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Training your puppy with positive reinforcement

Updated on June 2, 2016
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There are many different theories on how to train your new puppy. While there is no exact science to tell us how to do this perfectly, some methods are better than others. It’s important to understand that the basic psychology of dogs is not that different from the psychology of a human toddler. Each individual has a unique personality, set of traits, and distinctive learning curve.

Before we delve into what the good techniques are, let’s discuss what techniques are bad. When training a puppy or any other animal you should not resort to hitting, kicking, screaming, taunting, or other forms of violence and intimidation. You should not deprive them of basic needs such as food, water, and adequate shelter. If we follow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we understand that basic needs must be met before true success can be achieved. This same principle can be applied to our new puppies.

When we talk about training a dog what we are in fact doing is a form of behavioral modification. That means that we want to use a set of empirically demonstrated techniques to increase or decrease the frequency of a behavior. In plain English that means that we’re going to reduce the number of instances our dog displays a bad behavior, such as nipping, and increase the number of instances our dog displays a good behavior, such as sitting down to great a guest.

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Positive Reinforcement

The best method for doing this is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the idea that we reward a wanted behavior and ignore bad behaviors. For example, if your puppy is an incessant barker and you want to curb that behavior you would ignore your dog completely while it is barking. Once it stops barking, you instantly reward the behavior of being quiet with a treat or praise. As the dog learns that barking will not get them attention, but being quiet will, the tendency to bark purely for attention will go away.

This is not to be confused with negative reinforcement or punishment. Negative reinforcement is when a behavior is learned to avoid a negative outcome. For instance, your dog learns to stop at the invisible fence line to avoid being shocked by his collar. Punishment is when something is added or removed to weaken a behavior, not strengthen it. An example of punishment would be shocking your dog with a shock collar whenever he jumps up on you.

If you’ve positive reinforcement before and it didn’t work you probably did it incorrectly or gave up too soon. So, let’s talk about how to properly use positive reinforcement.


Operant Conditioning

 
Adds to enviroment
Removes from enviroment
Increases Behavior
Positive Reinforcement (+R)
Negative Reinforcement (-R)
Decreases Behavior
Positive Punishment (+P)
Negative Punishment (+P)
 
 
 

Timing

One of the most common mistakes a person makes when training their dog is having poor timing. You want to make sure that your praise or reward instantly follows the desired behavior or else the reward may get confused for something else.

Example: Your dog quits barking and then goes to drink water out of his dish. If you reward him while he’s drinking his water he will associate the treat to drinking water, not being quiet. Instead, make sure that he is rewarded after the negative behavior has ended and BEFORE a new behavior is taking place. This precision can be as sudden as a few seconds so you have to pay close attention.

The easiest and most effective way to correctly mark wanted behaviors is to use a clicker. These are relatively cheap and you can pick them up at any pet supply store. The benefit to the clicker is that it makes a distinct noise that your dog won’t confuse with any other noise. This is better than using a cue word such as “yes” or “good” because we tend to use those in our regular speech. A click is also a precise way to mark the behavior we want to reinforce and is the easiest to time correctly. Don’t forget to do the most important step though, and load the clicker.

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Rewards

If you’re going to be using this method (and you should), you’ll need to have something that your dog finds rewarding. Food and praise are the biggest incentives for dogs. The key here is to find what your dog is willing to work for. For me personally, finding a treat that my overly picky dog would work for was difficult. He would actually spit out treats that he didn’t care for. After several failed attempts, we found that he was most responsive to Milo’s Kitchen dog treats. If your dog is like mine and doesn’t respond well to dry treats amp up the reward by offering something extra tasty like real cheese or meat.

Also keep in mind that rewards are supposed to be small bit-sizes, not full treats. This is because you’ll want to reward them a few dozen times throughout a training session. My own dog is very small so we would often break the treat up into several smaller pieces before training.

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Loading the Clicker

This term is just a fancy way of saying that you need to create a conditioned response [j1] to the click for your dog. To do this all you have to do is click, treat, and repeat. After a few short sessions, between three to five minutes, your dog will associate the clicking noise with getting a treat. This teaches them that a click is a good sound.

Watch Kikopup's informative video on clicker training!

Consistency

The most crucial step to teaching your dog any cue or behavior is consistency. Without consistency the dogs don’t know what to expect and it makes their association between cue words and desired behaviors weak. So, if you don’t want Fluffy to jump on your house guests then you must reinforce this every time you have a house guest.

This can be a toughest part of training because your dog interacts with more people than just you. If a stranger in the park lets your dog jump up on them and insists that “it’s okay”, politely but firmly explain that you are training your dog.

Letting the rules go for a couple days can lead to back sliding and unravel all of the hard work you’ve put into your training.

What cues & behaviors to train first?

While it can be tempting to teach your dog an adorable trick like “high five”, it is unwise to teach the cute tricks first. Training a dog is like building a house; you need to lay a solid foundation.

The first behaviors you should train are being calm, child friendly (being touched quickly or semi-roughly), not biting, and of course, potty training. These behaviors make your dog family friendly so that they will not be fearful or lash out. It’s also good to touch all of your dog’s body, paws, mouth, tail, ect in the same way a vet or groomer would touch them. These behaviors do not need a set training session to learn. Rather, embed the training into your every day interactions with your dog. You’ll be surprised by how quickly they pick up these wanted traits and behaviors!

The first cues that I recommend teaching are sit, lay, come, and an attention cue (or look-at-me cue). These are behaviors your dog will naturally display on their own which makes them easy to teach. They are also leading cues because they can ease your dog into more complicated cues later on like roll over, play dead, and shake. An attention cue is particularly important because it could potentially save your dog’s life. If your dog is very good at look-at-me (they should be), then they will stop whatever they are doing and look at you, even if they are off leash and running at a car.

Professional dog trainers can give you valuable insight with your dog's training.
Professional dog trainers can give you valuable insight with your dog's training. | Source

What if you’re still having trouble?

If you have done all you can to train your dog and they just don’t seem to be getting it, consider using a professional trainer. Instructional videos, books, and blogs are great resources but they can’t give you feed back on your training or your dogs behavior.

You should look for a trainer that will work with both you and the dog so that you understand what you may be doing wrong and how to properly work with your puppy. The trainer should know and follow the basics of positive reinforcement and be available for private lessons if necessary. Though most puppies are fairly easy to train, some come from difficult backgrounds that may have caused them to develop behavior issues. This is very common when adopting as shelters house rescues. Every dog has great potential, and with proper training they are sure to fit right in with your family.

Do you plan on using a professional trainer?

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