Positive reinforcement is a term that usually has a good association for most people. There are many different terms used to describe dog training. Ultimately, you are best off asking specifically what that trainer means with various terms, as there is no standardized language in the industry.
Positive reinforcement typically means that you are using something the dog enjoys (food, interaction, play) as a consequence for behaviors you like and that the target behaviors increase in frequency, duration, or intensity.
That sounds complicated, so let’s look at an example. Imagine I’m in the office with my dog. He could bark at me, look out the window, chew my papers, jump on my desk, rest on his bed…you get the idea. While I’m working, I could toss a handful of his food to him each time he happens to go to bed on his own. He might wander onto his bed about twice an hour by chance. But each day we do this, he will probably go to the bed more often. Within a few days, I will likely see him deliberately going onto his bed. I saw the behavior of “go on the bed” increase in frequency after I added in the dog food each time. This tells me I have successfully used positive reinforcement to reinforce the behavior of “go on the bed.”
What are themes of positive reinforcement training?
A majority of dog trainers these days are using reinforcement-based dog training. Most often, this is with food rewards, though sometimes they also use play, praise, or permission for favorite activities.
Set the Dog Up for Success—Change the Environment
One important strategy is that you prevent dogs from making many types of errors. You can get a covered trash can so that he’s not digging in the trash. You can use a leash or a gate so that he can’t jump on a guest. These prevention strategies give you a starting point for your training.
Check your Rewards
Sometimes, you intend something to be reinforcement, but the dog doesn’t actually perceive it that way. Not every person enjoys chocolate, and not every dog likes fish. You need to test your rewards to see what your dog actually enjoys.
A subtle example is petting. I always see owners petting dogs on the head, and many of the dogs will duck or step away. It’s not that the dogs don’t like petting! They might prefer petting on the shoulder or behind the ears. Some dogs prefer petting at home on the couch rather than when out in public.
Our dogs determine the rewards—we can’t decide for them.
Train in Small Pieces
You can’t expect your dog to walk a whole block without pulling on his leash as the starting point. Instead, you might aim for one step, then move to two steps, then one sidewalk square. Your next step might be two sidewalk squares. You should gradually build up towards your final goal.
Start at a Point of Success
In each training session, you want to start with what your dog can do. If your goal is to have your dog come to you in the busy off-leash park, you can’t start there with all the distractions. You might need to start in your quiet house, or only a short distance away at a quiet park.
Reinforcement is everywhere
Dog trainers love to say that “consequences drive behavior.” This means that everyone—including dogs—does things to try and make good things happen or to avoid unpleasant situations.
If a dog keeps doing a behavior, that tells you that there is reinforcement occurring. For example, you might meet a dog who jumps up, then sits. For many social dogs, the running up to the guest and the jump are both reinforcing. The dog likes to be closer to the guest and the interaction during the jump can be enjoyable. If your goal is to get rid of the first jump, you probably can’t just give the dog a lot of treats for sitting, because that will still reinforce “jump then sit.” You can use a leash or baby gate to prevent the dog from being able to charge forward to the door and jump up before sitting. This gives you the chance to reward your dog for sitting without also rewarding them for that first jump.
In summary, positive reinforcement training is a great way to train dogs and is especially great for families starting out with a new dog or puppy. Personalized help to implement these strategies can help set you and your dog up for success as you work towards your goals.