Here's Why Positive Reinforcement Is The Best Kind Of Dog Training


Positive reinforcement is a term you often hear when learning about dog training, but what does it actually mean?

The Dodo reached out to Juliana Willems, head trainer at JW Dog Training in Washington, D.C., and Zazie Todd, an animal behavior expert and award-winning writer of “Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy,” to find out more about positive reinforcement dog training.

What is positive reinforcement dog training?

Positive reinforcement dog training involves giving your dog something he likes as a reward for a behavior to make that behavior happen more often. “The reward is typically some kind of food, like a little bit of chicken, roast beef, cheese or a dog treat, but it could also be play or petting,” Todd told The Dodo.

According to Willems, the technical definition of "reinforcement" is increasing the likelihood a behavior occurs. The "positive" in positive reinforcement simply means "to add something."

“So, when talking about dog training, positive reinforcement means to add something good to increase the likelihood you see more of the behavior,” Willems told The Dodo. “The most common example of this is giving your dog a treat when they do something you like.”

How does positive reinforcement training work?

According to Willems, it's important to understand how positive reinforcement works because your dog is always learning what works for him, whether you're in a training session or not. “This means positive reinforcement can work for you … or against you!” Willems said.

For example, if your dog jumps up on the counter and successfully steals a sandwich, he’s been positively reinforced for counter surfing, and he’s highly likely to jump up again.

Because that sandwich was good.

“This is why you have to make sure you are positively reinforcing behavior you do want to see from your dog,” Willems said.

To do this, keep an eye out for behaviors you like and reinforce those behaviors with treats, affection, play or anything else your dog really enjoys.

Meaning that when you see your dog calmly look at a sandwich and then look away from it, uninterested, it’s a good time to mark (if you’re using a clicker) and reward.

Additionally, Todd said that people often think that verbal praise (e.g., “Good dog!”) works as reinforcement, but it doesn’t unless you always follow it up with a treat (in which case your dog knows it means a treat is coming!).

What this means is that you should always use a treat, pets or play to reinforce good behavior, not just verbal praise.

“For example, when the dog sits, you give them a treat as positive reinforcement, and they are more likely to sit when you ask in future,” Todd said. It’s best to deliver the reward promptly, i.e., as soon as the dog sits, so that he knows to connect it with the behavior.

“Positive reinforcement can be used in all kinds of dog training and has even been used to teach dogs to lie still in an fMRI scanner for scientific research,” Todd said.

Benefits of positive reinforcement training

Positive reinforcement is the best way to train a dog! It’s effective, humane and fun for you and your dog.

“It makes training enjoyable for the dog, and the rewards motivate them to learn,” Todd said. “It’s also a nice activity for you to do together as it can help to strengthen the human-animal bond.”

“Behaviors that get reinforced get repeated, so soon you'll start seeing more of those desirable behaviors!” Willems said.

Positive reinforcement vs. correction

Correction means punishing your dog when he does bad stuff — while positive reinforcement instead rewards the good stuff.

Positive reinforcement is generally a kinder training method that leads to happier dogs, since correction can lead to anxiety, fear and other behavior issues.

Positive reinforcement is a much better way to train your dog over correction. “Studies show that when dogs are trained with positive reinforcement, they are more optimistic than dogs trained with aversive methods (such as leash corrections),” Todd said.

“Corrections are also associated with a worse human-animal bond. As well, studies show there are risks to animal welfare from using corrections and other aversive methods (such as shock collars or hitting the dog), including the risks of fear, anxiety, aggression and stress.”

Additionally, The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends the use of positive reinforcement instead of corrections.

Positive dog training techniques

When you’re ready to start training your dog with positive reinforcement, here are some techniques you can use to make it a smoother experience:

Use high-value treats

You should pay attention to the kind of reward you’re using. “For teaching your dog to come when called, which is an important behavior (and which usually happens when there are distractions, like other people and dogs), use your best treats,” Todd said.

“One study found that dogs run faster to get a better quality reward!”

So make sure you know which treats your dog goes nuts over and have plenty of those when you’re teaching him an important cue.

Limit distractions

“It’s important to make training easy to begin with and train with no distractions (e.g., in your living room at home),” Todd said. “Then gradually, over time, you can make it harder or add in distractions (such as training in your yard if you have one, on the street near your home or at the park).”

Hire a positive reinforcement trainer

Dog training is a skill, so if you’re struggling, hire a good dog trainer to help (and make sure they will use positive reinforcement to train your dog!).

While training your dog definitely requires some patience, always make sure you’re using positive reinforcement to ensure a happier pup — and a happier you!