Positive Reinforcement for Dogs – How Dogs Learn

Train your dog

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.


dog training


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:


Withhold rewards:


  • 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.


Dog Crates that look like Furniture


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.


Positive Reinforcement for 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!


Positive Reinforcement for Dogs – How Dogs Learn. 

How do you train your dog?  Please share your success stories with us!

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  • penelope

    Positive reinforcement works best for people, too! Very interesting that the intermittent rewards system plays a role in dog motivation to get rewarded. It’s the same principle that gets people addicted to slot machines – ones that only pay sometimes, and unpredictably 🙂

    I see so many poorly behaved dogs out and about and I wish people took the time to train them properly and learn about dog intelligence!

    • Tammy

      Thank you for your comment! I have to agree with you about the poorly behaved dogs. Some people just don’t really know how to care for dogs. I hope this blog helps to educate some of them. 🙂

  • Great post, Tammy! You mentioned how important consistency is and that’s so true! I’ve seen two people under one roof trying to train a dog or reinforce obedience training, but one of them has a brain injury with severe short term memory loss, so the challenges are huge. The dog gets confused
    and the person with the brain injury stays confused. She typically remembers training commands from a different trainer and dog that was done years ago, but can’t recall the current training. So, only one person is able to reinforce the new training. That does not work very well. Unfortunately, the recent obedience training tends to take longer b/c the person with the brain injury interjects wrong commands. The other person who remembers the training has had more success with treats than anything. Quite challenging! That might apply to other pet owners too and be one small piece of the puzzle as to why some dogs are not well behaved in public.

    I enjoy visiting your site b/c you always have helpful tips. Keep the good posts coming!

    • Tammy

      Hi Colleen, thank you for sharing your experience with us. It sounds like a real challenge and lots of confusion going on. I hope they get it all worked out for the dog. If I can help them in anyway, please let me know and thanks for visiting! 🙂 🐾

  • Lace

    Training a pooch is hard work for sure. You’ve given some great tips on how to get desired behaviour in their furry friends. Consistency is definitely key here but I believe it pays off in the end. Treats definitely work a treat!

  • I don’t have any dogs right now (I’m more of a cat person), but I know many people with dogs and they struggle when it comes to training them. This article was well-written and contained a lot of information without being confusing. I came away with the impression that you need positive reinforcement (for the most part) and patience if you’re going to train your dog. From what I’ve read, dogs can be trained to do a lot whether it’s proper behavior at dinnertime or ringing a bell when they have to go to the bathroom.

    • Tammy

      Thanks Mike! Yes, the positive reinforcement really works well for dogs. I know a couple dogs that ring a bell when they need to “go” outside. They are really smart!

  • Cheska J

    This is very helpful for me as I am a new dog owner and I’ve just been embracing and learning more on the dog community from fellow dog owners and articles. Happy to have come by your blog! I am actually also considering to purchase Cesar’s book and happy to see you’re recommending it as well. I can see how Positive Reinforcement is so much better than Negative Reinforcement, I wouldn’t want to instill great fear to my dear doggie!

    • Tammy

      Congratulations on being a new fur kid owner! What kind of dog did you get? Yes, you will get great results with positive reinforcement. I see so many people hit their dog or yell at them, breaks my heart. May you get lots of joy and happiness with your new precious pup. 🙂

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