A brief guide to positive reinforcement training

Put simply, positive reinforcement refers to encouraging positive behavior, usually through some sort of reward.  

Positive reinforcement is a type of conditioning that we all undergo every day, even without realizing. However, in this blog, we’ll be discussing this type of operant conditioning in relation to dog behavior and training.  

We’ve spoken to our favorite Animal Psychologist, Dr Roger Mugford, to give you the lowdown on this topic.  

What is positive reinforcement? 

“When we think of positive reinforcement, everyone thinks of treats, and there’s no doubt that treats, and food, are a pretty significant reward system for dogs - as for people. But the relationship we develop with our furry friend quickly becomes much more complicated than the pursuit of food.” says Dr Mugford.  

Positive reinforcement is a technique that can be used to establish desirable behaviors in dogs. As Dr Mugford suggested, food is an effective way to keep your dog doing the things you like them doing, but other strategies come into play, too.   

The three key positive rewards - as set out by Dr Mugford 

1. Food  

Most dogs are food motivated (we can relate), so food is always a welcome reward to use when reinforcing good behavior. It’s also a quick and easy way to give praise. 

How it can work is, an owner will give their dog an instruction – come here, paw, stop or sit to name a few. When the dog does what it’s told, the owner or trainer will then give them a treat. This will make your pup more likely to behave this way again, because they will associate that action with a tasty treat! 

2. Play  

Every dog loves a bit of play! It keeps them active and stimulated. You can get your dog into good habits through the power of play. “Get out a toy - whatever that be - engage in play such as tug of war, chase play, find the missing object type play. All these games are massively exciting for dogs,” explains Dr Mugford.  

Instead of having a handful of treats in your back pocket, you could keep a ball, rope or their favorite squeaky toy to hand. This way, if you are working on encouraging certain behaviors in your dog, you can give them the attention and fun they deserve. 

3. Social  

Saving the best until last, socialisation is the greatest reward you can give your dog, with Dr Mugford stating, “Social rewards are crucial to the happiness of dogs.” 

Voice is important, alongside eye contact, facial expressions and your body language. “Dogs study all of these things, they gain an understanding of our ‘positive aura’, a combination of signals that we give.” 

“A small word, gesture or even small change in body tone will be a powerful reward,” says Dr Mugford. After all, your love is all your canine companion really wants, so socializing them to reinforce good behaviors can work well for positive reinforcement training. 

When to use positive reinforcement  

Positive reinforcement can be used both within training and outside of it, on a day-to-day basis. You can use it to let your dog know that what they have (or haven’t) done is good.  

It's best to reward a positive behavior as quickly as you can after your dog has performed it. If you have trouble getting your dog to come to you after you call it, for example, wait with a treat, toy or open arms as soon as it does. 

For training  

If you’re using positive reinforcement to train your dog, it can be useful to set up a reward schedule. This adds an observable structure and might be more effective in strengthening a behavior each time it occurs.  

This can work by setting up the situation where your dog follows your command and then continuously rewarding them every time they follow it.  You can reduce this to a partial rewarding schedule, helping the behavior to become more natural – with or without reward.  

Outside of training  

“When you spot something you like, pay attention to acknowledge it. Give them a look, a gesture, a word or expression.” 

Outside of training, or for owners who don’t engage in training with their pup, behavior is not always going to get praise – and that’s okay! If there’s something they do that you love – or when they actively refrain from doing something you hate – just praise them as and when it happens.  

Being careful of your praise  

“All the time we can be reinforcing unwanted behaviour! It’s a mistake we all make, we can do it with our partners, our children and certainly do it big time with our dogs,” says Dr Mugford, “The very behavior you don’t want them to do gets more human time and more acknowledgement time than just being quiet and responsive.”  

If your dog does something a bit naughty, try to ignore it if possible, so that you’re not giving them the attention that they love! The attention might only increase the likelihood of them performing bad behaviors again. However, if they’re tearing your house apart it might be okay to wean them off your upholstery!  

Rewarding as soon as you can after they’ve followed a command, or done something you like, is also important in this context to avoid accidentally rewarding an intervening behavior that might come after. 

Rescue dogs  

Especially so at the beginning of your journey with them, rescue dogs often require a different approach to behavioral training such as positive reinforcement conditioning. Before you try to modify your dog’s behavior, it’s important to build a trusting relationship with them – as this is something they will often really need to have with you, and others!  

With a rescue dog of his own, Dr Mugford explains “Rescue dogs have to learn your language, your signals and facial expressions... they have to learn your tone of voice,” he tells us, “A rescue dog won’t understand this language and will need to be programmed to recognise these features. If they’ve been street dogs, they have to learn the merits of human company,” 

A lot of rescue dogs haven’t had it easy. It’ll take a thoughtful approach and more time than usual for them to learn that you don’t intend to mistreat them.  

In conclusion...  

“Social [rewards] is the most subtle and most important,” says Roger. We agree that the way you interact with your dog socially is one of the most valuable things as a pet parent. You can never give your dog too much love, but there is a knack to knowing which behaviors to give rise to and which ones not so much. By better understanding how to react to and reward your pup’s behavior, you can both have a more harmonious life together!  

For professional advice on this kind of conditioning, it’s always best to contact a dog trainer or behaviorist. 

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