How to Use Positive Reinforcement When Training Your Pet Dog
Dogs have a short attention span, so training sessions should be short. Too long and the dog becomes distracted and frustrated.
Start training your dog by teaching it to follow your hand. Give the dog a treat each time it follows your hand. This will build a positive association with the hand command.
Dog trainers have many training methods, ranging from the “alpha” or dominance method to force-free positive reinforcement. Finding the right method to match your pet’s personality and your goals is key.
Alpha/dominance training aims to position the owner as leader in a family’s “pack structure.” However, this approach has been scientifically debunked and can be dangerous and confusing for your dog.
The positive reinforcement dog training method teaches dogs that they will be rewarded for good behaviour and not punished for bad habits. It is often referred to as operant conditioning and involves using clickers and classical (Pavlov’s) conditioning.
It’s important to be consistent in training, which means everyone in the household using the same marker words and similar intonation. It also helps to break behaviors down into small parts to make them easier to train, especially when you’re starting out and your pup isn’t used to doing the new behavior. Short training sessions repeated throughout the day can be much more effective than longer training sessions.
Teaching the Commands
Often it’s easier to teach dogs a command if you start off small. For instance, with “sit,” try just requiring that the dog stay in place for two seconds, and then increase the amount of time you ask them to remain in the position. Make sure to release them immediately after they’ve obeyed the command, and praise them for doing so.
Another important command is the “down.” When teaching this, hold a treat in one hand, say the “down” command, and then lower your hand towards the floor. Continue this process until the dog lies down.
Similarly, the “leave it” command can be taught by having the dog hold onto something, then saying the command and taking away the item. This can be useful if your dog is grabbing food off of the counter or eating items they shouldn’t. It can also be used to train them to let go of a leash when the owner says it’s okay.
Rewarding the Behaviors
When you reward your dog’s behavior, she learns that the behavior makes her more likely to get what she wants. This is called positive reinforcement, and it is one of the most powerful tools you have for changing your pet’s behavior.
It is important to use rewards that your dog really wants, such as a food treat. Some pets may not be food-motivated, in which case a toy, a short play session or even your praise can be useful.
While it is important to reward every time that your pet performs a desired behavior when first training, you can gradually move to intermittent reinforcement. For example, if your pet can consistently sit before you let her out the door or when petting, then you can switch to rewarding only about four out of five times that she does the behavior. Continue to praise her each time, although your praise can be less effusive than before (a quiet “Good dog”). Don’t decrease the amount of reinforcement too quickly or your pet will learn that she only has to respond occasionally for you to reward her.
While this method can be helpful in reducing some bad behaviors, it is important to use it sparingly and only in conjunction with more positive training methods. It can be extremely upsetting to dogs, especially if used repeatedly, and it can actually encourage certain unwanted behaviors like biting.
Spraying water on a dog to stop nipping or chewing can also make them fearful of you and may even cause them to become more aggressive. Instead, redirect their attention to something incompatible with the undesired behavior, such as playing with a chew toy or walking to their bathroom location when they start to go outside of their house.
Some trainers also advocate using harsh discipline to “assert dominance” over a dog, which is based on faulty research of wolf packs. These methods are not humane, and they can also lead to behavioral problems in the future. It is best to avoid these techniques and find more modern, more effective, and more humane methods of training your pet dog.