Positive reinforcement training helps dogs learn to live safely and happily in our human world through methods that are kind and effective and based on the science of learning.
Positive reinforcement increases the bond you have with your dog because it is grounded in communication, cooperation and trust. Positive reinforcement is mentally enriching as it requires dogs to think and problem solve. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement start to behave with purpose in order to earn a reward, such as a treat, or a real life reward such as permission to greet another dog.
Positive reinforcement is based on the principle that behaviours and actions that lead to pleasant and enjoyable consequences are more likely to be learned and repeated. That principle holds true for people as well as dogs, in fact for all species!
Here are some important aspects of positive reinforcement:
Communicate clearly! If your dog does not do what you ask, one of the main reasons is that she probably doesn't understand what you want. One of the greatest gifts we can give our dogs is clear communication. So often we are not clear in our requests and dogs get labeled stubborn when in fact they are simply confused.
Honour two way communication! When our dogs "misbehave" it's usually because they are trying to meet a need. As the UK-based dog trainer Chirag Patel says,
"Listen to your dog's whisper so he doesn't have to shout." When we give our dogs a voice, and listen to what they say, problem behaviours may disappear.
Trial and success, not trial and error! Setting our dogs up for success is a hallmark of positive reinforcement training. We make it easy for our dogs to do the right thing and harder for them to do the wrong thing. For example, if your dog is constantly picking up and chewing on something he shouldn't, remove it from his reach until you teach a solid “leave it”. Prevention and management is the first tier of training.
We also set our dogs up for success by starting easy and gradually making it harder. For example, we first teach a new behaviour in a low-distraction area in order to build a strong foundation. As your dog becomes adept at the skill, you gradually make your learning sessions more challenging by adding in distractions. You can also start to work on increasing distance and duration, one criterion at a time.
In short, start easy, and gradually make things harder. Start inside your house, then move to your yard, then to a public place with fewer distractions, and then a public place with more distractions.
You can also change other things about the learning session including what you are doing when you ask for the behaviour. For example, will your dog sit if you have your back turned to him? If you are lying down, instead of standing in front of him? Help your dog to generalize the cues he learns through the "proofing" process.
Watch these trainers "proof" their golden retrievers' sit cue!
Motivation matters! Another common reason a dog doesn't do what you ask is because she is not motivated enough to do it. The consequence for
doing what you ask is not sufficiently motivating. It might even be punishing. For example, if the only time you ask your dog to come is when the outing is over and it's time to go home, she might not want to do it because coming when you call always signals the fun is over. Make sure that your dog is sufficiently motivated to do what you want by making it rewarding for her!
Positive isn't permissive! Positive reinforcement does not mean anything goes. It doesn't mean we just ignore unwanted behaviour. It does mean we focus on teaching the dog what we want them to do instead. So often, we leave dogs in limbo. We tell them not to do something but we don't tell them what they
We also need to set rules and boundaries for our dogs to help them live happily and safely in our world. This is especially true for tyrannical teens who need structure and consistency in order to thrive.
When dogs are taught what to do and how to behave, and when they are rewarded for their efforts and made to feel safe, their confidence builds and learning can take place. That's positive reinforcement!
Watch this video by Dr. Susan Friedman about creating a
with your dog.