Dog Training Using Positive Reinforcement

From time to time, I hope to write an article here describing some dog training techniques. Dog training using positive reinforcement is one of the most powerful techniques around. There are others. I hope to touch on the other techniques in future articles, but what I'm describing here is the best and the best place to start.

Dog training techniques are all the same at the root. People such as myself who train hunting dogs are using essentially the same techniques that agility and service dog trainers use. The implementation may be different, but at the core, the techniques are the same. Watching how these other disciplines train their dogs can help you become a better trainer.

By explaining and demonstrating these techniques, perhaps this will be of use for those whose needs fall into the mainstream of life: How do I keep Phydeaux off the couch? How do I keep Rover from stealing the car keys and going on a beer run?

Please note:  I am not a professional dog trainer. In my life, I have trained 3 dogs and about a dozen wild birds. What I do not know far outweighs what I do know. I frequently look up answers or seek the help of others when I have training questions. But I do enjoy training, have been moderately successful at training, and I get repeat customers for my training because they like how my dogs have turned out. "Customer" is a strong word because I do not currently charge anyone for my educated guesses.

Probably the best resource for learning how to train someone or something is a book called "Don't Shoot The Dog" by Karen Pryor. She is a former dolphin trainer who has taken some techniques and dumbed them down for the rest of us. After you read this book, you will be able to examine any training of any dog and be able to categorize the technique and explain why it works.

Finally, please keep in mind, there are very few behaviors that can be taught with one technique. Most training involves multiple techniques.

Positive Reinforcement

As I stated above, the first technique I hope to bring to you is positive reinforcement. I am a big believer in positive reinforcement. Most of the commands that I teach a dog are all first taught using positive reinforcement. "Come", "Whoa", "Turn", and "Kennel" are all first taught with positive reinforcement. All this means is that there needs to be a reward the instant something good that done. The important word being instant.

I've spoken with parents who claim to have tried positive reinforcement with their children. They have told me, "I use positive reinforcement with little Hortence with regard to her grades. I told her that if she gets As and Bs on her report card, I will buy her that new chainsaw she has been yearning for." This is not positive reinforcement. Hortence needs to work hard now in order to earn something later. This is delayed gratification, and very few beings are good at that. A puppy piddles outside (instead of inside)... the reward needs to be the instant it is peeing, not 2 minutes later when the puppy is coming inside. A dog offers its paw on command: instant reward, not 5 seconds later when you can get to the treat bucket. The dog calls for a ride instead of driving home drunk:  again, the reward needs to be instant. If there is a time lapse of greater than 1 second, most animals will not understand why the reward is given, or attach significance to the wrong event. Timing is everything.

Part and parcel with positive reinforcement is shaping. You want to teach the puppy to put a paw in your hand on the command "paw". If puppy puts a paw in the air, you reward. Sure, it isn't a paw in the palm as you had hoped, but it is close. Then, later, you start rewarding only those things that are closer to the paw in the hand. When puppy isn't getting a reward every time, he'll start throwing out variations to try to force you to give a reward. One of those random, Hail Mary behaviors might actually land a paw in your hand, and then you reward. Instantly.

A tool used frequently with positive reinforcement is the clicker. A clicker is just a device that makes a sharp click when you press it. The dog is taught that a click means that he has done something right. There is nothing magical about the clicker. You could whistle, or say "good dog". I use a clicker, but one doesn't have to. Any stimulus that you can assign meaning to can be used.


So, what do you use for rewards? Whatever the dog likes. Small treats are good. Not kibble, but something extra good. Praise is good too. One thing you need to keep in mind though, is that sometimes, the behavior you are trying to get rid of is better than the treat you offer. If your dog is trying to eat the cat, he's not going to stop because you offer a small piece of hot dog. That cat is going to be more tasty than some stinky hot dog! A dog chasing a deer in the field is not going to come in when you call simply because you have a piece of cheese. Perhaps if that cheese is the size of Naperville, but such a cheese is unwieldy and expensive. The reward needs to be better than anything you got going on right now.

Front Loading

How is the dog supposed to learn that the clicker means it did something good? Or, if you choose to simply say "good dog", how does the dog know that a reward is forthcoming. By repetition. With a clicker and a bag of treats, you need to sit on the floor and give the dog a treat. As soon as that treat is in the pup's mouth, you need to click. And again. And again. Treat in the mouth needs to happen simultaneously with the click (or "good boy"). You do this for 5 minutes, a couple of times a day, for a week or so, and you will have a dog front loaded. Think about it:  the reason your dog wags its tail when you say "good dog" is because you have already front loaded the words. You've petted and loved up your dog countless times, all the while repeating "good dog". You already have experience front loading words with meaning.

How Can This Be Used To Train, An Example

There was a fellow blogger who was writing about her new puppy's submission urination when people came to the door. The pup is frightened and does not know what to do. Dogs love structure, so (perhaps) if the dog has a job or a known task to do when strangers visit, pup may be too preoccupied to piddle. Here is what I suggested:

  1. Front load the pup with a clicker.
  2. Give a command like "spot" and lead pup to the mat, click and reward. Repeat until he goes there willingly.
  3. Get a partner and communicate via cell phone. When pup is on the mat, ring the font bell. Restrain pup and give a reward. Continue until pup is cool with it.
  4. Position pup away from the mat, and have the bell rung. Say "Mat", lead pup to the mat, click and give reward.
  5. Repeat #4 above from varying distances until he gets it.
  6. Increase the amount of time between arriving on the mat and receiving reward.
  7. Maybe have the stranger enter and give the reward  (note that the stranger should be on the ground, on his or her belly, absolutely as low to the ground as possible.

Is all this going to work? I have no idea. Remember I said that most training is a blend of multiple techniques. There may be a need to talk to a behaviorist to see if there is some underlying problem that can be worked through. But it might work and, if the owner is willing to put in the time, a little structure might be all that is needed.

For new readers of my blog: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental… except Zeke. Zeke is my friend’s dog that I’m helping to train. This blog is telling the story of  Zeke, a Llewellyn Setter that I am training to turn him into a hunting dog.  But there is time between training sessions, and during that downtime,  I'll write more of these articles describing other training techniques.

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