Positive Reinforcement Dog Training – Basic Principles

Just Say Yes! Simple Steps for Success with Positive Reinforcement Dog Training

Graduating from positive reinforcement dog training class

My girl graduating from her positive reinforcement dog training class

Here are some of the basic principles of positive reinforcement dog training. Following these principles every time, will help you and your dog succeed at positive reinforcement dog training.

  • Keep your positive reinforcement dog training sessions short and fun. Actual training sessions should last less than 20 minutes (at the max). Dogs have a very short attention span. After 20 minutes they are not paying attention to you. The ideal training session is between 3 and 20 minutes. You can have informal training all day long.
  • Keep your dog training commands short and simple. Use familiar words. For example, sit, stay, down, off, etc.
  • Timing is everything. As soon as your dog the desired behavior you need to mark it and give a treat. A marker is a noise or a phrase that you use to communicate with your dog that what he just did was what you were looking for. Common markers are: a training clicker, or verbal markers, like yes or good.Why use a training clicker?  Most dog trainers prefer to use a clicker for several reasons. One the marker (the click) is always a consistent sound, whereas your voice can have different tones to it. Second, since timing is very important to positive reinforcement dog training, it’s faster to click (as long as you have the clicker ready) than it is to get the verbal marker out of your mouth. You may be thinking that the difference in time to click or speak is minimal, and you would be correct, but when you are trying to train your dog it is vitally important to get that marker as close to the correct behavior as possible. Ideally you should use both a clicker and verbal markers. You may not always have a clicker on you and you always want to mark good behavior.
  • It is important to be consistent. Everyone in the house must be consistent when training. Everyone  Everyone must expect and demand the same behavior from your dog. It is not ok to allow your dog to get away with things that you don’t want. If you don’t want him jumping on your 90 year old grandmother when she comes to visit, do not allow him to jump on you when you come home. Your dog can’t tell when it’s ok or not. All this does is confuse your dog.
  • Catch your dog doing something good and reward and praise instead of catching him doing something bad and punishing.

Part of the positive reinforcement dog training is the use of treats. There are a few things to keep in mind about treats.

  • Keep the treats small, bite sized pieces and use something soft, like hot dogs, cheese, boiled chicken. You don’t want the dog sitting there chewing on something for a few seconds while he is training.
  • If you and your dog are training a lot, you may need to decrease the amount of food that you are feeding your dog for his meals. We want a well behaved dog, not a well behaved dog that is now overweight.
  • Use a variety of treats. Change up your treats. Try not to use your dog’s dry kibble that you feed him for his meals. This generally will not get your dog excited enough to work to his potential at training.
  • If your dog is not food motivated, try using a toy, a game, petting him, or positive praise. My girl is not into food at all, but she loves to be told what a good girl she is and to be petted and to dance. I could have a 2 pound juicy steak dangling in front of her and she will look at me like I got three heads, but when we start dancing and having fun she will get into anything.
  • For very important behaviors, like stay or come, use very high value treats. Whatever your dog will go nuts over, use it! You really want your dog to get excited about these important behaviors, so use something that they just love. Try not to use boring treats for these behaviors. These very important behaviors could literally save your dog’s life, so you want him to know that when he does these behaviors he has something awesome coming to him!

You may be wondering if you will be forced into a life of treats if you use positive reinforcement dog training. The answer in no! You do want to give a treat to your dog every time he performs the desired behavior. However, once your dog is consistently doing the behavior at least 80% of the time, you can begin to decrease giving him treats, still offer verbal praise though. Give him a treat every other time, then decrease to every few times after a few days or so, then decrease to every fourth time, etc. Don’t totally forgo the treats, just not all the time once your dog knows the behavior.

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