Positive Reinforcement Dog Training Tips

Training your dog with positive reinforcement is an excellent way to build a bond while you open lines of communication with your dog. Dogs will repeat behaviors that are rewarding, which is part of what makes positive reinforcement training so effective. The methods you use to train your dog make a big difference in how they learn new skills and respond to the world around them. Here are some positive reinforcement dog training tips and tricks!

1. Teamwork

You and your dog are working together toward a shared goal. You don’t need to be the “alpha” or dominant leader, you simply are your dog’s teacher and guardian. Working together is key! You are teaching your dog what the expectations and boundaries are for life with humans: Keeping paws on the ground, walking nicely on a leash, managing excitement levels, not barking and lunging at friends or strangers, etc. Working as a team means having fun and meeting your dog where they're at (not where you want them to be). It also means that if you are frustrated, it's okay to take a deep breath and step away from training for a moment.

Building up desired behaviors and redirecting unwanted behaviors is what training should be about!

2. Rewards & Motivators

Have a few varieties of treats available. Food is the biggest motivator for most dogs, which makes it a great way to reinforce good behaviors.

Soft treats are great because they can be broken up into smaller pieces. The treats don’t need to be big for them to be rewarding, they can be as small as a grain of rice, in fact, you can even use your dog's food as their reward.

Your dog is a contra-freeloader, which means they love to work for food! Using your dog’s meal allotments is a great way to reward your dog during practice sessions in low distraction areas.

Foods like carrots, sweet red apple slices, cheese, shredded boiled chicken, or hot dogs can be used as high value treats you give your dog for behaviors you desire most.

As a reward, you can also use praise and pets, access to toys and playtime, or anything else your dog finds enjoyable and rewarding (walks, fetch, clapping, etc.). For example, some dogs love being pet on the head while others prefer some tug time with a rope toy instead.

Watch your dog’s body language and responses to determine what they find rewarding. I.e. If your dog moves away from affection, they are telling you they don’t enjoy it.

3. Make training an enjoyable experience

Make sure you and your dog are enjoying the training. By making the learning process fun, building up your relationship and strengthening your communication with one another, you're creating behaviors that last a lifetime. Change up what you work on daily (training in short increments) and train in new settings weekly. This is a great way to make your dog's experience more exciting.

Take advantage of your dog's high-energy days and work on skills like "come" when called, loose leash walking, or "drop it" as a game of fetch. Use your dog’s lower-energy days to strengthen behaviors such as focus skills around distractions, eye contact, stay, wait, etc.

If you notice your dog is having an off-day, seems disinterested, or is overly distracted - don’t push training. This will guard your dog's perspective on commands!

Setting your dog up for lifelong success

4. Rate of Reinforcement

The rate of reinforcement is the pace at which you are giving treats to your dog. When teaching your dog a new skill, or working in a distracting environment, delivering treats at a higher frequency, (in the beginning) helps keep your dog engaged in the lesson and build up a "payment" history.

Akin to putting money in a piggy bank, your increased reward delivery will help your dog gain a clear understanding of the wanted behavior. As your dog progresses with a skill, you can start to back off the rewards, paying at a slower frequency and working toward a lottery-type payment (paying at an indiscriminate frequency).

You don't go to work because you're scared your boss will be disappointment if you don't - you work because it pays you and your dog is no different.

5. Timing and Mechanics

The timing of your marker word/clicker and timing of treat plays a role in your dog’s learning journey. One of the ways our dogs learn is by association, and the window to associate is 3-5 seconds. Your timing will improve as you practice, and there is a little game you can play to build your trainer mechanics. Hold a small item in one hand and your clicker in the other. Toss the small item up in the air and click when the item reaches its peak (right before it comes back down). Repeat this motion to get your clicker timing right. You can also do this with your marker word, saying the word when the item hits its peak, instead of clicking.

You have 3 seconds to reward or redirect your dog's behaviors. Doing so will improve your dog's understanding of what "good" behaviors and "bad" behaviors are.

Other mechanics include the placement of your treat delivery. If you are working on a stationary skill like sit-stay, you’ll want to deliver the treat to the dog’s mouth whereas tossing it on the floor would cause the dog to get up, then being rewarded for an un-cued release.

6. Distance is your tool

When working around new or exciting distractions, your dog’s distance to the distraction plays a role in their response. If the distraction is too close for your dog’s comfort, or your dog is overly excited by the presence of the distraction, move your dog away from the distraction until you find your dog’s threshold. Some dogs only need 5-10 feet of distance, others will require 30-40 feet or more. Discovering your dog’s distance threshold will benefit your training.

Once you’ve discovered your dog’s distance threshold, you can work on getting closer. Start before the threshold line (the point that elicits a response from your dog), and work on basics like focus skills or calm behaviors like sitting or down. As you practice with your dog, you will find your dog learning to focus on you more than the distraction. Once you reach that point, you can move a foot or two closer, and repeat working on known skills to your dog. Repeat the process as you work towards closing the distance gap between your dog and the distraction.

7. Practice Matters

Practicing skills is very important for a dog in training, or even in the maintenance stage of learning. Take advantage of training opportunities throughout the day, and be generous with your payments as your dog builds their skills. Above all, be patient with yourself and your dog. You are learning as well as your dog, and dogs have good and bad days just like us.

Your practice should fit into your life: We recommend 3-5 minutes sessions, 3-5 times per day.

You may find your dog is great with a skill in one area but seems to lose all knowledge of that skill in a different surrounding. Incorporating different locations in your practice will help your dog generalize the skill, meaning they will learn to respond to the cue in different settings and environments. Play the variables, think of the environments you’d like your dog to be able to respond in. Start at the basics in the new location, and work at your dog’s pace to increase the difficulty.

Be consistent with your training schedule and work at your dog's pace to progress their skills. Work on your handler skills as well as your dog’s skills, and remember to reach out to your local positive reinforcement trainer if you would like hands-on help!


Work With A Trainer

If you'd like to dive deeper into positive reinforcement training, consider working with a certified dog trainer! Use the link below to see if Busy Dog serves your area and book a free evaluation with your local trainer.