There are many ways to train a dog, and the way you train your dog can have a large impact on their obedience and their overall demeanor. Positive reinforcement training is a method of training that relies only on praise and rewards; traditional means of punishment are not part of the approach. So what are the benefits of positive reinforcement training and how can you use it on your dog? Let’s take a look.
Why Positive Reinforcement Training?
If you give a child a present for cleaning their room, they’ll be much more likely to do it again. That is positive reinforcement, and it works for dogs too. Dogs are driven by rewards -- namely, praise and food. While punishment might scare, frustrate, or confuse a dog, rewards naturally motivate a dog to do what you want it to do.
Why No Punishment?
There have been many studies carried out on this topic, and the majority demonstrate that punishment-based training can actually do more harm than good. Dogs who receive regular, harsh punishment may go on to develop behavioral issues, such as fear, anxiety, and aggression.
Here’s an example of punishment-based training not working: if your dog is afraid of other dogs and barks when it encounters them, their problem can actually be made worse if you punish them by yelling or yanking their leash. And it makes sense; the dog is afraid, you do something to make it more afraid, and they believe that their fear is justified. The cycle continues.
How to Use Positive Reinforcement Training
If you are thinking that you would like to try positive reinforcement training on your dog, follow these steps:
Choose a food reward that allows you to give only a tiny piece at a time. Frozen peas are a good choice, as are cut up pieces of hot dog or cooked, unsalted chicken. Make sure that the treat you select is highly desirable and can be swallowed right away; don’t use something your dog is used to, like their regular food or treats, and don’t use something that your dog has to chew (it will slow down training). Eventually, you should be able to transition from food rewards to praise and affection. But in the beginning, you’ll want to have food rewards on you at all times. Consider investing in a treat pouch that you can wear on your belt.
Consistency is incredibly important in positive reinforcement training, so decide on your command words and stick to them! And make sure that everyone in your household is using exactly the same commands.
- Keep Training Sessions Short
Keep training sessions short, fun, and free of frustrations. This will allow your dog to form a good association with training. And always end training sessions on a positive note; give your dog an easy command that you know they’ll obey, and then offer a treat and plenty of praise. If you find yourself getting frustrated during training, take a break and start back up another time.
The reward or praise that you offer a dog needs to occur within seconds of the good behavior so that they understand the connection between the reward and what they’ve done. To help with timing, many trainers use a clicker to mark the behavior with a sound the instant it happens, and then they offer a reward. Instead of using a clicker, you could also use verbal praise like “yes!” or “good dog!” then offer the treat.
- Always Reward Good Behavior, Never Reward Bad Behavior
This is part of being consistent. If you reward your dog for good behavior sometimes and not others, it will take them longer to understand what you want. On that same note, if you reward a dog for doing something you don’t like (for example, many people give their dog treats to quiet their barking), they will probably learn that bad behavior. Reserve treats for when your dog does what you want, and reward them every time.
So what should you do if your dog doesn’t listen to your command or acts out? Ignore, ignore, ignore. This is the way to “punish” a dog while employing positive reinforcement training. Ignoring can mean averting your eyes, leaving the room, or withholding treats. Once your dog learns the “sit” command for example, they should hit it every time. When they don’t, withhold the reward and leave the room. Your dog will soon learn that they need to listen the first time if they want to get a prize.
Positive reinforcement training will not transform your dog overnight. But with
consistency, repetition, and a positive attitude, you’ll have success in the long run. Stick with it!
If you need some help getting started with positive reinforcement training -- or if you are having trouble correcting certain behaviors -- consider contacting a trainer or animal behaviorist. Your veterinarian should be able to provide recommendations to the following kinds of specialists:
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