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Six Tips for Training Your Dog Using Positive Reinforcement

Positive dog training

Building a bond with your dog should be a positive, rewarding experience for you both. Communication should always be your goal (or Piloting, as I frequently refer to it) and should always include (many) positives when training your dog.

Building the Bridge of Communication Through Piloting Your Dog

1. Make sure you giving positives correctly.

Probably the biggest mistake I see is not properly using simple Pavlovian responses with your dog. During a training session with your dog, you'll notice that I frequently make a chirping/bird noise right before I give your dog a treat and a gentle pet. I'm creating a Pavlovian response. Your dog will very quickly link the sound I make, the touch I'm giving and the treat together, until I can indicate that they deserve a treat just by making that noise or giving them a scratch behind their ear, or a pat on their butt. I call this Touch, Talk, Treat.

Dog sitting

Now I can give them a positive without the fumbling, calories and energy of a treat.

In other words, instead of searching my house for a clicker, I simply make whatever noise is convenient for me, and then repeat that noise whenever I give the dog a treat. Because let's face it, nobody ever knows where their clicker is, and the more gimmicks involved in training, the less fun it is.

Let the gentle scratch behind the ear indicate that a treat is coming. Let that kissy kissy noise you make be a heads up that chow is on the way.

Keep it simple.

2. Catch the correct behavior from your dog

Be sure you're catching the correct behavior. Prime example: when trying to housebreak a dog.

Puppy is outside, and finally goes potty. So you call the puppy towards you, and give them a treat, praising them for going potty.

Need I remind you that puppies have the attention span of a toddler with a Redbull?

You didn't mark the correct behavior; you just rewarded them for coming to you, not for going potty outside. To use positive dog training effectively, you have to mark the precise behavior your are looking for. You've already lost the behavior by the time your puppy has made their way to you after going potty.

So rather than giving the positive after the event, give the positive during the event. No, I'm not telling you to try to cram a treat down a puppy's through while they are trying to do their business. But you can mark the behavior as I indicated above: with a simple noise that you've been linking to positives/treats.

Puppy: *sniff, sniff* *squats and pees*

Housebreaking puppy

That's your cue to use whatever positive noise you've chosen, while your pup is in the act. As soon as they're finished, they'll come running to you to see what kind of treat you may have for them. Congratulations: you've finally marked the correct behavior.

The same issue applies with the stay command. You should be marking a positive for them staying, not when they come to you.

3. Don't give your dog positives for the wrong reasons

I always tell my clients during our initial phone call that my dog training methods do not involve negotiating with a terrorist. I refuse to give your dog a treat to keep them from jumping on me. I will not give them a positive to get them to stop barking. Doing that simply trains them to bark.

Remember the 3 times you give a dog a positive:

- The "come" command

Yeah....don't be this guy. Recall always requires a positive. Also watch your body language; make sure you aren't squared off at your dog. Your hip/side should be facing your dog when calling them, not your stomach.

- Asking a dog to be human.

If a dog can ask another dog to do the same thing, no positive is necessary. For example, my pittie, Ellis can ask my Border Collie, Arwen, to play. She can tell him to back off her food bowl. But Arwen hasn't taught Ellis any tricks, or any commands in English.

As I always say, positives are mandatory when you're asking a dog to go outside their job description as a dog.

Dog chart for behavior

- When they're calm(er).

Calm is a lottery ticket, and the prize is positives. You have to play to win (and you don't always win), but unless you're playing the lottery, you don't get a positive.

So if Fido is running around causing chaos, being super energetic, but then calms down, give him a positive. You're at the vet's office, and he's acting nervous and scared, but calms down, even just a bit....give him a positive.

4. Don't be stingy with the positives

We use (gentle) negatives to get our dogs on the right path; we use positives to keep them there. Hence the 10/90 rule: 10% negatives, 90% positives.

As Catherine the Great said: praise loudly, scold softly.

Negative only training defeats the purpose of having a dog. Give credit where credit is due.

5. But don't confuse negatives and positives

I asked my husband if the pants I was wearing made my ass look big. He answered: absolutely yes.

He didn't lie and give me a false negative. (I wore the pants anyway.)

There are two times you give a dog a negative:

1) When you don't like what they're doing. Don't like the barking? Negate it. Don't like them on the couch? Negate it. Just remember, your dog isn't bad, and their behavior isn't bad, it's just negative.

2) The "yo, bitch". You know exactly what I'm talking about. "Yo, bitch, feed me." "Yo, bitch, throw the ball." "Yo, bitch, don't tell me where to go on a walk."

Every time your dog is "Yo, Bitching" you they are taking money out of your Piloting Piggy Bank, and that's why most of your are broke. Learn more about it in this article, but suffice it to say, you don't respond to "yo bitch" with a positive.

6. Don't use exclusively treats for positives

Remember touch, talk, treat? Does your dog deserve a treat every time they come when you call? Absolutely! Are they going to get one? Maybe.

If your dog gets a treat every time they come when you call, the first time you don't give them a treat, they will have a meltdown: you've set precedence.

What your dog gets is different than what they deserve.

If tigers are hunting, do they deserve to eat? Yes. Are they going to? I hope so, but statistically, only 25% of the time. But the tiger understands that the behavior of hunting is how they eat. They don't give up just because they didn't make the kill this time.

Same goes for your dog.

Now when you're first teaching your dog a difficult behavior, such as housebreaking or recall, by all means, use mostly treats during touch, talk, treat. If your dog is usually a trembling mess at the vet, but this time they've taken it down half a notch, offer them a treat for calming down.

But for established behaviors, my dogs don't usually get a treat. It's randomized. Sometimes they'll get a treat 3 times in a row for coming in the house when I call. And then nothing the next 8 times. But they're operating based on the triumph of hope over experience.

They still get a positive every time (touch talk) but not necessarily a treat.

Also, not all dogs even like treats.

Learn your dog's "love language"

Ellis is obsessed with treats, and will take them every time. It's tied with affection for positives. So he's very happy with affection and/or treats. That's his love language.

Arwen likes treats, but the sun rises and sets for her over fetch. That is her ultimate love language. So to mark a positive for her, whenever we play a game of fetch, I throw the ball while simultaneously making that bird noise I was referring to previously. That noise is linked with an extreme positive, so now it's an effective method to mark a behavior as positive.

I can still use treats with Arwen, but learning hard tricks or behaviors usually involves some form of fetch as the positive.

A positive bond with your dog.

Positives are an essential part of any type of learning or communication. They let someone know you love them. That you are proud of them, or simply that they are engaging in a behavior that you would like to see repeated.

But the act of giving a positive gives you a positive as well. It's a gift, but it's a present to yourself as well. It creates a bond, and says "family" like nothing else does. When used properly as part of communication (rather than negotiation), positives are the basis of a bond based on respect, trust and love.

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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