’s no need to give the dog a bite of barbecue chicken every time they sit, stay, or obey. 

    • Be mindful not to overfeed dogs, as high-calorie treats used within a 3-5 minute training session can lead to overconsumption. Keep the treats small and proportional to the dog’s daily caloric goals.

  • Praise. The benefit of praise is that it requires very little work on behalf of the pet parent and doesn't pose the risk of overfeeding. Pet parents can reserve extra-special treats for specific training rewards.

  • Play. A round of tug-of-war or a few minutes of fetch for particularly energetic dogs can be a great incentive to follow desirable behavior.

    Waiting until a dog seems to want a treat, walk, or other “reward” can be another excellent opportunity for pet parents to require their dog to perform the desired behavior first.

Pet parents should consider that if they give their dog casual affection throughout the day, it may not be the best motivator for specific actions. Similarly, if pet parents want their dog to view specific toys as rewards then they should not be left lying around the house for anytime use. The dog will find it all the more motivating if a reward is scarce until training time.

4. Address Negative Behaviors Outside of Positive Reinforcement Sessions

Misbehavior should be addressed, but not during positive reinforcement sessions. Pet parents should consider these sessions a happy place where they and their dog feel relaxed and secure. Simply stop, reset and adjust the energy of the session, and resume once a pet has calmed or refocused their attention.

If a dog isn’t obeying commands, pet owners shouldn't introduce an unpleasant aspect to the training session, such as physical punishment or yelling. 

These tend to distract the dog and create negative associations with the training. Instead, remain calm and reaffirm the desired actions and reward when the dog’s energy and attention match the desired behavior. Outside of positive reinforcement, there are other ways pet parents often deal with bad behavior that may or may not have some place in a dog’s training outside of positive reinforcement exercises.

  1. Positive punishment. This is training where trainers add a corrective disincentive or demotivator after the dog did a behavior in order to make the frequency of that behavior go down, such as hissing, making loud error noises or similarly light corrective actions. Positive punishment is not recommended for all training, because it can cause dogs to associate their owner and training with negative experiences and lead them to develop anxiety-based behaviors, but it is and can be useful to help dogs earlier in their training journey to associate auditory cues with foundational Yes and No actions. Pet parents should be mindful of the volume and frequency of their positive punishments, as they should be rewarding positive behaviors exponentially more than they are using positive punishment tactics.

  2. Negative reinforcement. This training technique shouldn’t be used in training sessions, rather sparingly as corrective action when outside of training context (such as on walks, in the home while other tasks are going on, etc.). Negative reinforcement involves doing something unpleasant to encourage the dog to repeat the desired behavior rather than other actions. Two examples of negative reinforcement training would be when pet owners push down on the dog’s rear repeatedly and only stop when they sit down, or tugging on the dog’s leash until they heel. Negative reinforcement is not ideal as a main training methodology because it emphasizes punishment, and the dog learns to behave out of a reactive fear that bad things may happen to them vs. from positive internal motivations. One study found elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in dogs that were trained using negative reinforcement.

  3. Negative punishment. Negative punishment is not recommended by vets or most pet behaviorists. If positive reinforcement fails, pet parents should consult with a professional about why positive reinforcement training may not be working before considering any negative punishment training methods. This should be the last resort for pet parents hoping to train their dogs on their own, and used very sparingly in isolated cases of a comprehensive, well-rounded training practice. Negative punishment occurs when pet parents withhold the reward and over-rely on power dynamics to assert dominance in the interaction, so the dog realizes they haven’t done the right thing but doesn’t feel like they’ve done the wrong thing. This works in some scenarios because the dog isn’t getting what it wants for bad behavior, but also isn’t punished in the traditional sense. If a dog is acting out in a training session, is not interested in the reward or skill then it may be better to discontinue the training and try again at another time under different conditions. 

How Positive Techniques Can Help You Train Your Dog

When reviewing training techniques, it’s clear that positive reinforcement training is the best option for most dogs and pet parents. Pet parents should always aim to finish the training session once their dog has performed a task correctly so that their dog remembers the training session fondly and the behaviors that got them rewards.

When done consistently, dogs will look forward to training sessions and feel more motivated to obey their pet parents. However, some tougher-to-train dogs can benefit from the services of a qualified dog trainer

Fuzzy members have unlimited access to licensed pet health and behavior professionals in the Fuzzy app. If recommendations, resources, or virtual training sessions would be helpful the Fuzzy team is available 24/7.

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