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The Basics of Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

The Basics of Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective and humane ways to train dogs. The concept is simple – you reward your dog with something he wants every time he performs the desired behavior. The reward acts as a positive reinforcer, making it more likely that your dog will repeat that behavior in the future. Positive reinforcement allows you to shape behaviors in a positive way, without the use of punishment, fear, or intimidation. It helps build a strong bond between owner and dog based on trust and respect. In this 10,000 word article, we will cover the basics of how to use positive reinforcement when training your dog.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a method of training that relies on giving your dog rewards for displaying desired behaviors. The rewards act as positive reinforcers, meaning they strengthen the behavior and make it more likely to be repeated. Positive reinforcement works by taking advantage of your dog’s natural desires and motivations. All dogs are motivated by certain things – usually food treats, toys, play, or praise. When you offer one of these motivators immediately after the dog performs the behavior you want, he will start to associate that behavior with getting the reward. The dog will then become more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.

The most common reward in positive reinforcement training is tasty food treats. Small pieces of human food or specially made dog treats work well. The key is to find something your individual dog loves and gets excited about. This could be small bits of chicken, cheese, hot dogs, liver treats, or commercial treats. The treats should be small so you can give several during a short training session. You want your dog to be hungry and excited for his rewards – this helps the learning process. Other good motivators and rewards include toys, praise and petting, playing a game, going for a walk, etc. You can use a variety of rewards to keep training fun and interesting.

Positive reinforcement operates according to the principle that behaviors followed by a pleasant consequence are strengthened and likely to be repeated. Because dogs enjoy food treats, petting, toys, and other rewards, they will be eager to repeat behaviors linked to receiving these things. With proper training, you can shape almost any behavior you want over time using positive reinforcement. The key is to immediately reward desired behaviors so your dog makes the connection.

How to Use Positive Reinforcement for Training

Using positive reinforcement to train your dog requires excellent timing. You need to reward your dog within seconds of him displaying the behavior you want. This helps him associate the reward with the specific action. Follow these steps for effective positive reinforcement training:

Choose a Motivator – Figure out what really motivates your dog. Common options are food, toys, praise. Make sure you have this reward ready before starting a session.

Get Your Dog’s Attention – Say his name, make eye contact, and/or use physical touch to focus him on you before asking for a behavior. You want him to be alert and ready to listen.

Give a Clear Signal – Use a visual cue, verbal command, or hand signal to indicate the behavior you want. For example, say “sit” as you hold your hand above the dog’s head. Avoid repeating confusing commands.

Mark and Reward Desired Behavior – The instant your dog performs the behavior, use a “marker” like the word “Yes!” or a clicker, then immediately give him the reward. The marker tells the dog which action earned the treat.

Reward Often at First – Initially reward your dog every time he offers the behavior you asked for. This teaches him the connection between the action and reward.

Reward Intermittently Later – Once your dog reliably performs the behavior, you can begin giving rewards intermittently – every few times instead of every time. This strengthens the behavior further.

Use Small, Fast Rewards – Use very small food treats eaten quickly so you can reward consecutive behaviors. You want fast repetition so dogs connect behaviors.

Avoid Drawing Out Training Sessions – Short, frequent sessions work best. Your dog will learn fastest if sessions involve 5-15 repetitions of rewarded behaviors. End on a good note if your dog loses interest.

Stay Positive – If your dog seems confused, simplify your requests. Don’t repeat commands over and over, which can cause frustration. Keep things upbeat and give lots of praise.

Proper timing and technique are essential when using positive reinforcement. But the results are well worth it. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement learn faster. They also enjoy training because it is a fun game with rewards instead of drudgery. You will build a great relationship with your dog in the process.

Shaping Behaviors with Positive Reinforcement

While you can use positive reinforcement to teach basic obedience commands like sit, stay and come, you can also use it to teach much more complex behaviors through a process called shaping. Shaping involves rewarding successive approximations toward a final desired behavior.

For example, say you want to teach your dog to pick up his leash and bring it to you. You would start by rewarding any interaction with the leash, like looking at it, sniffing it, touching it with a paw, etc. Gradually you would only reward picking up the leash, then holding it longer, then a step toward you while holding it, until finally rewarding only when he picks it up and brings it all the way to you.

Shaping essentially allows you to mold behaviors by reinforcing small steps in the right direction. The key is gradual progress and only rewarding the parts you want to reinforce more strongly. Shaping can help reinforce voluntary, creative behaviors versus just conditioned responses. This taps into your dog’s natural learning abilities.

Some fun behaviors to shape with positive reinforcement include:

  • Spinning in a circle
  • Closing doors or drawers
  • Picking up dropped items
  • Bringing the newspaper
  • Ringing bells or pushing buttons
  • Speak on command
  • Play dead when “shot” with a finger gun

The sky is the limit when shaping behaviors! Just remember to start small and reward generously. Increase criteria gradually until your dog reliably offers the entire behavior chain you want. Shaping allows dogs to actively participate in the training process and can build your bond.

Benefits of Positive Reinforcement Training

Using positive reinforcement to train your dog has many advantages compared to other training methods:

Creates Motivation – Dogs are eager to train because they get rewarded with things they love. This makes training fun!

Builds Trust – Since dogs aren’t punished, they view training as a positive experience instead of something unpleasant to avoid. This strengthens your bond with your dog.

Effective for Most Dogs – Positive reinforcement works well for the majority of dogs regardless of breed, age, past experiences, etc. It can be tailored to each individual.

Encourages Voluntary Behaviors – Dogs are more attentive and engaged when working for rewards instead of just following commands.

Long Lasting Results – Dogs remember behaviors taught through positive reinforcement better long term because the learning experience is enjoyable.

Reduces Stress – Training without punishment or fear helps create a stress-free process for both you and your dog. Cortisol levels are lower.

Suitable for Many Settings – You can use positive reinforcement to train therapy dogs, search and rescue dogs, actor dogs, and more. It works well in many environments.

Overall, the biggest upside to positive reinforcement dog training is that it allows you to communicate and bond with your dog in a positive way. You can strengthen your relationship while improving your dog’s manners and obedience.

Common Positive Reinforcers for Dogs

When training using positive reinforcement, you need to find rewards your individual dog will consistently work for. These positive reinforcers will vary between dogs based on preferences and motivations. Here are some of the most common rewards used in dog training:

  • Food – Small pieces of human food or commercial dog treats that your dog loves. Hot dogs, cheese, chicken, and liver are common high-value options.
  • Toys – Especially toys that can be tossed as a reward for fetch or “tug” toys for playing tug of war. Squeaky toys work well for some dogs too.
  • Play – Any kind of play your dog loves can be used as a reward, like wrestling, chasing, playing fetch, or taking them on a run.
  • Petting/Affection – For dogs that crave human touch and attachment, petting, praise and physical affection make great reinforcers.
  • Real Life Rewards – Things like getting to go outside, go for a car ride, visit a fun place, meet another dog, etc.
  • Anything Else Your Dog Loves – Some dogs work well for access to guests, getting brushed, having ears rubbed, swimming, herding balls, or doing nose work. Experiment to find unique motivators.

You can use a variety of reinforcers to keep your dog engaged and interested in training. Offering a “payment menu” with different reward options prevents your dog from getting bored. Rotate different rewards during a session and in different environments.

Picking the Right Positive Reinforcers

Choosing rewards that are sufficiently motivating for your individual dog is important for success with positive reinforcement training. Here are some tips for picking the best reinforcers:

  • Observe Your Dog – Pay attention to what makes your dog excited in different situations. What does he consistently want or enjoy?
  • Reinforcers Must Compete – The reward needs to be more motivating than environmental distractions. Use extra high-value treats outside.
  • Use High-Value Treats – Small pieces of chicken, cheese, hot dog, etc. are more powerful than dry dog biscuits for training.
  • Mix Up Reinforcers – Rotate different food rewards and non-food rewards to keep things interesting.
  • Mark Preferences – Note treats your dog loves versus those he’s indifferent to. Tail wags and quick gobbling indicate preferences.
  • Test Reinforcers First – Make sure your dog will actively work for the reward before using it in training.
  • Adjust Criteria Gradually – If your dog loses motivation, you may be increasing criteria too fast during shaping.
  • Avoid Satiation – Give treats in small quantities so your dog doesn’t get full and lose interest.

Reinforcers only work well if your dog finds them truly rewarding. Pay close attention to your dog’s unique preferences. This will allow you to pick the most effective positive reinforcers for training.

Using Food Effectively in Training

Food is one of the most common rewards used in positive reinforcement dog training. Using food properly helps ensure an effective training process. Here are some tips:

  • Use High-Value Treats – As mentioned, real meat treats like chicken work better than dry biscuits.
  • Use Tiny Pieces – Break or cut treats into tiny, pea-sized bites so you can give many per session.
  • Vary Food Rewards – Use a few different types of treats like cheese, hot dog, liver, etc to keep it interesting.
  • Reward with Food First – When teaching a new behavior, use food rewards before switching to other reinforcers. Food is very powerful.
  • Wean Off Food Rewards – Once your dog learns a behavior, you can switch to intermittent food treats and introduce other rewards.
  • Consider Your Dog’s Needs – Adjust food amounts for dogs on a diet or with allergies. Use part of their ration as rewards.
  • Reward Away from Bowls – If you reward near food bowls, your dog may start expecting treats at meals. Reward elsewhere.
  • Store Treats Properly – Keep treats fresh in bags or containers. Don’t carry loose food in your pockets.
  • Practice Treat Delivery – Work on smoothly delivering treats to your dog in different positions without fumbling.
  • Don’t Reward All Food Interest – Ignore begging or nudging for food outside of training sessions to avoid reinforcing this.

Using food properly maximizes its effectiveness for training. Food treats provide a convenient, efficient way to positively reinforce your dog’s good behavior.

Proper Timing When Rewarding

In order for positive reinforcement to work, you must reward your dog within 1-2 seconds of the behavior you want to strengthen. Good timing is essential. Follow these guidelines:

  • Pay Close Attention – Watch and wait for the desired response instead of chatting, looking away, etc.
  • Have Rewards Ready – Have treats handy or toys within easy reach so you don’t fumble getting them when needed.
  • Mark the Behavior – Use a clicker or verbal marker like “Yes!” the instant the behavior happens before giving the reward.
  • Immediate Delivery – Quickly give the reward right after the marker. This connects the marker, behavior, and reward.
  • Avoid Being Late – If too much time passes between the behavior and reward, the learning effect will be reduced.
  • Repeat Marking – For long durations, you can mark and reward several times during the behavior, not just at the end.
  • Consider Rate of Behavior – Mark more frequently when teaching fast behaviors like spinning versus slow ones like long sits.
  • Pay Attention to Details – Reward only the precise criteria you want to reinforce, like eye contact or straight sits.
  • Don’t Disrupt the Flow – Deliver rewards smoothly without interrupting the rhythm of the training session.

Proper timing creates clear associations between behaviors and consequences, helping your dog learn quickly during training. With practice, you can efficiently mark and reward behaviors to reinforce them.

Phase Out Continuous Rewards

While you should reward your dog every time when first teaching a behavior, this changes once he reliably offers the behavior. You should gradually switch to intermittent, unpredictable rewards to strengthen the behavior further. Here’s how:

  • Reward Every Rep Initially – When your dog first learns a behavior, reward continuously to create a strong association with the reward.
  • Slowly Increase Criteria – Only reward closer approximations to the final desired behavior. This shapes the behavior gradually.
  • Randomize at End of Shaping – When initially shaped, start providing rewards randomly, like every 3rd or 5th repetition.
  • Vary Patterns – Reward after 2 repetitions, then 5, then 3 to avoid your dog predicting when rewards will come.
  • Reward Known Behaviors Intermittently – For reliable, trained behaviors, use intermittent rewards to maintain performance.
  • Occasionally Reward Known Behaviors – Even if not rewarding every time anymore, occasionally reward known behaviors.
  • Watch Rate of Response – If frequency drops, your dog needs more consistent rewards again for that behavior.
  • Use Other Reinforcers – Praise, petting and play can reinforce behavior in between food rewards.

The goal is to randomize rewards so your dog keeps performing the behavior, not just when he thinks he’ll get a treat. Sporadic rewards strengthen reliability and longevity.

Avoid Common Reward Mistakes

While rewarding correctly is important, it’s also important to avoid common mistakes when using positive reinforcement:

  • Rewarding Too Slowly – The reward must come within 1-2 seconds of the behavior. Any longer and the association weakens.
  • Rewarding the Wrong Thing – You have to precisely reward the part of the behavior you want to reinforce, not approximations.
  • Letting Your Dog Demand Rewards – Require your dog to perform the behavior you requested before rewarding, not just any behavior he offers.
  • Rewarding Without Marking First – The marker tells your dog which behavior earned the reward so he understands.
  • Forgetting the Reward – The reward is the most important part of positive reinforcement. Don’t forget to give it!
  • Insufficient Excitement – You need genuinely happy, enthusiastic praise and delivery of rewards. Don’t be bland.
  • Poor Timing of Clicker – The click should mark the precise moment the desired behavior occurs.
  • No “Payment” After Click – Always back up the click or marker with your dog’s actual reward. Don’t just click alone.
  • Moving Criteria Too Fast – Incremental shaping should progress gradually. Jumping ahead too quickly can confuse dogs.

While positive reinforcement training is enjoyable overall for dogs, you still need proper technique for it to work effectively. Avoid sloppy mistakes in order to get the best results.

Real World Application

While the theory of positive reinforcement is straight forward, putting it into practice in real world situations takes practice. Here are some tips:

  • Start Training in Low Distraction Environments – Begin training in quiet areas without distractions so your dog can focus.
  • Use Higher Value Rewards Outside – Use extra tempting treats when training outside with more distractions to keep your dog’s motivation and attention. Bring a “treat pouch” on walks.
  • Practice Addressing Distractions – Arrange minor distractions during training to start proofing behaviors. Reward ignoring distractions and focusing on you.
  • Train in Different Locations – Practice behaviors in different rooms of your home, out in the yard, at the park etc so your dog generalizes.
  • Recruit Helpers – Have friends and family help with training sometimes so your dog learns to obey them too.
  • Revisit Basics in Difficult Settings – If your dog struggles with known behaviors in a new place, simplify your requests and rewards again.
  • Watch Your Dog’s Stress Signals – Don’t push training too far in distracting environments if your dog shows signs of stress like lip licking, yawning, shaking off, etc.
  • Keep Sessions Short – Your dog will stay more focused for 5-10 minute sessions. Gradually build up training times.
  • End on a Good Note – Quit while you’re ahead after a success. Don’t drill behaviors so long your dog gets fed up and stops complying.

With creativity and practice, you can use positive reinforcement to train your dog effectively in real world situations, not just controlled settings.

Hand Targeting

Hand targeting is a useful behavior to teach dogs using positive reinforcement shaping techniques.

To teach hand targeting:

  1. Show your open palm to your dog and mark and reward any interest, like looking, sniffing, or touching your hand.
  2. Only reward actual physical contact with your hand. Mark and reward brief nose or paw touches.
  3. Once your dog is consistently touching your hand, start putting your hand slightly further away so he has to lean or step closer to reach it. Reward touches.
  4. Gradually increase the distance your dog must move to touch your hand held out in front, to the side,

above his head, down low etc.

  1. Say “touch” and gesture with your hand as the visual cue when asking for the behavior.
  2. Next reward only harder contacts like pushing his nose firmly into your palm. Do not reward just brushes against your hand.
  3. Practice having your dog touch targets like your other palm, objects, walls, the end of a leash you’re holding, your legs etc.
  4. Raise criteria by rewarding only faster hand touches or touches from greater distances.

Hand targeting once mastered provides a great way to move your dog where you want him to go by leading with your hand. It also helps keep him focused on you. It’s useful for maneuvering in tight spaces, teaching agility obstacles, greeting appropriate people, and much more. Hand targeting provides the foundation for many fun tricks as well!

Loose Leash Walking

Teaching your dog to walk properly on a loose leash is an important obedience behavior. Use the following positive reinforcement techniques:

  • Reward by your side – Start in low distraction areas and reward your dog for staying at your side instead of pulling forward.
  • Stop when leash tightens – If your dog starts pulling, immediately stop moving. Wait for slack in the leash before rewarding and resuming walking.
  • Reward eye contact – When walking by your side, mark and reward frequent eye contact with you to reinforce focus.
  • Use stimuli that trigger pulling – As your dog improves, practice around distractions like other dogs and people that trigger pulling and reward focus.
  • Reward speeds beside you – Reinforce your dog matching walking pace beside you at faster and slower speeds.
  • Practice turns and changes of direction – Reinforce your dog staying close as you randomly change directions on walks.
  • Apply gentle pressure – Gently guide your dog back to your side with the leash instead of jerking or yanking. Reward returning beside you.
  • Use high-value treats – Outside, use extra enticing treats to keep your dog’s motivation and attention on you.
  • Keep sessions short – End walks on a positive note after 5-10 minutes of success before your dog disengages.

With persistence and proper rewarding, your dog will learn that staying close by your side keeps treats coming during walks. Loose leash walking takes conditioning, but pays off in the end.

Coming When Called

Using positive reinforcement, you can teach your dog a reliable “come” command when you call his name. Here’s how:

  • Start with a long leash in a safe location. Say your dog’s name happily and run backwards, pulling the leash to guide him along as you encourage him to “come.” Praise and reward when he comes all the way to you.
  • Progress to letting out more slack in the leash as your dog voluntarily follows you for longer distances as you excitedly encourage him to “come.” Reward when he reaches you.
  • Next drop the leash and take a few steps back calling him happily by name to come, praising as he comes and rewarding upon reaching you.
  • Increase distance and add minor distractions, always rewarding your dog when he returns to you.
  • Randomly reward faster recalls or those with prompt response to his name before he even starts returning.
  • Practice “come” from different directions – away from you, to your side, when you are sitting etc.
  • Avoid repeating “come” over and over if your dog ignores you. This lessens the power of the command. Simply go get him.
  • If your dog fails to return, don’t reward him when you retrieve him. Simply try again next time.

With patience and consistency, your dog will learn coming reliably always results in praise and rewards. This builds a life-saving recall skill. Always positively reinforce returned recalls.

Leave It

The “leave it” cue teaches your dog to resist temptation and leave something alone upon request. Follow these positive reinforcement training steps:

  • With your dog on leash, place a low-value treat on the floor and cover it with your hand as you say “leave it.” Reward not attempting to get the treat.
  • Repeat this exercise, waiting until your dog stops trying to uncover the treat before rewarding.
  • When he reliably leaves low-value treats, upgrade to higher-value treats, food items, or toys. Reward ignoring these tempting items upon hearing “leave it.”
  • Practice with items at increasing distances, rewarding your dog for leaving items you point to or that you toss on the ground.
  • Say “take it” and let your dog eat treats after leaving them upon request to teach him the release.
  • Use real life scenarios – dropped food, other dogs’ toys, food during meal prep etc. and reward your dog for “leave it.”
  • Eventually phase out treats so your dog learns to “leave it” just on your verbal cue.

With positive reinforcement, your dog will learn self-control and to override his instincts by leaving tempting objects alone when you tell him to “leave it.” This helps reduce undesirable scavenging, begging, and theft of banned objects.

Teaching Calm Settled Behavior

Some dogs need help learning to settle down calmly and relax. Here are positive reinforcement techniques to teach calmness:

  • Reward natural calm behavior – Reinforce your dog any time he lies down calmly, before he gets restless. This shows that calmness earns rewards.
  • Use “settle” cue – Pair a verbal cue like “settle” with rewarding calm down behavior to teach an off switch.
  • Reward calmness around distractions – Reinforce remaining settled when stimuli like knocking or loud noises occur nearby.
  • Put unwanted behavior on cue – Say “go play” when releasing your dog from a settle to teach him the difference between play time and quiet time.
  • Increase duration gradually – Use your marker word or clicks to reward progressive increments of longer settled behavior.
  • Practice in all environments – Reward calm settle behavior in various locations so your dog generalizes.
  • Ignore restless behavior – Refrain from rewarding whining, barking, pacing to get your attention. Wait to reward until calm.
  • Plenty of exercise beforehand – Make sure your dog has sufficient physical and mental exercise before training calmness.

With consistency, your dog will associate being calm and settled with pleasant consequences like treats and praise. This creates a dog who can relax on cue when you need him to.

Crate Training

Crate training a new puppy or dog using positive reinforcement follows the same principles as other types of training:

  • Make the crate comfortable with blankets and toys so it feels like a safe den. Scatter treats to encourage your dog to voluntarily enter. Reward any interest or exploration of the crate.
  • Place favored treats in the back of the crate to motivate your dog to fully enter the enclosure to get the food instead of refusing to go in.
  • Close the door briefly while feeding your dog in the crate but before he finishes the food. Open again. Repeat this until your dog is comfortable remaining in the closed crate to finish eating before opening.
  • Progress to leaving your dog in the crate for short periods while you’re home and rewarding calmness. Open door before he becomes agitated.
  • Use a marker word like “kennel up” or “crate” whenever placing your dog inside and reward him upon entering. This associates a cue with going into the crate.
  • Slowly increase the duration your dog is left in the crate before rewarding him for calmness upon opening door.
  • Place the crate near areas you spend time and give your dog safe chew toys in the crate. Ignore whining after initial potty breaks.
  • Always take your dog out immediately after crating to reinforce it as a temporary confinement, not for pottying.

With consistency and positive associations, your dog will learn to view his crate as a relaxing sanctuary and den. Proper crate training prevents anxiety.

Dealing with Unwanted Behaviors

While positive reinforcement training focuses heavily on rewarding desired behaviors, you also need strategies for discouraging unwanted behaviors:

  • Ignore the behavior – Avoid reprimanding and do not reward attention-seeking behaviors. Simply turn and walk away.
  • Redirect to a wanted behavior – Guide your dog into a preferred behavior instead, like having him sit during petting if he jumps up.
  • Remove rewards – Take away something your dog wants when he misbehaves, like ending play time for uncontrolled nipping.
  • Avoid punishment – Do not use physical corrections, yelling, spraying with water, or rubbing nose in urine during house training. These tactics cause fear.
  • Manage the environment – Set your dog up for success by removing access to triggers like shoes to chew until you can actively train the dog.
  • Train an incompatible behavior – Teach your dog to perform behaviors that physically cannot be done at the same time as the unwanted behavior.
  • Interrupt and redirect – Get your dog’s attention with a sound like “ehh” or clap then immediately redirect him to a toy or treat when chasing the cat.
  • Withhold previous rewards for problem behavior – For example stop petting when your dog nudges your hand to be pet more. Only resume rewarding calm behavior.

The goal is to make good behaviors rewarding and problem behaviors ineffective at producing results your dog wants. You want him to default to preferred actions through positive training.

Introducing New Dogs

When adding a new dog to a home, use positive reinforcement to set up good first impressions:

  • Choose neutral territory for initial meetings like a park or neighbor’s yard, not in the home. Keep dogs leashed.
  • Allow polite sniffing but intervene at the first sign of tension. Do not let interactions escalate.
  • Praise and reward calm, appropriate interactions like side by side walking.
  • Bring each dog’s favorite toys and treats so they associate good things with the other dog’s presence.
  • Take multiple short walks together before bringing dogs home. End interactions on a calm note.
  • Crate and rotate dogs when unsupervised until you know they get along reliably.
  • Reward calm greetings, play bows, and tolerance of the other dog. Redirect inappropriate behavior.
  • Feed dogs on opposite sides of a barrier so they associate each other with good things like meals.
  • Never leave high-value toys, food, or bones out to trigger resource guarding. Praise sharing.
  • Have each dog engage in training with you separately in the home using treats before together sessions.

With patience and proper reinforcement, the dogs will learn to happily co-exist as housemates over time. Manage interactions carefully at first and set a foundation of positive associations.

Teaching Children How to Train

With supervision, positive reinforcement dog training is a great way to teach children responsible pet care and improve the relationship between kids and dogs:

  • Start by demonstrating training techniques and explaining the marker, reward process
  • Show children how to deliver treats smoothly without teasing or taunting the dog
  • Explain the importance of not yelling, hitting, or scaring the dog
  • Emphasize gentle handling and calming signals if the dog seems distressed
  • Assist children in practicing basic cues like sit, down, come, stay first
  • Help children learn to time rewards properly within 1-2 seconds of desired behavior
  • Remind them to avoid repeating commands over and over
  • Have kids offer praise, petting, and play as rewards too, not just treats
  • Make sure children reward calm behavior and politeness, not jumping up
  • Strictly supervise all interactions, intervening if the dog shows signs of stress
  • Keep initial sessions very short to match children’s shorter attention spans

With parental guidance, teaching a dog tricks and cues can help foster empathy, responsibility and improve behavior in children. Make it a fun, educational experience for the child.

Transitioning Away from Constant Treats

While food treats are very effective when first teaching behaviors, you don’t want a dog that only complies when you have treats. Here are tips for transitioning away from continuous food rewards:

  • Use Other Reinforcers – Reward with things like praise, toys, petting, play early in training too, not just food. This prevents the dog from becoming dependent on constant edible rewards.
  • Reward Intermittently and Randomly – Gradually reduce how often you give treats for learned behaviors until you are only rewarding occasionally and unpredictably.
  • Require Performance First – Ask for known cues before showing your dog you have a treat. Don’t show treats first or let your dog demand handouts.
  • Practice Obedience Without Food First – Drill cue response in low distraction areas without treats present before sessions where treats will be used. This strengthens reliability.
  • Carry Treats Out of Sight – Keep treats in your pocket, bait bag, or fanny pack rather than visible in hand once your dog understands cues.
  • Increase Distraction Level – Challenge your dog by working in more distracting environments where he must focus on you and obeying rather than looking for treats.
  • Use Life Rewards – Things like opening doors to go outside, putting on a leash for a walk, getting a toy, etc. can serve as rewards for obedience too.

With smart tactics, you can fade food lures and rewards over time so your dog works for other types of reinforcement. You want obeying cues to become a habit with or without edible motivators present.

Troubleshooting Common Training Problems

When training using positive reinforcement, you may encounter setbacks. Here are tips for troubleshooting common issues:

Lack of Motivation – Make sure you are using rewards your dog finds truly enticing. Also limit training sessions to just a few minutes at first to prevent boredom. End on a positive note.

Distracted – Move training to areas with fewer distractions until your dog masters behaviors, then gradually increase environmental challenges. Use high-value rewards for added motivation when distracted.

Not Listening – Avoid constantly repeating cues. Make sure to “pay” by rewarding your dog each time he correctly responds to a cue to maintain the behavior.

Resisting Handling – If your dog shies away from handling for grooming, exams etc., apply counterconditioning by pairing very small forms of contact with high-value treats until he changes his emotional response.

Only Performs for Treats – Fade food lures and rewards carefully. Reinforce correct responses with other rewards like play and praise too, and eventually make the behavior itself the reward through chaining.

Becoming Bored – Keep training sessions very short, under 5 minutes for puppies and dogs new to training. Switch locations and rotate different types of rewards to keep things interesting.

Aggression – Serious aggression issues require the guidance of a professional trainer/behaviorist. Avoid training methods that involve punishment, which can make dogs more aggressive.

Consistency and patience are key when encountering issues. Stick to positive methods and consult a trainer if problems persist beyond your skill level. The results are worth it!


Positive reinforcement dog training relies on making desired behaviors rewarding to shape obedience and address behavioral issues without the use of force, fear or punishment. While initially more time intensive than harsh corrections, the payoff is a deeper bond and willingness to work in your dog. Positive training fosters cooperation through choice, not threats.

Proper timing, high-value rewards and early success set the foundation. Training sessions should be frequent but very short to maintain your dog’s engagement and prevent boredom. Be creative in finding rewards your individual dog loves. Fade treats and rewards carefully to avoid dependence once behaviors are learned. Remain flexible and upbeat – your dog’s positive response is the best measure of effective training.

There is a lot to master when training with positive reinforcement, but the results are very rewarding. Put in the time and effort to establish the trust, communication and reliability that positive training fosters. Both you and your dog will be happy you did!

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