There are numerous dog training methods available to choose from, and some are more benign than others. As dog lovers, we all strive to do the best we can for our pets, but traditional dog training methods may have us believing we have to punish our dogs to get them to obey.
Lucky for us, this simply isn’t true! You can effectively train your dog any skill using positive training methods. These methods are backed by science and will not require you to yell at your dog or use painful tools like e-collars or choke chains.
If you’re interested in the most humane way to train your dog, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ll teach you all about positive training. You’ll learn what it is, what types of rewards are best, how to use positive training techniques to handle bad behavior and more.
What Is Positive Training?
You may have heard the terms force-free, positive reinforcement, or reward-based training. There are many different words used to describe positive training for dogs. In its essence, positive training is any technique that avoids using physical punishment, intimidation, force or fear to get a dog to perform a behavior.
Instead, when using positive training, you will reward your dog whenever they do something you like. The reward “reinforces” the behavior, making it more likely to happen again. Rewards are great motivators for dogs, making them eager to behave in the ways you’d like them to.
One of the most well-known positive training techniques is clicker training
. Using a clicker, handlers can mark the very moment the dog performs the desired action, making it easier for the dog to understand what their handler wants.
You’ve probably also heard of positive reinforcement training. This is simply the act of using a reward to reinforce behavior you’d like to see again. Under the umbrella of positive training, there are a number of different techniques, all of which are humane and often fun for your dog.
What Is the Best Reward?
When your dog does something right, it’s important that you reward them with something they actually
like. That way, you’ll be certain to reinforce the behavior. Rewards can be anything that motivates your dog, the most common being food and toys.
However, rewards can also be contextual. For example, let’s say you are trying to train your dog to walk nicely on a leash. Your dog clearly wants to be moving forward, so you could use that desire as a reward during training.
As long as your dog walks with the leash loose, you keep walking. However, when your dog pulls, you stop walking until the leash goes loose again. Many dog trainers refer to this technique as “red light, green light” or “stop, go.”
It’s important to pay attention to your dog’s body language. Some dogs love praise and touch so much that alone can be rewarding for them. But other dogs may find certain types of touch unpleasant, like being patted on the head.
If you try to “reward” your dog with something they find unpleasant, then you will instead be punishing them and teaching them not to do the thing you like. So, make sure the incentive you offer your dog is worthwhile for them!
Time Your Rewards Well
Timing your rewards accurately is just as important as giving a reward your dog actually likes. A well-timed reward helps your dog understand what is desired of them. A poorly timed reward may confuse your dog or even reinforce an entirely different behavior.
Using a clicker is a great way to increase your accuracy as the dog learns to associate the sound of the clicker with a reward. Even though you won’t be giving your dog the reward at the exact moment you click, your dog will still know when they performed the desired behavior as it was marked by the clicking sound.
A similar technique involves using a specific word to mark behaviors. Most often, trainers will use a word like “yes” to mark when a dog has performed the desired action.
You Can Reinforce Bad Behavior
The term “positive reinforcement” actually comes from psychology and is a type of operant conditioning
. This means that you apply a positive stimulus (the reward) in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. The terminology has nothing to do with whether the behavior you’re reinforcing is positive or negative.
This means you can positively reinforce an unwanted behavior such as barking. Let’s say you’re eating a snack and your dog is trying to figure out how to get a piece of that snack for themself.
They decide to give barking a shot. You live in an apartment complex and can’t have your dog barking, so you buckle and give the dog a piece of whatever you’re eating. You have just positively reinforced your dog’s barking and made it more likely to happen in the future.
What To Do About Bad Behavior
So what should
you do if you want to use positive training techniques, but your dog is displaying undesirable behaviors? How do you get them to stop without using force? Positive training employs a few different techniques to handle unwanted behaviors.
Ignore the Behavior
In the scenario above, where the dog is barking in the hopes of getting a piece of food, one of the best things you can do is simply ignore the behavior completely. If it’s the first time the dog has ever tried barking to get something, then they probably won’t bark for that long.
Ignoring the barking is an effective way to teach the dog that barking is not going to get them what they want. When the dog fails to receive a piece of food, they learn that barking is not a successful method and will be less likely to try it in the future.
Redirect the Behavior
Another effective method for handling unwanted behaviors is to redirect them. Let’s stick with our barking for food example: you live in an apartment, so you want to avoid noise complaints. Ignoring the barking may not be an option.
Instead, you can redirect the behavior. Ask your dog to do something you’d like them to do. Most dogs are less likely to bark when laying down, so you could try redirecting them to lay down. Then, give the dog a reward if they lay down and
The reward does not have to be a piece of whatever you were eating. It could be a dog treat instead. This can help prevent the dog from learning to beg (although, if you continue to redirect the dog to lay down whenever they are begging, they will develop pretty polite begging habits).
Sometimes, dogs are too smart for their own good and may learn to do something “naughty” followed by something “good” in order to get the treat. For instance, a puppy learning the “off” command may purposely jump on things because they know they will be told “off” and then get a treat.
When this happens, you simply need to make the redirection a little more complicated. You tell your puppy off, then sit, then lay down. Basically, make them perform a chain of behaviors before they get the treat. This usually solves the problem.
Prevent the Behavior
An important facet of positive training is prevention. Don’t even give your dog a chance to do bad things. If you don’t want your dog to become a table surfer, don’t leave food out on the counters. Similarly, use garbage cans with locking lids or keep them closed behind closet doors, especially if your dog has gone in the garbage before.
If you don’t want your dog to bark when looking out the window, keep the windows covered, at least when you’re not around to redirect the behavior. Believe it or not, preventing behaviors can be incredibly effective.
This is because many of the behaviors you don’t want your dog to do are self-rewarding. Stealing food off the counter or out of the garbage is incredibly rewarding (for obvious reasons). The fewer chances your dog has to perform these behaviors and be rewarded for them, the less likely your dog will be to repeat them.
Prevention can even be used to eliminate behaviors that are already bad habits. If you constantly and consistently prevent your dog from doing whatever it is you don’t want them to do, the behavior can become what trainers call “extinct” (your dog stops doing it). It takes time, effort, and patience, but prevention can be an incredibly powerful training tool.
Consistency Is Key
It’s important not to underestimate the power of consistency. This isn’t to say that you have to train your dog every single day for the rest of their life, but more so that you and everyone else in your household should be consistent with the way you train your dog.
Everyone should be using the same hand gestures and vocal cues. If family members are using different cues, it’ll be a lot harder for your pup to learn new skills.
Everyone also has to be in agreement about what the dog is or isn’t allowed to do. If one person allows the dog on the couch, but another doesn’t, the dog will not have a clear understanding of whether or not they are allowed on the couch.
Some dogs are smart enough to stay off the sofa around specific people but will otherwise lay on it. This is a problem if you truly don’t want to allow the dog on the couch.
Your dog should not be allowed to do something sometimes but not other times. This is very confusing for the dog, and if you decide you ultimately don’t like whatever behavior it is, it becomes harder to train out if your dog has been allowed to do it before.
Make sure to be consistent with the expectations you have for your dog, and you’ll have a much easier time training. Inconsistency can cause confusion and slow your dog’s learning speed, whereas clear, consistent communication will set your dog up for success.
Why You Should Avoid Physical Punishment
Believe it or not, positive training methods are technically not without punishment. For example, taking something away from your dog is a type of punishment (negative punishment, to be exact), though it is sometimes necessary. This is why it’s important to specify physical punishment as the training method you should avoid.
Any training method that uses force or inspires fear is not a good way to train your dog. Though you may see results at first, they often aren’t long-lasting and will destroy any bond you have with your dog.
A dog trained with rewards is often having fun and is eager to learn. This dog will present good behavior more frequently, which means even more opportunities to strengthen the behaviors you like.
This is also very helpful when training new skills, as the dog will be open to offering a plethora of behaviors until it figures out the one you want. This is incredibly important for tricks like speak, as your dog needs to offer the behavior in order for you to reward it.
Dogs that have been physically punished are often too afraid to offer any kind of behaviors, new or old. Fear is not a good motivator for dogs or any species for that matter.
Think about the difference between a child who is rewarded for good grades versus one who is punished whenever they don’t receive good grades. Which child is more likely to excel? One is motivated by the excitement of getting something they like, whereas the other is resentful of their parents and is not truly motivated to work hard.
The same logic is true for dogs. If you offer a dog a reward they like, they will be excited to do as you ask. If you use physical punishment, the dog will be reluctant at best. Some dogs take so poorly to punitive methods that they even become aggressive.
Positive Training Is Fun and Effective
Positive training goes by many names, including positive reinforcement, force-free training, and reward-based training. Though techniques may vary from trainer to trainer, any type of training that avoids the use of physical punishment, intimidation, force, and fear can be considered positive training.
This training method is humane and backed by science. With it, you can effectively train your dog without ruining the precious bond you’ve created with them.
Because positive training motivates dogs via rewards, they are often excited to be trained. Using positive training techniques, your dog can learn important behaviors all while having fun.
See all the positive training courses available from Dog Academy here