When people talk about positive reinforcement dog training, they sometimes refer to it as positive dog training, force free dog training, clicker training, even science-based dog training. Some of these terms relate to a wider dog training philosophy as well as a specific method, and those philosophical and ethical issues are important. But positive reinforcement is also a technical term with a specific definition.
What is Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?
Positive reinforcement is a very effective way to train dogs (and other animals).
Positive reinforcement dog training means adding something immediately after a behavior occurs that makes the frequency of the behavior go up. Technically speaking, the term breaks down into two parts. Reinforcement means the behavior continues or goes up in frequency. (If the behavior went down instead, it’s not reinforcement).
And positive means something is added. For example, you ask the dog to sit, the dog sits, and you give him a treat (something is added). The dog is more likely to sit next time you ask (the behavior was reinforced).
Why Positive Reinforcement Training?
If you give a child a present for cleaning their room, they’ll be much more likely to do it again. That is positive reinforcement, and it works for dogs too. Dogs are driven by rewards — namely, praise and food. While punishment might scare, frustrate, or confuse a dog, rewards naturally motivate a dog to do what you want it to do.
What kind of reward is used in positive reinforcement?
For most dog training, food is the best reward to use. That’s because all dogs like food, and it’s efficient because you can deliver it quickly. Play is sometimes used as a reward in dog training. For example, a game of tug or fetch. You may even have seen some working dogs or agility dogs be rewarded with a game of tug.
In practice food works best for most everyday dog training situations. You can deliver it much more quickly (think how long it takes to play a game of tug, compared to how long it takes your dog to gobble a treat). That means you can do another repetition right away. Also, sometimes play will get in the way of what you are trying to teach.
What is not Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?
Sometimes people make the mistake of calling the moment when something unpleasant stops positive reinforcement. It’s not. For example, some shock collar trainers pretend that when the electric shock stops, it is rewarding for the dog. It is not.
Relief is not the same as a reward. Remember too: positive reinforcement means something has been added. Stopping something is the opposite of adding something.
The key to positive reinforcement is consistency and patience. It can be very frustrating to have your dog disobey a command and you might be tempted to show your anger or disappointment at times. Remember that dogs read body language far better than they understand words, so you need to project positivity as well as say it.
When you get frustrated, take a deep breath, remember that it’s only a dog and is doing its best, and relax. Start again on a happy note with a smile and excited eyes. Your dog will pick up on that and look forward to whatever you have in store for it next.
The rewards you offer should be varied and things that really appeal to your dog. When teaching a new command or working on big problem behaviors, offer a really delectable and irresistible treat that is reserved only for training. As your dog gets better, you can transition to their regular treats or offer their favorite toy as a reward. Always offer lots of praise. Soon you will not have to reward them every time and your affection will be enough for a job well done.
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