Positive Reinforcement for Dogs – How Dogs Learn
Positive Reinforcement for Dogs
The simplest way to approach dog training is to understand how dogs learn: from the consequences of his actions. He will learn whether his behavior results in something wanted or unwanted. Positive reinforcement for dogs is really important.
Most of the behaviors we expect from our dogs are unnatural for them, such as walking calmly on leash or not allowing them to thoroughly investigate a dead mouse.
A common mistake is when people get a new dog and let him do as he pleases in the name of “getting used to his new home.” If a dog learns that there are no boundaries, he will associate getting whatever he wants with doing whatever he wants, whether you like the behavior or not. He learned them with no input from you other than your tolerance of them. Behaviors become habits if the reward cycle is repeated. Good luck breaking those habits, because dog learned that these behaviors get him results.
Positive Reinforcement for Dogs
Positive reinforcement is your most powerful training aid. What dog wouldn’t want to repeat a behavior that resulted in affection, play time, treats or anything the dog considers good?
For dogs, food is the most powerful positive motivator. The world is a fascinating place filled with a bazillion things that are more interesting than you! Food gives them a great reason to pay more attention to you and obey your commands.
You can phase out food rewards once a desired behavior is established. In the beginning you can reward every good behavior with food; then, once the behavior is established, give the treats more randomly. Behaviors are imprinted faster when the rewards become unpredictable. Sparky will have no idea whether today’s effort will pay off… but being ever-hopeful, he will work extra hard to get the reward. It’s okay for your dog to work harder for his “pay!” Then you can fine-tune your rewards: at first you reward every “sit” but as your dog begins responding consistently, you reward only the immediate responses. Using verbal praise and/or physical affection along with food accelerates learning. Praise itself isn’t as strong a motivator as food, but the two together work wonders and makes it easier to phase out food rewards later.
A big part of positive reinforcement is giving your dog a better alternative. If your dog is doing something you don’t want him to do, stop him (gently!) and direct him to what you want him to do. It’s easy to distract a dog as long as the distraction brings him a better reward than the old thing. For example, jumping up to greet humans is normal dog behavior; dogs greet each other like that. If you don’t like jumping, give him an alternative way to greet you by positively reinforcing a greeting behavior you like, such as the butt-scoot, full-body wiggle!
Negative Reinforcement for Dogs
Negative reinforcement works BUT it can create fear in the dog. Positive reinforcement is more effective.
Never punish or reprimand your dog after the fact. Dogs don’t perceive time like we do, and even if she knows darn well she did something wrong, by the time you discover the evidence, she’s probably doing something completely unrelated and may think you’re punishing her for lying in the sun. When you’re not around, the dog will decide what to do or not do. Have you set boundaries and eliminated temptation? You can’t expect your dog to know that shoes are off-limits as chew toys when you give her old socks. What’s the difference to her? None. They both smell like feet.
Don’t overuse the word “No.” After a while, you will sound just like a squeaky toy… and the dog will tune you out because there are no consequences.
Don’t hit your dog. The consequences MUST match the misbehavior… Always pause and ask yourself, “did I make it clear that digging in the garden is not okay?” Positive Reinforcement for Dogs
Natural Consequences for Dogs
If the family cat hisses and takes a swipe at your dog’s nose when he harasses her, he learns instantly that cat is not to be messed with. Here are some powerful natural consequences that help you get the message across without yelling or physical punishment:
- The dog tries to shove his way past you on the way out the door: make him sit. The door will NOT open, and you will NOT go out, until you sit calmly.
- The dog barks at full volume at feeding time. Make him lie down. You will NOT get fed until you lie down quietly.
- The dog tries to snatch a bone from your hand. Make him sit. You will NOT get this bone until you sit.
Ignore your dog (this is not a good strategy to use if the dog is being destructive):
- The dog is playing too rough and chomps down on your hand, hard. In a LOW voice, verbalize your pain and immediately turn your back on him and ignore hm. You hurt me, and I will NOT play with you or even look at you until you chill.
- The dog is begging at the table. Put your dog in his crate, if you have one, or simply ignore him completely no matter how much he demands attention (yes, this takes patience…). Never give in! Dogs are masters at mooching. If it’s worked once they’re sure it will work again.
Dogs are pack animals and the feeling of being excluded from the pack, even temporarily, is devastating. They will do anything to avoid being kicked out of the pack! Once he exhibits the behavior you want, only then give him your loving attention.
Consistency for Dogs
Whether your dog is learning through positive or negative consequences, consistency is important. Don’t reward your dog for not jumping on your visitors and then allow her to jump on you. No jumping means no jumping. Positive Reinforcement for Dogs
When you introduce structure, boundaries and consistency, your dog will feel secure knowing what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Learning Plateaus for Dogs
When you learn something new, there’s a learning curve. You’re not sure if you’re doing it right, you doubt yourself, you try, fail, try again… and then you plateau, which is the magical moment when you have fully absorbed the new skill. It’s the same with dogs.
Work with plateaus. Spending a little time in the plateau gives your dog confidence before moving on to a new lesson.
You will know that your dog has not reached a learning plateau when he exhibits displacement behaviors. Licking, scratching himself, and yawning are signs of stress. The dog is trying to figure out what you want, and relieve stress. This is your cue to back off. Leave the training for another day and go play.
Look at the world through your dog’s eyes and you’ll see quickly how he learned bad behaviors. “I did this once, it worked, so I’ma doit again!” Encourage your dog to learn good behaviors through lots of positive rewards!