Puppy 101: Positive Reinforcement Training

If you think training your new puppy has to be all about strict discipline and “tough love,” relax: positive reinforcement training is not only effective, it’s also gentle and doesn’t involve yelling or punishment. Read on to learn more about positive reinforcement, and why it’s such an effective method for promoting good behavior.

What is positive reinforcement training?

Positive reinforcement is a training method that focuses on rewarding your pet for good behavior, rather than punishing bad behavior. Giving rewards when your pet obeys you or behaves well in specific ways encourages your pet to repeat these actions or behaviors when given the command. Good behavior becomes inextricably linked with a reward.

This training method has been associated with successful outcomes and good relationships between pets and pet parents.

How dogs think

Before you embark on training your pup, it may be helpful to know a few things about what’s going on in his furry head.

First, remember that genetics and behavior both tell us that dogs are pack animals. Around 15 weeks of age, puppies should begin developing awareness of pack hierarchy. A set hierarchy—that is, knowing who the “boss” is, and where they themselves rank in the pack—gives puppies a sense of stability, which in turn gives them comfort. It’s important that your dog knows and accepts that he is in a loving pack, in which you are the leader and he is the follower.

For this to happen, you must begin training as soon as your puppy first enters your home. Although there are some differing opinions on how to set the stage for obedience and order, many experts agree on the following recommendations:

  • Don’t let your puppy sleep in your bed. Instead, give him his own bed or crate as a place he can turn to for comfort and safety.

  • Don’t reward unwanted behavior. On the surface, this may sound silly—who gives treats for bad behavior? But keep in mind that your attention is actually considered to be a treat. So don’t acknowledge your dog when he initiates play or demands attention at undesirable times. Otherwise, he’ll be learning how to get what he wants, whenever he wants.

  • Puppy school or puppy training classes are great for laying the groundwork for training and basic commands. Once your puppy can sit and stay, these actions can be called upon at any time, which can help prevent many behavioral problems. But these skills need to be positively reinforced and continued at home for successful outcomes.

The overall point to keep in mind is that rewards, whether in the form of treats, verbal praise, or a loving touch, are good!

How to use positive reinforcement techniques

The overall point to keep in mind is that rewards, whether in the form of treats, verbal praise, or a loving touch, are good! People like rewards, and so do our pets. By rewarding good behavior, you’re reinforcing the association between good behavior and good things.

You can get yourself a “training clicker,” available online or at pet stores, or even just use your words (“Yes!” “Good!” “Smart!”). At the exact time that your pup displays the behavior you want, click and then immediately give a treat. The treat should be small and low-calorie, since you will be giving a lot of them out: trainer treats, or bits of cut up carrot, apple, banana, bell pepper, cucumber, strawberry, or blueberry. Positive reinforcement is only effective if it’s constant, predictable, and reproducible.

Keep in mind that verbal punishment can result in fear or aggression toward people or things associated with the negative experience. That’s why we prefer positive training methods. And you should never physically punish your pet, no matter what: not only can it induce anxiety, it’s also cruel, leads to a negative relationship with your pet, and can result in bites (and escalate from there!).

Finally, know that all dogs (like people) learn at a different pace. So be patient, consistent, and persistent.

Positive Training Takeaways

  1. Reward positive behaviors (with praise, treats, and toys).

  2. Ignore unwanted behaviors and demands for attention.

  3. Never physically punish your pet. (If your puppy can sit, get him to stop the unwanted behavior by having him sit; then reward him for responding to your command.)

  4. Be patient and consistent. It’s the best way to reinforce good behavior.

Remember, for your pup to be happy and comfortable in your home, a dependable hierarchy in which you are the “leader” is important: it makes your dog feel safe and stable. But if you want to be the pack leader, that means that you have to be the one to call the shots. By rewarding good behavior and completely ignoring unwanted ones, you can train your dog to be obedient to your commands—and show him who’s boss—in a way that’s agreeable for both of you.

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