Reinforce what you like
Positive reinforcement dog training is a type of training that involves using things your dog likes or wants to reinforce the behaviors he does that you would like to see repeated. For many dogs, food rewards act as powerful reinforcers. Positive reinforcers for dogs can also be toys, verbal praise, petting, access to fun or interesting things, and anything else your dog finds rewarding.
Change what you don’t like
This is the best way to use positive reinforcement to change unwanted behaviors. Since we can’t reinforce the unwanted behavior, we can teach the dog to do a new behavior instead, and install that behavior in place of the one we didn’t like. When unwanted behaviors happen, we can look at the situation that caused the unwanted behavior and make simple changes that set the dog up for success. By changing the environment or situation where unwanted behaviors happen, we can set our dogs up to offer the correct behaviors, and we can reinforce them. By reinforcing the preferred behavior, we teach our dogs that this behavior works to get the things they want and need in life, and they will choose to do this new behavior to gain the same need they were previously meeting with the unwanted behavior.
Benefits of positive reinforcement dog training
Positive reinforcement is an effective, safe, and humane approach to training that is friendly to the dogs and people involved. It facilitates a strong bond between dogs and their families, allowing the dog to have an enjoyable experience during training, which leads to good social habits and behavior. By avoiding punishment techniques (often referred to innocuously as “corrections” or “balance” in dog trainer marketing), we can ensure we don’t confuse the dog or create new problems through the training process. The use of positive methods encourages dogs to try new behaviors to find out what works to gain the things they want, making it simple for the dog trainer or the owner to capture those correct behaviors, name them, and encourage the dog to do them more often or on cue.
If you choose positive reinforcement, make sure you choose a positive reinforcement trainer
When choosing a dog trainer, be aware that there is no regulation in the dog training field, and that means there is no regulation in advertising either. In order to make sure you find a trainer who will be able to help you use positive reinforcement to train your dog, without corrections or punishment, it’s critical to ask the trainer the following questions about their training methods:
1. What, specifically, will happen if my dog does something right?
This answer will probably be simple, and it will usually involve delivering something the dog enjoys that will reinforce the behavior. This should be something the dog finds reinforcing. It’s usually food, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
2. What, specifically, will happen if my dog does something wrong?
This is critical, mostly because this response will tell you all you need to know about the trainer’s knowledge of learning theory and their use of evidence-based training. All trainers love dogs and want to help you train yours – but not all trainer educations are created equally. It’s important to make sure the trainer or company you select has enough skill in a variety of positive reinforcement training to be able to train even complex behaviors without resorting to the old ways of punishment.
If the answer involves doing something to the dog that the dog doesn’t like in order to “correct” the behavior, this is punishment. Correction is a nice word used to talk about punishment without making the dog owner feel like they’re doing something that hurts their dog. Likewise, “balance” is a nice word that people can relate to (we all want balance in our lives, right? but we don’t need it in our dog training), that means your dog will be punished some of the time. Although this sounds like something that makes sense intuitively, it’s very confusing to dogs to experience reinforcement in the training process some of the time and punishment in the training process some of the time. When punishment is added to the training process, we cause the dog stress or anxiety, and we lose the dog’s trust through our unpredictable actions.
Punishment is not needed to train your dog, and it usually causes more harm than good. A good answer to the question, “what, specifically, will happen if my dog does something wrong” should have something to do with redirecting the dog or changing the situation or environment so that the unwanted behavior stops and a new, correct behavior can be taught in its place. Use of loud noises, human vocalizations, choke chains (often called “training collars” or “correction collars”), shock collars (often called “vibration” collars), and anything your gut tells you would hurt or scare your dog is your cue to run away, fast. These are not needed in today’s dog training (and really, haven’t been needed for quite a long time), and, although they can work, they can cause your dog to be afraid or aggressive in the future – setting you up for bigger problems than you have today. It’s not worth the risk.
For more information on training techniques, review the CCPDT’s Humane Hierarchy and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on the use of punishment (page 4 has a description of the adverse side effects it can cause).