Positive reinforcement is a great tool in your dog training toolbox.
At it’s simplest level, positive reinforcement means reinforcing whatever your dog values enough to alter it’s behavior to get.
These are very basic things like: attention/love, food, toys, and praise.
In fact, using positive reinforcement is the simplest thing in dog training. Tell your dog to sit, it sits, and you say GOOD DOG and give it a cookie. That’s positive reinforcement in a nutshell: You told your dog to do something, he did it, you reward it.
What The Dog Likes
The trick is finding out what your dog really likes. For example, one of my dogs is very food motivated. It loves food and treats. My other dog though loves praise and attention. Rewarding him with food is not going to be effective and will just be frustrating for both parties.
Your goal with positive reinforcement should be to use as little reinforcement to get as much behavior as possible. Yes, it’s a lazy way of thinking and maximizing your returns. But it works.
Once your dog learns it’s behaviors consistently, you start rewarding it at random. By making it think that maybe the next time it behaves it will get the reward, it will internalize it’s desire even more. It’s a cool little “hack.”
Despite how easy it sounds, it is very easy to botch positive reinforcement. An easy example is forcing your dog’s butt down into a sit position. While the dog technically is sitting, it is not doing it by choice. Rewarding this does not. There is no muscle memory.
Positive reinforcement is the science of external rewards for an internal choice. That’s it. As soon as you are forcing or coercing the dog to do something, it’s not by choice and it’s not positive reinforcement.
Another example is using a choke chain to prevent pulling. The dog won’t pull when wearing the choke chain, but will when wearing a normal collar. This isn’t positive reinforcement – it’s positive punishment – and does not create an internalized rewards system.
It’s As Simple As This One Principal
All organisms – human, dogs, sharks, foxes, and even amebas (to a degree) – have one basic principle to govern behavior.
Seek pleasure, avoid pain.
Pleasure can be anything from praise, food, sex, attention, and novelty. Pain being anything from pain, hunger, boredom, and poverty,
So if you are not actively shaping dog behavior with positive reinforcement, you are probably relying on punishment. Both are behavioral motivators but positive reinforcement is gentler and honestly more fun.
Using positive reinforcement
The most effective positive reinforcement mechanism I have found is food. It’s cheap, small, and with the right tweaking all dogs like it.
In order to use food effectively, you need to get the dog to behave well enough so it knows the expected behavior or action, and then start weaning it off the food. Failure to remove the food soon enough can make the dog dependent on the food for the behavior.
It’s like showing the cookie, then telling the dog to sit. Of course he’ll sit – he wants the cookie!
Secondly, you must be consistent and fast. You have about a 1 second window to reinforce the good behavior with food before the dog’s brain starts drifting off. That’s why a clicker is also a good tool – it can be used very fast while you get the food ready, and is always consistent.
Why Food? My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated
Your dog is food motivated if it’s alive. If your dog doesn’t like your treats, that just means you don’t have something tasty enough. Try bananas, salmon, hot dogs, or cheese.
How Much to Use
As little as possible. Especially early on, your dog is going to get a TON of treats. Stick to moist food or individual servings of something small. Using dog cookies that you break apart is inconsistent and slow.