Using Positives Correctly Whe n Training Your Dog
Updated: Mar 6
Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.
- Sam Walton
As you may know from previous posts regarding The Paw Method, here at Darwin Dogs, we are all about answering a dog’s questions. Dogs are full of questions: Can I eat that? Is that person a threat? Can we play ball? And as with any healthy relationship, communication is key. In other words, you must answer your dog’s questions, or they will come up with an answer for themselves, and odds are you won’t like it.
Dogs are binary creatures: every question they ask is a yes/no question. Every answer you give them will be a yes or a no. It’s like a giant game of hot/cold. Remember, “no” doesn’t mean your dog is bad. Your dog is incapable of being bad…they do everything perfectly, for a dog. Unfortunately, they need some guidance in our human world. That’s why we answer their questions. But how can you tell when it’s appropriate to use positive reinforcement with your dog? Simple: it fits into one or more of these categories:
You are calling your dog (“come” command). No matter what, the “come” command must end in a positive. Give them a reason to come to you, not a reason to run away. For hints on how to work the “come” command, read this.
You are asking them to be human(ish). Dogs will tell each other to back off; not to mess with each other’s toys. They will ask each other to play, and will give an appropriate answer to each other. Dog do not teach each other agility, nor do they teach each other English (as in “sit”, “stay”, etc.). So any time you are asking them to be more than a dog, fun it up with positive reinforcement. You are both trying to discover a behavior together…make it fun for both of you.
When they are calm. I know….Fido is super happy to see you after you’ve been gone all day (or in human terms, 1/2 hour). It’s tempting to return their enthusiasm upon coming home, but you’re setting yourself up for a hyper dog – one who uses energy to get what they want. Instead, wait until they’re calmed to give them positive. As a matter of fact, any time you catch your dog calm is a great time to give them some positive reinforcement. We want them to understand the calm is the key to a great treasure: what they want. No matter if it’s a walk, a treat or just a pat on the head, calmly asking is the only way they will ever get it. Not jumping. Not barking. Not slapping you with their paw. Calm.
Go ahead. Just try to ignore this sweet, calm face! Guess what? You don’t have to! Slather on that affection – this calm boy deserves it!
Sometimes you want to create a behavior out of nowhere. Teaching your dog a new trick or command. For instance, I decided to train Sparta to hold random objects in her mouth so I could take a picture each day (you can view the hilarious results here). I obviously used positive reinforcement for that behavior, but exactly how does one give their dog a positive?
Simple: We use Touch, Talk, Treat. We created Pavlovian response. Any time I gave Sparta a treat, or even her food, I gently pet her head and in a soft, calm, voice tell her she’s a good girl. That’s it. We are linking Touch, Talk, Treat so closely together that when we gradually drop off the treats, they’re implied by the Touch and Talk. Just like if I said I was going to to make myself a peanut butter sandwich, what’s implied? Jelly, right? Because peanut butter and jelly always go together. Once you get your dog to understand that Touch, Talk and Treat are linked, you can easily remove one (or more) of the components. After all, who really wants to walk around with a pocketful of treats all the time? Not very convenient!
So when I was working with Sparta to get her to hold things in her mouth, it was quite obviously impossible for me to reward her with a treat while she had the item in her mouth. Of course I could just give her the reward when she finally dropped the item, but dropping the item was exactly what I didn’t want. In order to recreate a behavior, we have to catch the behavior, and then name/mark the behavior. I wanted her to hold the item. That’s why Touch, Talk, Treat is so important. While she held it in her mouth, I could give her all the positives she wanted, telling her she was a good girl and petting her. I could catch the precise moment she gave me the behavior I wanted. As she held the item in her mouth, the Touch and Talk were both cues that the treat was (eventually) forthcoming, and that holding the item was the correct behavior to earn the reward.
Same goes for agility. Some dogs (*cough* Border Collies *cough*) over think everything.
Suppose the behavior I’m trying to catch is merely jumping through a hoop (“hmmm… last time I went through the hoop, turned counterclockwise towards mom and sat down after blinking twice whereupon mom gave me a treat. She must want me to blink twice!”). I can’t get food down their gullet while they’re jumping through the hoop, but I sure can yell out that positive word while they’re going through! That’s catching a behavior. So much miscommunication between humans and their canine companions arises through not catching the precise moment of behavior we wish to see repeated.
This form of verbal positive can come in very handy when you don’t or can’t have treats readily available. For example, when I am on a walk with Sparta and she sees another dog. Sparta is very dog reactive, and it takes a lot of trust in me for her to calmly pass that other dog. I want to reward that trust she has placed in me. Once we pass by that other dog, I give her that calm praise and a gentle pet on the head. We just had an entire conversation using only body language. Translation:
“Mom, that other dog was scary. Did I do alright?”
“You did beautifully, Sparta. I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks for getting us through that, mom.”
Note: I will not bribe her past that other dog. I will Pilot her, answer her questions, and then reward her for being calm through the whole “ordeal” (and yes, sometimes a Chihuahua can be an ordeal).
Remember to use your positive reinforcement as much as you possibly can. There are plenty of opportunities to use positive reinforcement with even the most ill-behaved dog. Catch those moments. I tell my clients that in order to know where you are in this world, you need latitude and longitude. That’s it! In order for your dog to understand what you wish from them, they must get both “yes” and “no”. Don’t skip the positives! If your dog is calm, for any reason slather those positives on them. Teach them a new trick just for the sake of giving them some positives, (which is why I taught my cat agility). The positives are what bind you together as pack. It’s the glue that makes your dog want to learn. Sprinkle it around generously.
Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio