Training with rewards: Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement means making good behaviour much more likely, and the positive part, well that’s all about us using things our dogs like to help them really enjoy being good! Put simply, positive reinforcement means training with rewards and giving your dog something they really want and like when they’re behaving in a way that you like, so that they will be more likely to behave in this way again!

Training with rewards is all about teaching your dog that good things happen when they make a good choice. When your dog gets a reward, they will associate this with whatever they have just done, and will be more likely to do that same thing again next time. For example, if you give a treat when your dog raises a paw, they are more likely to do this again the next time they are in the same situation!

Why do we recommend training with rewards?

Training with rewards is the best way to encourage your dog to behave as you would like on a day-day basis (for example learning to settle themselves down when people are busy, instead of pestering!):

  • science tells us that reward-based training is the best way for dogs to learn
  • training with rewards is fun, and helps build a positive bond between dog and owner
  • owners that train using rewards report fewer behaviour problems in their dogs
  • reward based training can help build confidence and encourage dogs to think for themselves
  1. Rewards can be anything that your dog likes, for example being groomed, playing in water, going off-lead during walkies, foraging for treats hidden in a cardboard box, or travelling in the car. All dogs are different, so they will naturally find different things rewarding, however most dogs enjoy food, toys and our attention!

    Food

    • Whatever you choose needs to be safe for your dog and something they like!
    • If you use food for training, remember to cut down on the amount your dog gets during meals to prevent weight gain.
    • Treats that dogs especially love (something soft and smelly like cheese, sausage or chicken) can be used as the ‘gold star’ reward when your dog gets something spot on! You can also use these to keep your dog’s focus and attention in environments where there are more distractions. These can be chopped into small pea-sized pieces for training.
    • Use treats that are less exciting (such as dry dog biscuits or chopped up veg) to reward your dog at times it is easy for them to get it right, for example when practising something they know in quiet environments.

    Toys

    • Some dogs really love to play, and you can use a game with toys, such as fetch or tug, to reward them for good behaviour. Make sure you teach your dog how to release toys using reward-based training so that you can get the most out of your sessions.

    Attention

    • We often underestimate how valuable our attention is. Most dogs feel good any time we look at, touch or talk to them! This means that we are constantly influencing their behaviour with our attention. Make sure your dog gets your valuable attention for the good choices they make, rather than when they are doing something you don’t want them to.

     

  2. Whenever your dog is behaving in a way that you’re happy with, be sure to let them know by giving them a reward. Always use a reward your dog really wants. Think about using rewards such as a gentle fuss, stroke or just speaking calmly to your dog when they’re behaving quietly and calmly so the reward doesn’t get them too excited all of a sudden. If they’re doing something active, like running straight over to you as soon as you call them, then rewarding this with an active and energetic game is a wonderful prize. As long as they’re enjoying it, it’s rewarding!

     

  3. When you start training a new skill, it is important that you reward your dog every time they are successful. When they have learnt the new behaviour and can do it well in a variety of environments, the type of reward you give them can be changed; so you won’t need to give them a treat for sitting for the rest of their life, you can say “good dog” instead and occasionally give them a treat as a bonus! For example, when using food to train a new behaviour, it’s useful to reward every time to begin with until your dog really understands what you’d like them to do. Then once they’re reliably and consistently doing it, reward them every other time, then every third time, and then mix and match when you give the food reward and when you just give them some verbal praise or a fuss. This is so your dog doesn’t know when to expect their favourite type of reward, and stays interested!

     

  4. It’s useful to have a marker which is a signal that tells your dog exactly when they’re doing something that you’re really happy about! The marker tells your dog “yes, you’ve got it right and I’m just about to give you a reward”. It must always be followed by the reward so your dog can be confident they’ve got things right!

    Some people use a short punchy word such as “yes” or “nice”, but you can also use a mechanical clicker device, or even give a thumbs up. Choose a marker and make sure everyone sticks to it, so your dog never becomes confused regardless of who’s training them. When you’re teaching your dog a new behaviour, use the signal at exactly the precise moment when the dog is doing what you want them to. Your dog will know their reward is on its way, and they will also know exactly what action to do again to get their next reward!

     

  5. As long as you remember that any behaviour your dog finds rewarding is behaviour they’re likely to do again, you can set things up so that you always have means to reward them for doing good things. This means planning so that you’re always able to give your dog something they’ll find enjoyable whenever you see good behaviour. And good behaviour will soon become the norm!

     

  6. There might be times when your dog needs an extra or different reward. Sometimes what your dog found easy in the comfort and calmness of their own home, becomes much more difficult to do when the environment is busier and more distracting, and what they found rewarding at home is no longer exciting for them outside! If your dog finds responding to you hard because of distractions, you might need to use something extra tempting in that location, such as a treat your dog especially loves, a game or a toy instead.

     

  7. Think about whether your dog might be getting a reward of some sort in response to their behaviour, even though you may not mean for them to! For example, think about a dog jumping up on someone who tells them “no, get down” while staring at them and pushing them away. If the dog enjoys being looked at, spoken to and handled by people, then even this interaction can be rewarding. This means they’ll be more likely to jump up again despite the person thinking that they haven’t given any sort of reward at all!

    In these types of situations, think about getting ready to guide your dog into making a good choice. For example, ask them to sit and reward this before allowing them to meet someone. In fact, if they like meeting people then getting to do so can be the reward for keeping their feet on the ground! You can think about using rewards within the environment to help positively reinforce good behaviour. For example, if your dog loves running off lead, then this can be a reward for walking along nicely on lead for a few paces. Think about all the things your dog enjoys and how you can use them to reward good behaviour, this will mean your dog learns how to behave in a very happy way indeed!