What is Positive Reinforcement?
Many people have heard about dog training using positive reinforcement (or positive dog training), but what is it exactly? How does it work? Positive reinforcement works by giving a reward after desired behavior is exhibited. This results in an increased likelihood that the behavior will occur in the future.
So, what do dogs find rewarding? The primary things are food, praise (or attention), or rewarding objects (such as toys). Knowing this, we can apply positive reinforcement by giving a dog treats or enthusiastic praise when they exhibit a behavior that we want. This reward makes it more likely that the dog will repeat this wanted behavior. Dog training using positive reinforcement has proven to be an effective and reliable technique for changing behavior. Additionally, it has been shown to result in less fear and aggression than dogs trained using punishment methods, and to result in dogs that are better at learning new skills. It also serves to create a strong, positive bond between the trainer/owner and the dog.
Positive reinforcement is not only ideal for teaching your dog commands, but also a great technique for reinforcing desired behaviors. For example, once your dog is able to reliably and consistently sit on command, you can have your dog sit before opening your door to go outside. This can help prevent your dog from bolting out the door. Likewise, you can have your dog sit before petting or giving attention. this can help prevent your dog from jumping on visitors or strangers.
Positive reinforcement is a very simple and straightforward method, at its core. However, there are a number of important details to understand and put into practice in order for the technique to be effective.
Types of Rewards
Rewards will generally include treats, praise, or being able to play with a favorite toy. However, the majority of dogs are highly food-motivated, so treats are generally going to be the most effective reward for positive reinforcement training.
You should choose a food reward for your dog that they like, and are motivated to get. If the treat isn’t rewarding enough, the dog may not be motivated enough to learn. If a particular treat was working well, but isn’t any longer, then try something else that your dog finds more rewarding. Have a variety of different treats available to ensure that your dog doesn’t get bored with the same treat over time.
If your dog has a specific treat that they find particularly irresistible, you may want to save this for particularly tough training situations. The more motivating the reward, the more motivated a dog will be to get that reward.
You should keep training treats very small. You don’t want to over-stuff your dog. And a small food reward is just as effective as a bigger one. You should try to use soft treats, so that your dog is able to quickly eat it and be ready to earn some more.
Some dogs aren’t as motivated by food, so try to find what they do find rewarding, and use that for positive reinforcement. Many dogs are highly motivated by a favorite toy, getting petted, or having you engage them in play.
Commands Should be Short and Simple
Many of us love to talk to our dogs, and like to think that our dogs understand them. However, the fact is that dogs do not understand language. We can associate verbal prompts with wanted behaviors, but they should always be short and simple. Classic commands such as “sit,” “stay,” “off,” and “leave it,” are used because they are effective and do not confuse dogs. Sometimes it’s difficult to override the urge to speak to your dog in complex sentences, but try to keep it short for training prompts.
Also, make sure that you do not use the same word in different commands. For example, avoid saying “sit down,” when you want them to sit, and “down” when you want them to lie down.
Many trainers also like to incorporate a physical gesture that goes along with a verbal command. For example, when prompting a sit, hold your hand level, palm-up, in front of your chest, and slowly raise it as you say “sit.”
We have found that this method is highly effective, and can result in faster learning and more reliability.
The Importance of Timing
Correct timing is probably the most critical variable for achieving successful results using positive reinforcement for dog training, and where many people go wrong.
The reward has to be delivered immediately after the behavior for the dog to be able to associate it with the proper behavior. If the reward does not occur within a second or two, the dog may not make the connection between their behavior and getting the reward. A common example is someone prompting their dog to sit, but not delivering the reward until the dog has already started to stand up. The dog will then associate the reward with standing up, not sitting.
Many people utilize clickers as tool to mark the wanted behavior in order to strengthen the dog’s connection between the behavior and the reward. However, using clickers requires perfect timing in order to be effective. Unless one already has a good amount of experience developing their timing with clickers, it is probably more effective to use a simple verbal mark before giving a treat as a reward.
To effectively apply a verbal marker when your dog gives a desired behavior, you should immediately give verbal a verbal marker, then give them the food reward. Just as with commands, keep it short and simple. “Good dog,” is popular, but a simple “Yes” is probably the most effective verbal mark to use in this manner. You should keep the verbal marker as consistent and emotionally-neutral as possible.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
Everybody who uses commands with your dog should always be using the exact same commands, without exception. Variations in commands for the same behavior can result in your dog becoming confused, or ignoring some commands altogether. When engaged in training, it is a good idea to write down a list of commands that everyone should be using. Post the list where everyone can see them and learn them.
Consistency is also critical when it comes to giving rewards only for wanted behaviors, and never giving rewards for unwanted ones. It is very common for dog owners to unknowingly reward and reinforce unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog barks when it wants its dinner and you give it to him to make him stop barking, you are actually rewarding the dog for an unwanted behavior, and causing it to be more likely to occur in the future.
Frequency of Rewards
When you are trying to teach your dog a brand new behavior, you should reward them each and every time the behavior is exhibited. This method is known as continuous reinforcement. However, after the behavior has been learned and it can be reliably prompted, it is time to change to intermittent reinforcement. This involves a gradual reduction in the rate of delivery of the food reward, while at the same time continuing to give the verbal praise after the behavior.
When first practicing intermittent reinforcement, deliver a food reward almost every time the dog exhibits the desired behavior. Only skip the reward once every third or fourth time. Gradually increase your rate of skipping the food reward until it is only being given to the dog occasionally. Be sure to give verbal praise each time through this process. Dogs quickly learn that if they keep giving the desired behavior, they will eventually get their reward.
You should also make sure that you are applying a variable schedule of reinforcement. This means avoid giving rewards in a fixed, predictable pattern. For example, if you consistently give a food reward every other time, your dog may learn that they only need to give the correct behavior every other time.
Shaping Behavior using Positive Reinforcement
Some behaviors are more complex, and are more difficult to learn (and teach). For many of these behaviors, a technique known as shaping can be highly effective. It involves reinforcing a behavior that is one step in a more complex behavior, and rewarding your dog for gradual steps which move closer to the completed behavior. For example, when training a puppy or dog to go to their crate, reward them for mover closer to their crate, standing near it, then for going inside.
Although dog training using positive reinforcement is a very simple concept, it involves a number of variables and actions that need to be applied correctly to achieve training success. Like anything worth doing, it takes some practice, and patience, but it is one of the most effective and powerful tools for training dogs. And, it promotes a positive and loving relationship between you and your dog.