Written by Ella White
Dogs can be complex creatures, but when it comes to treats and rewards they’re pretty simple to understand – which is why positive reinforcement training is one of the best and most effective ways to teach your dog new behaviours.
Dogs will repeat actions or behaviours they’re rewarded for, so if they know they get a treat or praise when they lie down or stop walking when you reach a road, they’re more likely to continue this behaviour in future. The stronger the bond between dog and owner, the more inclined your dog will be to obey you because it’s in their nature. Even the most domesticated dog knows to do as they’re told by their alpha and so long as they’re not under the misguided notion they’re the alpha, you’ll be half way there. But it’s not quite as simple as rewarding your dog each time and expecting them to learn immediately. It takes time, and relies heavily on accuracy.
Here, we will explain the basics of positive reinforcement training, how it works, and how you can apply it to your own dog’s learning.
Positive reinforcement is a really common physiological practice, it’s used by world renowned behaviourists on both children and dogs and is the act of giving a reward for following an instruction. Like how you might have been rewarded with a treat for sitting quietly or obeying your parents’ demands, dogs learn to behave better when their good behaviour is rewarded. Dogs value praise, attention, and treats. So if they know they will receive these things in return for following a command or behaving well, they’re more likely to do so – the psychology is that simple!
Though all kinds of behaviour and obedience training can be rewarded with positive reinforcement, it’s best to start small. Getting your dog to sit, stay, keep their eyes on you, lie down, heel, or drop something are the basics of their training, and using positive reinforcements will ensure that they quickly learn to associate following your command with a positive reward.
The most important thing to remember when training a dog is the reward must be instant and they need to receive the same commands and reinforcements from everyone. Without consistency, they will become confused.
So make sure everyone in the family knows what you’re training your dog and how you’re rewarding them for it. This means they will only ever have the correct behaviours rewarded, and no bad or ‘wrong’ behaviours will be reinforced.
Using positive reinforcement to teach your dog cues and reward their good behaviour is an effective training method. However, treats and praise aren’t the only rewards for dogs. And sometimes, we can inadvertently ‘reward’ them for bad behaviours, which reinforces these unwanted traits.
For example, if your dog barks to go outside and you let them out, you’ll teach them that barking is the way to get what they want. Similarly if they howl or bark at people and you give them a treat to distract them you have rewarded them for barking at strangers and they will continue to do so. For many dogs, simply having their owners' attention is incredibly desirable so if your dog reacts to another dog or person out on a walk and you reassure them or interact with them at all, you could also be reinforcing that behaviour.
If your dog doesn’t immediately learn the correct behaviour or response to your commands – especially if they’re more complex than the basic ‘sit’ or ‘stay’ – then you might consider ‘shaping’ as an early step of positive reinforcement training. This is when you reward behaviour that is close to, or a step leading to, the response that you’re trying to teach them. In time, you move the barrier and only reward them as they move closer to the correct behaviour. For example, if you’re teaching your dog to roll over, you might treat them when they roll fully to one side then gradually withhold treats until they’ve rolled the whole way.
Most dogs are motivated by food, but when it comes to choosing the best positive reinforcement treat for them, consider what they will find the most enticing and rewarding. So if your dog prefers praise or a cuddle, this could be more of a reinforcement than a treat if your dog is less motivated by that.
If you do choose treats, they should be very small, easy for you to carry and give to your dog, and quick for them to eat so you can progress through your training sessions faster and without distraction. They should also be as low in calories as possible, because dogs can get through a lot of treats during their training. Treats should never make up more than 10% of their daily calorie intake. You can read more about the best dog treats to use for training here.
Front of the Pack’s freeze-dried treats are made with pure, raw animal protein and come in three tasty flavours. They’re packed with nutrients and are free from fillers or additives, so your pet can eat them through the longest of training sessions, and you won’t have to worry about any effects on their health.
However, if your dog responds best to positive reinforcement in the form of praise, cuddles, a toy, or a moment of play then take the time to offer these rewards. If you choose the wrong reward because it’s more convenient or seems more motivating to you, your dog will be less inclined to follow instructions.
In the early stages of training you should reward your dog every time they demonstrate their new behaviour. Once they’ve consistently displayed they have learned the behaviour you can move to intermittently reinforcing it. Don’t withdraw rewards too quickly, but only when you know they can reliably obey your command and aren’t just doing it because they think they will receive a treat. Continue to praise them with varying levels of excitement, so they learn to follow your instruction for verbal praise alone.
How quickly you can scale back the treats will depend on your dog and sometimes their breed. Some dogs will instinctively want to please their owners and will pick up new commands quickly, others will be more interested in the food and some dogs can be incredibly smart but also stubborn. The Australian Shepherd for example is a popular breed of working dog in America, but despite being very intelligent, it has a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude. The more you continue with positive reinforcement training, the more they’ll realise it makes overall communication easier and learn that’s what’s in it for them!
Some new dog owners worry that positive reinforcement training will teach their dog to beg for treats and only obey them in return for rewards. This is why we gradually remove the treat reward, moving to verbal praise and eventually only intermittent praise and treats. As long as you don’t treat your dog every single time, even when they have consistently proven that they’ve learned the behaviour, they will not beg for or expect treats for all good behaviour.
When positively reinforcing your dog’s behaviour, their reward must be given immediately after the desired behaviour has been performed. This will ensure your dog associates the reward with that behaviour and not something else. For example if you’re teaching them to lie down and you give their reward once they’ve got up again, they will think they’re being rewarded for standing, not lying down.
This can also make your training take longer. If your dog is confused about why they’re being rewarded, they aren’t really learning anything. Delivering rewards as soon as possible and at the exact time the behaviour is performed is the only way to reinforce good behaviour with positive rewards.
Sometimes you can’t move as quickly as your dog or you might fumble with the treats. If your training requires space (like recall training), it can be impossible to give your dog their reward the instant they’ve obeyed the command. In this case, try introducing a noise to go with the reward. For example, if you say the word ‘yes’ every time they perform a command correctly and get their reward, they’ll associate that sound with the treat and it will help reinforce the behaviour. This can also help when it’s time to scale back the treats and get them understanding they must perform the command because it’s been issued, not just for the snack. If you’re going to use this method, just be careful when selecting your reward word; ‘yes’ is a nice short, sharp word your dog will recognise but if you use it a lot in everyday life, it could become confusing.
There’s a reason we use one-word commands to train our dogs – it’s because they don’t understand our language. So although you might like to think your dog knows that the word ‘sit’ means what we know it to mean, they’re actually just associating that sound with the behaviour you’ve taught them. They also understand visual cues, for example a pointed finger, or your hand moving over their shoulder if you’re teaching them to roll.
Rely on these cues to teach your dog how to behave. Speaking to them in long sentences won’t help them understand what you want from them. Keeping your training sessions short and sweet is also more effective as they can remain engaged without being distracted or getting bored. Remember, always stop your training sessions when they’re going well.
With patience, positive reinforcement training can help your puppy or rescue dog to grow into a well behaved and well adjusted job. Remember that it’s founded in mutual respect and if you grow frustrated or angry, you can regress your training progress. Stay positive and keep reinforcing their good behaviour, and it can be a fun and rewarding experience for both of you.