That adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” means you can get more results if you’re nice than if you’re mean. The same holds true when you’re training or disciplining your dog. If your dog only complies with a request because he or she is scared of you, you’re not training him out of a behavior, you’re making him afraid of you.
What is Positive Reinforcement Training?
Positive reinforcement training (also known as reward-based or force-free) focuses on rewarding your dog when he is performing a behavior you want and ignoring behaviors of which you don’t approve (ex. jumping, barking, etc.). With positive reinforcement training you reward your dog with a treat or praise the moment he does what you’re asking—whether it’s sitting, lying down, dropping items, or going to the bathroom outdoors.
Embraced by pet parents, veterinarians, and dog trainers, positive reinforcement training took hold in the 1990s. The psychology behind the method is that instead of your dog behaving because he is afraid of fear or punishment, positive reinforcement encourages him to behave because it’s fun and he wants to please you.
When you’re using positive reinforcement training with your pup you need to have treats that match the training. For example, if you’re teaching your dog to “sit” you may want to give her a lower level treat such as a piece of carrot. When you’re at the dog park and you want to teach her to “come” immediately and with no hesitation you will want to use a high-quality treat, such a piece of chicken or hot dog.
The more difficult the trick or task you’re training, the higher the treat reward. Dogs who are praise-driven will be happy with an enthusiastic “good boy/girl” and a hug. So, you need to know what motivates your dog the most—food or praise—and reward good behaviors accordingly.
Note: Only give your dog small treats (pea-sized is ideal). In fact, you could use frozen peas if your dog likes them! The small treats coupled with praise and affection will encourage your dog to act as you’d prefer.
Five Steps for Incorporating Positive Reinforcement
1. Use short commands for a behavior. For example: sit, stay, come, down. Everyone in the family needs to use the same words because consistency will lead toward quicker learning.
2. Immediately reward your dog when he performs the desired behavior. He needs to connect the “sit” with the treat and praise. If he sits without your telling him to, say the word “sit” and praise him and offer him the treat so he connects the action with the rewards.
3. Training sessions need to be short and fun. If she’s getting bored and you’re getting stressed, it’s time to stop training. She will hear the frustration in your voice. Training sessions are an ideal time to strengthen your bond with your dog.
4. Switch to praise. Once your dog is consistently performing the action you want, you can cut back on giving treats and use only praise.
5. Continue to praise (or reward) your dog throughout his lifetime for good behaviors.
Other Dog Training Tips
When you simply tell your dog “no!” all he knows is you’re talking loudly and he may will be afraid. You’re not giving him any direction as to what the “no!” is for. If he is not heeling while you’re on a walk, telling him “no!” won’t get him to walk at heel.
You need to get his attention: that means you want him to look you in the eyes when you’re speaking. Then say, “heel” and walk with him at your heel. If he gets ahead of you, or drags behind, stop, ask your dog to “sit” then begin walking again. Say “heel” when you’re walking. Reward your pup every time he heels. Restart the process every time he tugs or lags behind. With rewards and praise he will learn to walk by your side.
One of the most effective “punishments” for your dog is to ignore her. She wants your attention when you walk in the door and that’s why she jumps. If you ignore her she will stop jumping and you can reward her by giving her your attention when that happens. Dogs don’t want to be ignored any more than toddlers do!
Our dogs want to please us. They offer us unconditional love and deserve to be trained positively, with love and with treats.
Robbi Hess, award-winning author, is multi-petual: She shares her home with two Devon Rex kittens, three adult rescue cats, a mini poodle, a Goldendoodle, three lizards and two ferrets. When not caring for her pets, she is an editor, speaker, time management and productivity guru, content creator, social media manager and blogger. She writes at All Words Matter, My Divas Dish, and is the story editor and chief cat herder at Positively Woof.
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