In the doggy world, there are two major training philosophies: positive-reinforcement training (also called rewards-based training) and traditional training.
In my work as a professional dog trainer, I encounter plenty of misconceptions about positive-reinforcement training. Some dismiss it as just “treat training.” Here’s why that’s wrong—and why I stick to the positive approach with my clients.
Traditional dog training
Traditional trainers work according to the philosophy of dominance.
Traditional trainers work according to the philosophy of dominance. You’ll hear phrases like: “Be the alpha.” “Be the pack leader.” “Show your dog who’s boss.”
Intimidation, fear, and even pain are the primary tools in the traditional trainer’s kit. This approach is dangerous, however. Dogs are regularly killed, even by “experts,” using these methodologies. They can also result in a dog that fears people or a dog that completely shuts down.
Equipment that causes pain in the name of training, such as prong collars or shock collars, frequently backfires and makes the problem worse. Scientific research does not support this methodology nor do any of the professional dog training associations.
Positive dog training
Research shows that a dog learns more quickly when rewarded for good behavior.
Positive-reinforcement training, on the other hand, is rooted in behavioral science. Dogs learn new information in two ways:
- by association (classical conditioning)
- by consequence (operant condition)
Research shows that a dog learns more quickly and effectively when they are rewarded for good behaviors, not punished for bad ones.
How rewards-based dog training works
The more a dog is rewarded for an action, the more frequently he will practice that action, as long as the reward was sufficiently motivational.
And if the dog performs a behavior we don’t want, that works on the concept of rewards, too.
An undesirable action occurs when a dog tries to reward himself with something. Perhaps he seeks attention or food from the table, perhaps he wants to go faster on a walk, or perhaps he wants to run to say hello to a friend when off-leash instead of coming when you call. To change the behavior, we withhold the reward until the dog offers a more desirable behavior.
For example, if my dog attempts to jump on the table to eat my sandwich, I immediately interrupt him and remove him from the room. After a 30-second time out, I allow him back into the room and ask him to sit or lay down. If he does, I will reward him with a treat of his own.
In my dog’s mind, I am clearly saying that jumping up on the table results in nothing fun. However, calm behavior around the table pays.
Teaching vs. bribery
There’s a fine line between using rewards to teach a dog and using rewards to bribe a dog.
Dogs who will only sit if there’s a treat haven’t finished learning.
In the first, the dog is actually learning a new behavior; in the second, the dog is simply doing what he can to acquire the reward. These are dogs who will only sit if there’s a treat. They haven’t effectively learned how to complete an action on their own.
How to use rewards effectively for dogs
Use science to your advantage! These tips on using rewards will help change your dog’s behavior for the better:
- Food is not the only way to reward your dog. A reward is anything that a dog enjoys, and can include affection, toys, going for a walk, riding in the car, sitting on the couch, and so on.
- Your reward should only appear after your dog has completed an action. Remember: every positive action deserves a positive consequence. But, if the reward appears before your dog has completed the behavior, they have no reason to complete the action.
- If you’re working on something particularly challenging, a “high-value” reward will be more effective. Typically this means human-grade food that your dog rarely gets. I prefer teeny-tiny pieces of chicken breast, hot dogs, or cheese. A small lick from a meat flavored baby-food jar is a favorite for many pups!
- Once your dog is catching on to a behavior, start to randomize your reward. If your dog is rewarded regularly but not every time, they will continue to practice the behavior because they never know when they’ll hit the jackpot.
Even after your dog is an expert at a behavior, never forget the power of praise and the occasional additional reward.