Tips on Positive Reinforcement Dog Training (& Why It Works)

This strategy will help you raise a well-behaved dog while also strengthening your bond.

Published January 15, 2023
Girl giving a snack for her dog

The idea behind positive reinforcement training is that dogs are driven by rewards, not by fear or pain. Training your dog is all about communication. The goal of positive reinforcement dog training is to teach your dog to perform behaviors in a way that makes it more likely that they will repeat those behaviors in the future. This method of training strengthens the bond you share with your dog, rather than harming the bond through negative training methods, such as using punishment or fear-based training. If you learn how to use positive reinforcement to train your dog, you will help improve communication with your best friend quickly!

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement training is a technique that uses praise and rewards to change your dog's behavior. The goal of positive reinforcement is to make your dog associate good things with certain behaviors, like sitting when asked, so they repeat those behaviors automatically.

The basic principle behind positive reinforcement is simple: reward the dog for performing the desired behavior and don't give a reward if they do not perform it. The reward comes right after they do what you want, which helps them make a link between the behavior and your response. Over time, this association becomes stronger, until your dog automatically performs the behavior.

Choosing the Best Rewards

Rewards should be something your dog enjoys. This might be a soft toy or a ball, but it could also be food treats. The more your dog values the reward, the higher their drive will be to earn it. For example, one dog may love peanut butter on a spoon, and another might grab their ball for you to play with. Find out what your dog likes best and use that as a reward. You can also switch up rewards throughout the training process. Use everything at your disposal:

  • Treats and toys. Find something that's high-value to your dog, such as a bit of cooked chicken. The trick is to only treat them with a very small portion of your training treats, so they don't get too full or bored, and make sure the treat is something they can eat quickly, so you can get back to training.
  • Positive words. Your dog can tell when you're happy with them. Give them a "Good Dog!," with a big smile, and show them you're happy with what they're doing.
  • Gentle touch. A pat on the head or a rub behind their ears goes a long way to letting your dog know they're doing the right thing.
  • Combine rewards. If your dog does something they've been struggling with, such as sitting a long time on a Stay command while being tempted to get up by an enticing distraction, give them a reward bomb. Offer a treat, verbal praise, and a good tummy rub to let them know they hit the jackpot!
  • Use intermittent rewards. The strongest form of reward is the reward that isn't given every time an action is performed. As your dog gets better at a task, don't treat them every time. Instead, treat them every third time, or every tenth time. This builds the strongest response to positive reinforcement.

The most important thing is to make sure the rewards are something you can use repeatedly without it wearing out or becoming boring for your pup or for yourself. Rewards should also be small enough that your dog will take them easily when you offer them. There's no need for them to feel like they're carrying their lives away every time they take an item from your hand.

Starting Out With Positive Methods

It's important to begin with what your dog knows. If you want your dog to sit, make sure they are already comfortable in a sitting position before moving on. You should also be patient and give your dog time to learn new skills, a little at a time if necessary.

Patience is key. This will help maintain their confidence level and a feeling of accomplishment within their training routines. They want to make you happy. Seeing you content with them will further encourage them during their training.

If you get frustrated with the progress of positive reinforcement training, take a break and come back later with renewed energy. Remember that this is supposed to be fun for both you and your dog. Don't ever be afraid to take a break.

When you're training your dog with positive reinforcement, you should also make sure that you don't get distracted by their mistakes or bad behavior. Instead, reward them for doing what you ask by giving them praise or treats immediately after they do something correctly, no matter how small the action may seem. If they don't perform as well as you'd like during one training session, don't give up! Just keep trying until they get it right.

Building a Bond

Positive reinforcement is a powerful way to build a bond with your dog. Positive reinforcement means treating your dog in such a way that it makes them feel happy and confident. There are many ways that you can use positive reinforcement when bonding with your dog.

  • Keep them engaged. One of the best ways is to play games with them. Games are fun and entertaining for both humans and canines alike. They also give dogs an opportunity to learn new things while having fun at the same time!
  • Stick to a routine. Dogs - like kids - do really well with a set schedule. Keeping things like feeding time, play time, exercise, and relaxation time on a set schedule helps them feel secure and can address anxiety issues.
  • Give them affection. Who doesn't love positive affirmations and praise? Show your dog you love them by petting them, grooming them regularly, and being there for them.
  • Make training a daily practice. This might seem a bit overwhelming, but building positive reinforcement training into your daily life pays huge dividends later, when your pup starts showing massive improvement and confidence.
  • Exercise with them. This doesn't mean you have to take your dog to the gym. Just make sure you're giving them daily walks, time outside running around, or physical games that give them a workout. A well-exercised dog is calmer, healthier, and more engaged.

You may also want to conduct training sessions where they learn new commands or tricks while also getting used to being around other people. With this, dogs are absorbing skills association with socializing while they're learning. When dogs are trained well, they will feel more comfortable around other people than those who have not been properly trained by their owners or handlers.

Pace your Progress

When teaching your canine companion anything new, the most important thing is to make sure they understand what you want them to do before moving on. You don't want to get frustrated or give up on training because your dog isn't catching on right away; that just makes everyone feel bad! And let's be honest: no one enjoys feeling frustrated or sad.

The best way to go about training is to start off slowly and build on previous successes so that your dog gets used to doing certain things before adding more complicated commands into the mix. This is known as "shaping." You start with a basic response, and build on that positive reaction. For example, if you want your dog to learn to roll over, first you reward them when they lay down. Next, when they roll on their side, and so on.

Eventually, they'll catch on. Progress is slow and deliberate. Stay positive, and stay consistent. As long as you keep this in mind while working through each stage of training and progress at an appropriate pace, there should be no problem making progress!

Punishment Harms Your Bond

We all want our dogs to behave. However, using punishment is among the worst things you could do. It doesn't teach your dog what they should do. Instead, it makes them afraid of you and teaches them that every time they see you, something bad will happen. This can lead to more aggression toward people and other dogs, as well as other behavioral problems like separation anxiety.

Dogs are smart enough to know when they have done something wrong and feel bad about it, even if they don't understand why it's wrong or how they should behave differently next time. If you use punishment or harsh words when your dog does something wrong, they will also learn that whenever they do something bad, they will remember they experience stress and anxiety because of it.

Punishment severely damages the bond you share with your dog. Although some may claim it's effective because the dog begins to listen, it doesn't allow your dog to develop into a well-rounded companion. Punishment could damage the bond they have with people for years to come. Remain patient and consistent with positive reinforcement training and you'll see your efforts pay off.

Use Redirection to Address Bad Behaviors

Relying only on positive methods doesn't mean you don't have tools to deal with negative behavior. Redirection is your best friend. If your dog is doing something you don't like, give them another choice. Distract them and get them to perform a behavior you do like.

For example, if your dog is getting too aggressive during play with another dog, get their attention and redirect their bad behavior with a positive training sequence. Keep treats on your person for this. When they get rambunctious, redirect them, and when they're calm, go through a sequence of Sit and Stay commands. Then, when they're doing what you want, reward them for it. They'll learn that certain behaviors are expected of them, while others always get your attention, but not in a way that reinforces their bad behavior.

You have to be consistent about this. Be prepared and watch your dog closely. You have to learn to read their behavior. This comes from building your bond with them, and understanding that they have many of the same basic feelings and emotions you experience. Every good dog trainer is basically a behaviorist.

Master These Essentials

Positive reinforcement training is a process. Stay calm, be consistent, and you will see results. Do what works, and avoid what doesn't:

  • Do give your dog the rewards they love. Find the most high-value, can't miss treats to entice your dog. The more valuable the reward, the more likely your dog will want to earn it. Treats, praise, and affection can all be used successfully in training.
  • Don't let them burn out. Especially at first, try to keep training sessions short and sweet. Spend 15 minutes working on commands. Don't try to conquer a massive training schedule all at once.
  • Do let them know when you aren't happy. It's OK to say "No." You can still give your dog a verbal command to help them understand they aren't doing the right thing. But don't get angry, repeat your "No," over and over, and expect them to learn. Follow your "No" with an alternative.
  • Don't acknowledge certain behaviors. If your dog freaks out when a guest walks in the door, calmly remove them and wait for them to calm down before letting them join you.
  • Do give them other options. A positive reward only comes when they get it right. If they're misbehaving, distract them and give them something positive to focus on, such as playing fetch or another game.
  • Don't reward bad behavior by accident. If your dog learns that you always come running when they bark, you're teaching them that barking brings their favorite person to them. Understand that dogs associate rewards with whatever they're doing at that moment.
  • Do build up to intermittent reinforcement. Your dog will learn to display a desired behavior the fastest if you don't reward them every time. Start out with constant reinforcement, but as your dog gets better, treat them every few times. This produces the desired behavior very strongly.
  • Build your bond. This is the most important thing to remember. Positive reinforcement is all about using conditioning to build the best possible bond and improve communication between you and your dog, and to generate the best training outcomes for both of you.

Applying Positive Reinforcement

The goal of positive reinforcement training is to change a dog's behavior in a way that makes him better able to cooperate with the people in his life. In other words, when you apply positive reinforcement principles, you're doing so because you want your dog to do something different from they were doing before! Never use punishment as a form of training. You don't want to damage the relationship you have or are building with your dog. Remain consistent and patient with your dog. With a little bit of time, energy, and love, you'll be on track toward a well-rounded, well-trained dog.

Tips on Positive Reinforcement Dog Training (& Why It Works)