Let’s be real—- rewards work.
It’s easier to get yourself to the gym when you know there’s a delicious smoothie from your favorite juice bar with your name on it after the workout
It’s easier to eat well during the week if you know you can enjoy a guilt-free dessert when Saturday rolls around.
It’s easier to put in long hours at work when you know it’s going to land you the big promotion you’ve been lusting after for years.
The act of giving a reward in order to encourage the desired behavior is called positive reinforcement, and it’s not just a way to motivate yourself to work harder or eat better or get your booty to the gym—it’s also an awesome way to train your pup.
How does positive reinforcement work with pups?
Positive reinforcement training offers your pup a reward every time he does something you’d like him to do, whether that’s going to the bathroom outside, sleeping in his bed, or listening to a command. The more you reward him, the more likely he’ll be to repeat the behavior.
Now, obviously positive reinforcement is a little different for dogs than it is for humans. While humans respond to a wide variety of rewards (like money, status, or recognition), dogs are a little more straightforward.
Pups respond to two main types of rewards—praise and food. And if you want to positively reinforce a behavior, you’re going to have to offer them one or the other—or, even better, both. Make sure whatever food you use for positive reinforcement training is something your dog is powerless to resist (like his favorite treat), and when you praise him, make sure you lay it on thick so he knows you’re happy.
When to use positive reinforcement
So, now that you know what positive reinforcement training is, let’s talk about when to use it.
You can use positive reinforcement training anytime you want to encourage a specific behavior with your dog. So, for example, let’s say you’re trying to train your dog to stop jumping all over you every time you try to pet him. In order to get him to calm down—the behavior you’re trying to encourage—you’d want to positively reinforce him when he’s being calm. When you want to pet him, ask him to sit by your feet. If he sits calmly, give him praise and a treat, and then pet him. If he starts jumping on you or getting too overexcited, calmly push him away and tell him to sit again. When he calms down, give him another treat and more praise.
Eventually, your dog will catch on to the fact that you want him to sit quietly before you pet him—and if he complies, he gets a treat, some praise, and a nice scratch on the head. Once that connection is made (sitting calmly = reward and pets), he’s more likely to give you the behavior you’re looking for—even when you stop rewarding him every time he does it.
Now, as mentioned, you can use positive reinforcement training anytime you want to encourage a specific behavior. But you need to be really careful that you don’t accidentally reinforce a negative behavior.
So, for example, let’s say your dog has a bit of a barking problem. If you give him a treat to try and distract him during one of his barking fits, he’s going to connect the reward (the treat) with his barking—and he’s going to continue his bark-fests in hopes of getting another reward.
Tips for successful positive reinforcement training
Ok, so now that you know how positive reinforcement training works and when you should use it, let’s talk about how to successful train your dog using rewards.
Like any other kind of training, the key to success with positive reinforcement is consistency.
Make sure you reward your dog with either praise or a treat every time he exhibits the behavior you’re looking for. Get everyone in your house on board and make sure they’re doing the same thing.
The more your dog comes to associate the reward with the behavior, the more he’ll exhibit the behavior—and the key to building that association? Consistency.
Mix things up
Variety is the spice of life. You wouldn’t want to eat the same meal every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of your life, would you?
Well, your dog is the same way.
If you keep offering your dog the same treat as a reward over and over again, eventually it’s going to lose its luster—and its not going to be as effective in his training.
Keep a variety of treats on hand and mix them up every once in awhile; the variety will keep your dog from getting bored (and make training a heck of a lot easier).
Give the reward at the right time
As we mentioned, the key to success with positive reinforcement training is training your dog that positive behavior = reward.
But if you’re not giving the reward immediately following the behavior, your dog is never going to catch on to the equation.
Timing is super important in positive reinforcement training. Make sure you offer the reward as soon as your dog exhibits the behavior you’re looking for.
Taper the treats slowly
When you’re first training your dog, you want to give your pup a treat every time he performs the behavior you’re looking for (this is called continuous reinforcement).
But as time passes, you can’t keep feeding your dog treats every time he sits or comes on command (otherwise you’d have a very chunky puppy on your hands).
So what do you do?
You taper the treats.
As your dog catches on to the behavior, start slowly scaling back the treats. Instead of every time, give him a treat four out of five times, then three out of four, two out of three… you get the picture. Eventually, you want to get to a point where you’re only giving him a treat occasionally. Make sure you’re continuing to give him praise as a reward whether he gets a treat or not.
What does this teach your dog? It lets him know that he’s not going to get a treat every time he exhibits the behavior, but if he keeps doing what you want him to do, he’ll definitely get a “good job”—and eventually you’ll throw a delicious snack his way.
If you want to get your dog to do something, you’ve got to make it a positive experience. And the way to make it a positive experience? Positive reinforcement. So go grab some treats and get started.
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