How Dogs Learn – Positive Reinforcement

Marcy was upset and I could hear her frustration over the phone. She called me to schedule a private dog training session with her and her dog Buster. No matter how hard she worked at it, “He just doesn’t listen to me! He jumps on people, barks at the mail carrier, chews my slippers, steals things off the counter and chases the cat. My other dog was never like this! Buster is just plain stubborn and I think he does things just to spite me.”

These are common complaints voiced by the over 300 families I see each year. One person says, “He’s lazy.” Another complains, “She’s defiant.” The most common complaint is, “He knows what to do but he’s just being stubborn.” As frustrating as this can be for us humans, the truth is, it isn’t about being disobedient or defiant or stubborn. The reality is that none of these dogs really know what they are supposed TO DO.

Positive training isn’t about teaching your dog to stop doing something, but teaching him what you want him TO DO instead. For example, it isn’t how Marcy can get Buster to stop jumping, it’s about teaching Buster to lay down when people come in the door. It isn’t about getting Buster to stop chewing slippers, it’s about teaching Buster to chew appropriate toys and ignore slippers. If you don’t know what you want your dog to do in any given situation, your dog won’t be able to figure it out either. So it’s all about first picturing what you want your dog TO DO, not what you want him to stop doing.

Let’s say you want your dog to sit and stay when a squirrel runs through the yard or the mail carrier comes up the walk or someone walks in the door. These are pretty powerful distractions! In essence, you have to be more attractive than any of them. Let’s face it, these distractions are worth the equivalent of $10,000 to your dog—and you’re worth squat. Therefore, in order to get your dog to do what you want, you need to become worth more than these distractions and teach your dog in baby steps.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement means using rewards for behaviors you want your dog to do and repeat. When your dog performs the sit behavior for example, reward him. Give him a treat every time he puts his behind on the floor, and there’s a good chance he’ll keep putting his behind on the floor. Start the training process in a non-distracting environment and gradually add more challenging distractions until he reliably stays in a sit position even with a squirrel running by. The key is to have realistic expectations of what is possible for your particular dog and simply progress from kindergarten to a college level of reliability.

To do this, we use two simple methods:

  1. The Magnet Game : Simply wait for the behavior to occur, then let the dog know that what he just did thrilled you to no end by rewarding him with praise, a scratch behind the ear, and especially treats. In essence, the “sit” behavior attracted the treats, just like a magnet attracts iron.
  2. Step-by-step training a/k/a “School” : Use a visual prompt such as food, a favorite toy, or other object to lure the dog to do what you want, then praise and reward. Gradually add more distractions. By the way, your dog will have to be at a “college” level of “sit/stay” to be successful with a squirrel running by.

The difference between the two is that in Method 1, you don’t ask for the beahvior but reward your dog whenever it happens to occur. For example, you’re watching television and you see your dog sit on her bed. You then say “good dog” and throw her a treat. In the second method, you are asking for the behavior and then rewarding her. Both methods are used throughout the day until the dog realizes a certain beahvior (like “sit”) is always worth a reward.

Using Treats in the Training Process

But does that mean you always have to use treats? Absolutely not. Once an association is made, you simply begin to reward your dog on variable reward schedule until eventually treats are unnecessary. In human terms, think of a Las Vegas slot machine. At first you put money in the slot machine just for fun. But once in a while you actually win. That occasional jackpot keeps you playing. It’s the same with positive training. At first your dog gets a treat every time he sits, then you gradually wean him off treats but he’ll continue to sit because every once in a while he’ll get a jackpot. Of course he’s still being praised and petted so his interest always remains high. We recommend using high quality treats like chicken, turkey, cheese, pieces of dry kibble, etc. Stay away from greasy foods and commercial dog training treats that list ingredients like by-products, artificial coloring or additives, wheat, corn, and sugar.

You can shape virtually any behavior you want. All you need to do is: 1) Catch your dog doing something and reward him in the act (The Magnet Game); and 2) Teach your dog what you want him to do step-by-step (School).

It’s just a matter of being consistent, communicating in clear terms what you want your dog to do and managing your environment so your dog can’t get into trouble while the training is taking place.

If your dog is aggressive or has moderate-to-severe behavioral problems, a professional trainer is needed. Always err on the side of safety. You can learn a lot about positive dog training from books and DVDs. However, it can be fun to join a group class. Because many dog trainers still teach methods that include physical force, I suggest interviewing the trainer before hiring him or her. You can find a trainer who uses positive training methods through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers ( ) or The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors ( ).



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