Ever heard the phrase ‘positive reinforcement’ and wondered how it works with dogs? Dog training expert Philippa Short gives you the lowdown on what it means to use positive reinforcement for teaching your pup. You’ll also get top tips for nailing some of those basic cues using reward-based training.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about positive reinforcement and dog training is the idea that you have to be liberal with your dog. You also can’t disagree with their behaviour. Positive reinforcement is all about putting your dog into a position of success – you’re rewarding them for making good choices.
Choosing reward-based dog training helps to:
A key thing to remember – anything that’s reinforced gets repeated. As humans, we sometimes let ourselves focus too much on the negatives and lean towards punishment. By making it clear to your pup when they’re doing things right, and rewarding them for those good choices, they’re more likely to do those things again.
You’re looking to create a trusting relationship with your dog and work as a team. When you have that strong bond, your pup will enjoy your company and want to be around you. They’ll listen and pay attention, as well as want to get things right.
There’s a few different ways you can set your dog up for success when training:
The aim of training your dog is to build up polite manners. Positive reinforcement rewards them for showing this good-mannered behaviour.
Start by choosing a reward. The reward is different for each dog, so find out what your pup loves the most. It could be:
Once you’ve worked out what your dog sees as a reward, the next technique to bring in is a marker word or sound (such as a clicker). This is a powerful communication tool that makes it clear to your dog exactly what you’re asking of them:
It’s all about timing with marker words and sounds, so you’ll want to stay focused and reward the exact moment they get it right. When teaching the sit cue, for example, mark and reward the moment their bottom touches the ground.
Anything your dog practises becomes a habit. Sometimes positive reinforcement isn’t enough to keep your dog focused on their training – and that’s OK.
You can teach your dog good manners through a technique called ‘mutually exclusive behaviour’ (MEB). Your dog learns that two different behaviours can’t happen at the same time, so they have to choose one or the other. Picking unwanted behaviour doesn’t get them anything while choosing polite behaviour gets them a reward. For example, either jumping up at you or sitting nicely and waiting for attention.
You can also bring in some management tools to help with this. Management tools can help to control the environment so your positive reward techniques can really thrive and work well. They’re a temporary solution to help stop your dog practising bad or unwanted behaviours.
Some of the different dog training management tools you could use include:
So, how do you bring management tools, mutually exclusive behaviour, and positive reinforcement together for successful dog training?
Let’s use the example of teaching your dog to stop begging at the table for food. For this, you’ll bring in the stay cue:
Repetition and consistency are key. What happens If you’re too distracted to repeat and encourage polite behaviour? That’s when you can bring in a management tool.
With this same table begging example, this could look like:
A management tool can also be useful when your dog begins to ‘forget’ their polite behaviour, and you need to bring some control back into their training.
For example, you’re teaching your pup recall. Normally they come back nicely to you when called, but that day they’re having ‘selectiveness deafness’. You could:
There are five ways to train your dog cues, while still using positive reinforcement:
Although your dog may initially get on well with one specific technique, this can change depending on the cue you’re teaching them. So don’t be afraid to mix it up and try different techniques for different behaviours.
Once your pup has got to grips with the basic cue you’re teaching them (using your marker and reward), you can then bring in the ‘three D’s’ of dog training:
Concentrate on one ‘D’ at a time and build up slowly until your dog has achieved it, then move on to the next one. If you find your pooch is struggling to get it right, don’t get frustrated. Go back a step and start again. Pushing your dog too hard will set them up to fail.
With any training, be guided by your dog. Some pups find duration a difficult skill to master because their body shape makes sitting for long amounts of time uncomfortable. All dogs are individuals, so if you need a little bit of extra help with your pup’s training, get in touch with a reward-based dog trainer in your local area.
Here’s one example of how you can train a dog to sit with positive reinforcement.
You’re going to use the luring technique for this:
Keep in mind that you are using a gentle guiding hand only – don’t push on your puppy’s back end.
Next, let’s go through an example of how to train a dog to lie down with positive reinforcement.#
Again, we’re using the luring technique here, and you can teach them this cue from either a sit or standing position:
When it comes to training your dog to stay with positive reinforcement, you’re going to be bringing in all three of those ‘D’s’.
To begin with, you need to be confident your dog is comfortable with a certain amount of ‘duration’ in their sit, stand or lie down position:
When you’re comfortable with the amount of time they can stay without breaking position, you can start bringing in ‘distance’:
Want to build up their ‘duration’ instead of ‘distance’?
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