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San Diego Humane Society

Positive Reinforcement: Why Use It?

Dog training can be fun for both people and dogs, and it’s even more effective when positive reinforcement techniques are used. The basic idea of positive reinforcement is that all animals (including humans!) will repeat behaviors that lead to positive experiences and will soon give up behaviors that don’t. Whether the behavioral problem is barking, chewing, digging or housesoiling, positive reinforcement gives you the power to bring out the best in your dog.

With positive reinforcement your dog learns that good things (i.e. rewards) will happen when he does things you like. Rewards are usually treats, toys, play time and praise, but every dog is different so experiment and find out what motivates your dog the most. Before you get started, keep in mind that positive reinforcement is extremely relationship-based. It's more a way of life and a way of communicating with your dog than it is a shortcut training "technique." By using positive reinforcement techniques, you will be on your way to establishing and maintaining a connection that increases trust and results in a stronger, healthier bond between you.

Putting Positive Reinforcement Into Action

Punishment and correction don’t have to be a part of training. In fact, punishment is often ineffective. Let's take the example of teaching your dog to walk politely by your left side, referred to as "heeling." The traditional approach is to start off with the dog on a leash with a choke chain. When the dog moves too far ahead of the trainer, the trainer responds by jerking on the leash to tighten the choke chain. This punishment tells the dog he did the wrong thing by pulling ahead.

The positive reinforcement method would be to start without even using a leash (if you’re not in an enclosed area, be sure to put a leash on your dog for safety.) But don’t use the leash as an enforcement tool — you don't need it! Instead, do the following:

  1. Encourage your dog to follow you as you back away from him. When you have his attention, turn around 180 degrees to the right so that you are both facing forward, walking in the same direction.
  2. Look down to your left, and there's your dog — in the "heel" position! As soon as he's in the right spot, surprise him with a treat.
  3. If he stays walking nicely by your side, give him another treat, reinforcing every single step at first. Continue this process until your dog catches on that fun things are likely to happen when he's by your left side.
  4. You can shape his heeling to your desired level of precision by controlling how often you offer the treats as reinforcement and raising your expectations as to how many steps your dog has to go before getting reinforced.

Weaning your dog off the treats is where the "magic" of positive reinforcement comes in. You don’t want your dog to get used to being rewarded with a treat every single time he does what you want, so you’ll need to gradually wean him off the treats. But you can continue giving your training a burst of power by reinforcing your dog's behavior with an unexpected jackpot reward every so often.

Your Attention as a Tool

Using treats properly will get your training off to a great start, but don't forget about your most powerful tool — your attention! Most dogs are masters at getting our attention on their terms, because we normally don't use our attention as a reinforcement tool. In fact, we often contribute to behavior problems in our dogs by unintentionally reinforcing the wrong behaviors. If your dog barks and you stop what you're doing to pet him or reassure him, what did he just learn? Of course, he learned that barking is a good way to get your attention, but did you know that it can be the same result if you had reprimanded him? To dogs, getting scolded may be better than no attention at all!

Once you start thinking in terms of positive reinforcement, you will see many opportunities to shape the behaviors you want by being selective in when and how you give your dog the gift of your attention. This will free you from having to police your dog by putting more responsibility for good behavior on your dog. Do this by actively looking for times when your dog is behaving in a way you like and want to encourage. If he's sitting or lying down quietly, surprise him with a back scratch or a treat or take him for a walk right then.

Remember that your dog's behavior is governed by the "laws" of positive reinforcement — he will repeat the behaviors that lead to good times. Your job is to show him what those behaviors are and how he can earn your attention. Your dog will grow in confidence and learn new behaviors more quickly, you’ll have a stronger bond, and you’ll enjoy all the benefits of having a well-mannered dog.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society Adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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