Five ways of using positive reinforcement to train a dog

I categorize these as "positive reinforcement" even though technically this describes some uses of negative reinforcement. I am discussing humane techniques as "positive reinforcement."

There are five ways of using positive reinforcement to train a dog to do behaviors.

1.    Reward Acceptable Behavior
Dogs do what works to benefit them. We can use this to our advantage by paying attention to what they are doing and give them what they want BEFORE they make a mistake.  A good example is if you are working on teaching your dog not to jump, make sure you talk to her and let her know “Good girl!” and give her a reward when you walk into a room and she does not jump on you.

2.    Ignore Inappropriate Behavior
An example of this is begging at the table. If a dog gets rewarded for begging, she will do it again and again. If you stop rewarding this behavior, she will try something else. The first time she tries something appropriate such as lying down, give her a treat. Hopefully she will think, “How did I get that treat? Maybe it was that lying down thing. I will try that again!” Then, you make sure to catch her doing it right the next time and reward her again. Eventually, she should come over to the table and lie down because that is what has worked for her in the past.

3.    No Reward Mark
This is a signal to your dog that she is doing something wrong. Dogs do not come from the litter with an understanding of our language. We have to teach them through the consistent use of associations and consequences. (Eh! Eh!) or another No Reward Mark (NRM) should be used to tell your dog “wrong answer!.” You can then wait for the appropriate response and reward that to clearly communicate which behavior results in a reward and which behavior gets nothing. 

4.    Timeouts
This is probably the most powerful positive reinforcement teaching method for most dogs. You give a dog three chances to get it right and then you remove her from the action for a short amount of time. An example of this is jumping on people. The first time she jumps you take the attention away from her because that is what she wants and we don’t want her to be rewarded for inappropriate behavior. You do this by turning your back and saying (Eh! Eh!) Then, when she is on the ground, you say “Good girl!” and pet her. If she sits, that is even better and you give her a treat. The second time she jumps on you do the same thing.

The third time, say “Timeout” without anger or yelling and take her to a different area of the house or a crate. 

Put her in there for 10 seconds up to a minute at the most and leave the area so she can’t see you. Then, come back and say, “Ok, let’s try again.” She comes out of the area and as she is doing anything that is appropriate praise her “Thanks for not jumping, it is such a good decision to stay on the ground!”

If she jumps, however, she does not get three chances, she immediately gets another timeout. 

What you are doing is communicating to her using timing and consistency is that her behavior has consequences. She can be with you if she does not jump, but jumping is not appropriate. Incidentally, if she is timed out for jumping and comes out of the cage and nips, barks or other inappropriate behavior that you are currently working on, you can instantly time out again. 

Another method of timing out is by looping a 6-foot leash over a doorknob and attaching her collar to the leash and waking away.

For jumping, you might walk a few feet away and then turn around “Good! You are not jumping!” If you walk closer and she jumps again, you would say “Eh! Eh!” and walk away again. The message is very clear. She jumps on you and it ends all her chances for interactions. She stays on the ground and she has a chance for rewards, pets and fun.

5.    Withold or Remove Reward
You can practice this strategy during mealtimes. Have your dog sit and put the food bowl down slowly in front of her. Talk to her the whole time: “Good girl!” as soon as she stands up and breaks the sit, you say (Eh! Eh!) and remove the food bowl. You are teaching her that her behavior has consequences. Then put the food bowl down again. If she isn’t able to hold her sit or makes a mistake 3 times in a row for any behavior, we need to make it easier. In this case, put the food bowl down faster when she is sitting and then say “OK” which means she can eat. Make it harder each day by putting it down slower and having her wait longer and longer before she can eat. 

All of these strategies can be used together.

For instance, to teach a dog not to jump on guests, you can ignore jumping and reward anything but jumping. But, you can also time a dog out for jumping if ignoring the bad behavior did not work. Sometimes it takes different strategies to get the point across clearly to a dog what behaviors work and what behaviors do not. 

Just be patient and do not let anyone tell you that you need to hurt your dog to teach her. This is just not true.

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