Positive reinforcement training for dogs is all about encouraging and rewarding good behavior instead of punishing them for bad behavior. It allows you to show your dogs that you love them and give good examples of how to act instead of simply telling them what not to do. It’s becoming more and more popular as time goes on, with some people calling it “R+” or force-free training.
Think of it like when a teacher would give you a gold star for doing something well instead of giving you detention for doing something bad. In this guide, we’re going to cover what makes positive reinforcement training great and common methods.
Positive reinforcement training focuses on giving your dog rewards. Your mind may immediately jump to food or treats as potential rewards. Those are good, effective examples of rewards you can use, but there are plenty of other options you can use as well. These include praise, dog training toys, games, walks, or anything else that your dog enjoys. Food will often be the most powerful motivator when you need to encourage your dog to perform a specific activity (think dangling meat in front of a sled dog to pull the sled.) But, these other options are perfect ways to let your dog know that you appreciate what they’re doing.
Go Beyond Praising
Some owners may want to rely only on praise to offer positive reinforcement for their dogs, but that on its own isn’t always enough, especially when introducing something new. Praise is great, but a dog wouldn’t live for that on its own. Think about how much better it is to get candy for answering a question correctly is than just being told you’re doing a good job. Dogs are the same way. Offering your dog treats will be more effective and show them you’re pleased with their behavior, encouraging them to repeat the behavior for you. Whenever you do use praise, make sure to include a chin or back scratch. Your dog will love it.
While we can’t go in-depth into all the potential challenges you could face with your dog’s training, there are some common examples of problems and solutions we can share with you.
Many dogs get overexcited when their owner gets home. Sometimes, this includes jumping on their owner or other people with them. Someone abiding by punishing techniques would suggest you knee your dog in the waist or shock them with a collar when they do it. That’s exactly what you don’t want to do when trying to positively reinforce your dog’s behavior. Instead, don’t acknowledge their excitement in any way. Once they’ve calmed down and have all four paws on the ground, that’s when you give them praise, attention, or treats. That way, they know that staying calm on the ground is how they should behave.
Barking at the Mailman
Some dogs don’t like strangers, particularly the mailman. It’s very common for dog owners to yell at their dog to “shut up” when they start getting agitated. It can definitely be frustrating trying to stand by while your dog is barking, but similar to overexcitement, you want to wait until they’ve finished. When your dog has completely calmed and quieted, then you can reward him. Eventually, your dog will understand that sitting quietly will get them more attention than if they bark, and learn to stop on their own. As a last resort, you can dangle some food in front of your dog and only give it to them once they’ve calmed down.
Getting Timing Right
When it comes to positive reinforcement training, timing is everything. For your dog to understand that the desired behavior is specifically what you’re rewarding, you need to give them the reward immediately after. If you want to teach your dog to sit, have them perform it successfully, but you wait to reward them until they’ve stood back up, your dog will think that standing is the desired behavior. You need to be clear that sitting is what you want them to do. So, be prepared with your rewards on hand when you get started training. You can look into dog training equipment like treat pouches or training clickers for keeping track of things more conveniently.
Unsure if positive reinforcement training is worth committing to? There are plenty of great benefits you get from positive reinforcement. First, you establish more trust between you and your dog. Your dog will have a better understanding of your expectations and how to behave accordingly. With that also comes a deeper bond with your dog. Punishing your dog makes them afraid of you. Rewarding your dog gives you more love in return. By having a better bond with you, your dog will also have a better trust in humans in general. That will make them easier to take places, especially if there are kids and other animals around.
There’s only one drawback to positive reinforcement training: patience. When you want to reward your dog, you have to be willing to wait until they perform the way you want them to. If you go about giving your dog rewards all the time, they will learn nothing. You also have to sit through bad behavior without intervening to stop it. That’s understandably frustrating, as no one wants to sit idly by while their dog is misbehaving. If you can manage it, though, the benefits you get out of positive reinforcement training are incredibly worthwhile.
The Best Treats
If you want to get the best results from your dog training, you want the treats you offer to matter. Think about it like the difference between rewarding a kid with candy or celery. Some kids may be appreciative to get anything at all, but almost all of them will respond better to getting candy as a reward. Dogs are the same, although what constitutes good for a dog is going to differ from humans. The best dog treats are usually stinky, small, soft, and new. Dogs respond best to odors because of their strong sense of smell. Having small treats means you can give more of them. The softer they are, the easier they’ll be for your dog to chew. Constantly mixing it up will continuously excite and motivate your dog.
When to Stop Treats
You want to reward your dog a great deal for your positive reinforcement training to work, but there are still limits on how much is too much. When you start out, you should reward your dog every single time they perform the desired behavior. Then, when your dog has a good idea of what you expect from them, you can start treat-rewarding with less frequency. You want to slowly reduce them, but don’t phase them out altogether. If you stop giving treats completely, your dog will gradually forget. You want to have a balanced approach of some treats without going overboard.
Food vs Other Rewards
During your training, you’ll often lean towards food because it’s an easy reward to give. But, the more food you give, the less impactful it becomes. You want to incorporate other rewards in your training to give the food rewards more value. It can vary with the level of the task you want your dog to accomplish. For example, if you want to teach your dog to sit, give them a good chin scratch when they achieve it instead of constant treats. Save the treats for when you want to teach your dog to roll over.
Clicking or Marking
A clicker is a tool you can use for your positive reinforcement training that will make a sound whenever it’s pressed. That can be helpful for your timing, but also in encouraging your dog. By clicking whenever you intend to give your dog a reward, your dog will begin to associate the click with a reward. Once that connection is established, you can use your clicker whenever you need your dog to behave. It helps confirm that your dog has done the correct behavior so they can understand for the future. Marking is simply an alternative where you say a specific word or phrase in place of clicking. It accomplishes the same purposes that using a clicker would.
Things to Keep in Mind
There are a few things to pay attention to during your positive reinforcement training. Sometimes, you have to reward your dog for achieving behavior that’s close enough to what you want. They’re not going to master the behavior immediately. You also want to limit distractions around you during training. Too much noise can be disruptive for your dog and make them incapable of focusing on the task at hand. You also want to make sure you don’t make your dog work too hard for a reward. Once they’ve done what you asked, make it easy for them to get their treat.
Lastly, remember to have fun! You want your experience with your dog to be enjoyable for you both to have a greater bond. This is positive reinforcement training after all. Stay positive and patient, and the rest will come!
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