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What is positive reinforcement training & why it’s the best method for training your dog

One of our responsibilities as owners is to train our companion animals (pets) to behave in ways that support their safety and happiness, provide mental stimulation, strengthen that special bond we share and help them to express natural behaviours whilst being model canine (or feline) citizens! With so much information available about training and so many different approaches, it can be hard to know where to start. The good news is that positive reinforcement training is backed up by research as the gold standard and is recommended by the RSPCA and the veterinary profession as the most humane and effective way of training your animal.

What is positive reinforcement training?

Positive reinforcement training involves giving your dog something positive immediately after a certain behaviour, which increases the frequency of that behaviour. No form of punishment is used in positive reinforcement training.

A common example of a behaviour that is undesirable is when a dog jumps up on people to greet them. Most dogs will do this as puppies because they are excited, enjoy the contact and attention and may want to be picked up. This might seem cute in a small pup, but as they grow older, jumping up on people can become problematic, frightening (particularly to children) or even lead to accidentally scratching someone or pushing them over. Jumping up is most effectively addressed through positive reinforcement which teaches the dog to be calm when greeting people. This involves ignoring the undesirable behaviour (jumping up) and rewarding the desired behaviour (being calm and not jumping up) by giving the dog no attention (including eye contact) while they are jumping up. Once the dog is calm and has all four feet on the ground, the dog is given a reward to positively reinforce this behaviour.

Dogs soon learn that jumping up will not be rewarded, but sitting or standing will bring the attention they want, along with a tasty food treat! This form of training is gentle and works with the pet’s willingness to please and be rewarded. The trainer just needs to be patient and consistent and understand that even giving ‘negative’ attention, such as by yelling, can inadvertently reinforce undesirable behaviours because for some dogs, any attention is better than none at all.

Why is positive reinforcement training the best method?

Reputable training associations only use the positive reinforcement training approach, which has many benefits.

  • Effective: A UK study found that the dogs of owners who use only positive reinforcement training had fewer total problem behaviours and were less likely to show attention-seeking, fear and aggression compared to those whose owners used punishment-based methods.
  • Human-animal bond: All relationships need good communication! Using positive reinforcement training by giving cues (such as verbal requests or hand signals), rewarding desired behaviours and being more observant of your pet’s body language helps you and your pet to understand each other. It also reduces the frustration and confusion your pet may experience when they are unsure what you expect of them. 
  • Humane: Positive reinforcement training is humane because it does not rely on creating fear or distress and does not use any physical force, which risks injury to animals. Being reward-based, it develops a pet’s self-confidence, as they need to work out how to behave to get their reward. This allows them to learn how training works, so they start to learn more quickly. 
  • Fun: Like us, our pets are more likely to do something that rewards them in some way and working together on training is a lot of fun!

Unfortunately, aversive training methods are still common in dog training, even though they should not be used as they are considered inhumane and less effective than positive reinforcement and can cause long-term behavioural problems. Aversive training methods are based on causing injury, pain, suffering or distress to the animal and include used aversive (unpleasant, distressing or painful) stimuli, dominance, force or punishment.

Many of aversive training methods are based on negative reinforcement, in which an unpleasant sensation (such as pressure or even pain) is applied and then removed when the animal performs the desired behaviour.

Examples of negative reinforcement include pushing on a dog’s bottom until they sit or applying a shock collar until a dog responds to a verbal cue. There is no reward involved here, only relief from pain or discomfort. Punishment-based training methods involve positive punishment by delivering the unpleasant or painful sensation to a dog who is performing undesirable behaviours. The RSPCA believes that training methods based on aversive stimuli, dominance, force or punishment must not be used as they consider they are inhumane.

There are multiple examples of training methods based on aversive stimuli, dominance, force or punishment, ranging from staring, yelling or growling at the dog to holding them down in a dominating way (for example, ‘alpha rolls’), tapping them on the nose, tugging them on the leash, exposing them to sudden loud sounds, and even hitting, kicking, applying anti-barking collars (that spray citronella, emit loud sounds or deliver electric shocks when dogs bark) or prong collars to stop them pulling on the leash.

Apart from being inhumane by causing pain, distress and even injury, punishment-based training is often ineffective and can worsen the unwanted behaviours. Using the example of anti-barking collars, dogs do not learn to associate the punishment delivered by the collar with their behaviour, whereas in positive reinforcement training they learn to associate getting a treat with being calm, which gives them an incentive to stop barking. Punishment-based methods fail to address any underlying reason for undesirable behaviours, such as dogs who bark due to boredom or separation anxiety.

There is evidence that these methods become less effective as dogs eventually ‘habituate’ or become less reactive to the punishment. In the case of anti-barking collars, this leaves the owner back where they started with excessive barking. Of further concern, scientific research has shown that using punishment-based training methods in dogs with problem behaviours can cause these dogs to respond aggressively.

How can you start using positive reinforcement training?

You may be wondering about how to get started on positive reinforcement training and how to deliver the rewards to your pet. It is easiest to start with food rewards because you can carry them with you and offer them quickly to reward the behaviour you want to encourage.

Most dogs love their treats, and some owners reserve special foods that their dog really loves for training sessions (such as tiny pieces of cooked chicken – just make sure that there are no cooked bones). It’s important that food rewards are included as part of your pet’s daily food ration and are not high in calories as this can lead to dietary disturbance or obesity. Your veterinarian can advise you about what food treats to use if your dog has any allergies or is on a special diet.

Petting and verbal praise can also be used but there is evidence that food is more motivating and effective as a reinforcer. For this reason, many owners start training with food rewards but also offer verbal praise at the same time as delivering the treats.

Other types of rewards can include a favourite toy or games, such as tug of war or fetch. Every pet is an individual, so the best approach is to use whatever they find most rewarding to reinforce desired behaviours. Trainers experienced in using positive reinforcement training have a wealth of knowledge to share and can tailor the training to the needs of each individual pet.

According to the Australian Veterinary Association, “positive reinforcement is correlated with a reduction in behaviour problems, can be used to change difficult behaviours and is less stressful for the animal. It is successful because the animal is motivated to change its behaviour. It also offers the opportunity for mental stimulation and social interaction with the owners and is known to increase the human-animal bond. Positive reinforcement training can improve an animal’s overall quality of life, improve learning and reduce the risk of future behaviour problems. This can in turn reduce the incidence of relinquishment and euthanasia.”

A common question from pet owners is how long does training take and will it always be necessary to use food rewards? The length of time to learn basic cues varies by individuals, and many owners extend their pet’s learning beyond this.

Start positive reinforcement training by rewarding your pet

Whatever you are teaching, the general principle is to start by rewarding your pet every time they perform the behaviour you want. When they can do this reliably, ‘intermittent reinforcement’ is the next stage, which means giving food treats less often. For example, this may involve rewarding four out of five times and gradually reducing this to occasional food rewards. Continuing to reward on this basis prevents pets from forgetting what they have learned. Verbal praise, on the other hand, is always important and eventually pets will work for praise and the occasional treat!

Training your pet will involve your own learning so expect to have some setbacks. If things aren’t going to plan, consult your veterinarian or a reputable trainer who uses only positive reinforcement training for advice.

Here are some tips to get started:

  • Using single word verbal cues, such as ‘sit’ or ‘stay’, rather than more words or sentences which can be confusing
  • Being consistent in the use of verbal cues (including all family members using the same words) and never rewarding unwanted behaviours (including avoiding accidentally rewarding these behaviours through negative attention)
  • Start by using the ‘shaping’ technique, which means rewarding behaviour that is close to the desired behaviour to start with (such as rewarding a dog for lifting their paw off the ground, working gradually towards an actual handshake)

A great way to start off using positive reinforcement training is to have this modelled by someone who is competent in using this approach. For dogs, there is the option of puppy preschool, which is offered by most veterinary practices and helps with basic training and good manners. Training is important for teaching your pet the essential cues to keep them safe and under control in public and ensure you are complying with the generally understood etiquette of being a pet owner. It can also be used to address challenging behaviours that may develop in some pets, such as food guarding.

If you are having trouble with training your pet, there is excellent professional help available. Your veterinarian can advise you about finding a reputable trainer who uses only positive reinforcement training.

You may see advertisements for other approaches that claim to offer quick results, such as dominance training, but these use aversive techniques that can cause pain, suffering or distress and can physically harm your pet, increase any underlying anxiety and fear, worsen problem behaviour and reduce the quality of your relationship. Veterinary advice is essential for any pet who is not responding to training as they may require a referral to a veterinary animal behaviourist.

Your vet is your best source of advice

Training your pet is a fun way to get to know them and learn together, and with the right approach you should both find yourselves developing in confidence and keen for the next session. Learning is a life-long process! As always, your veterinarian should be the first source of advice about any behaviours your pet is showing that may be of concern to you, as this can indicate underlying medical problems that need to be addressed.

And, with RSPCA Pet Insurance, you can have peace of mind knowing a portion of eligible vet expenses for accidental injury or illness can be covered.