Many people don’t really know what positive reinforcement training actually looks like. They have an image of someone dangling a treat to get a dog to sit, or a soft-hearted person giving their dog goodies for looking cute. While these scenarios can certainly happen, they are not what positive reinforcement actually means.
What is positive reinforcement, really? When you break it down in scientific terms, “positive” means adding something and “reinforcement” means the behavior is increasing. So it means, simply, that you add something to the situation that makes the behavior happen more often.
Positive reinforcement is NOT bribery. When done correctly, your treat (or any other reinforcer) should be like a paycheck for a job well done.
There are a few training techniques that utilize positive reinforcement effectively for teaching pretty much any behavior. You can use one of these or a combination of any of them during a training session – some dogs or some behaviors may respond better to one than another, so it’s good to have all of them as part of your toolkit.
Luring – This is a pretty straightforward and quick way of teaching behavior. Luring basically means your dog is following something – a treat, your hand, a toy – until they do the behavior you want. This is most commonly used with behaviors like “sit” – for example, you hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and slowly pull it back over their head so their nose follows the smell of the treat up and they lean back into a sit. When they are in the sit, they get the treat. Luring can be very effective in teaching new behavior, but it does hold the danger of teaching the dog to wait to see the treat. To avoid this, you need to fade out the visible reward as early in the process as possible.
Capturing/Catching – Capturing or catching a behavior means you wait for a behavior to happen on it’s own and then mark and reward it. (When I say “mark,” I mean a reward marker such as a clicker or “yes” that tells the dog they did the right thing and reinforcement is coming.) If you were using this method to teach sit, you would wait until the dog offered a sit on their own, then mark and reward. This can be very effective, but it does take patience and it can take several repetitions in some cases for the dog to figure out why they are being rewarded.
Shaping – Shaping means rewarding any movement toward the final behavior. Think of it like the “hot and cold” game. If the dog is getting “warmer,” they get marked and rewarded. If they are getting “colder,” nothing happens. This can be a really fun process for the trainer and dog, and is fantastic for teaching more complex behaviors in particular. It does require a bit more attention, practice and skill to do properly. But one of the benefits of using positive reinforcement is even when your timing isn’t perfect, the worst thing you’re doing is accidentally teaching them the wrong behavior – usually pretty easy to fix. This method can also take a bit more patience but is great for building confidence and teaching your dog to offer behaviors. For dogs who have been punished for offering behavior in the past in particular, this method can sometimes be tough at first as they are often worried about trying anything new. If you were using this to teach the sit in the other examples, you would mark and reward any physical movement that looks like they are leaning back first, then wait until they leaned back further to mark, and eventually wait until their rear end was touching the ground. Once they are doing well at one level, you look for a higher set of criteria (closer to the completed behavior) before rewarding again.
Targeting – Targeting means that your dog has learned to touch a target generally with their nose, and you can use this to direct them into the behavior you want. You first teach the dog to touch the target with their nose (generally a “target stick”, a rod with a ball or square target on the end, or sometimes the palm of your hand), and then use that behavior to direct them into what you want. If you wanted to use this for sit, you might hold the target a little over their head so they reach their nose up to touch it, just far enough back to get their body leaning back into a sit. This method tends to be most helpful for behaviors that involve the dog moving to a certain spot or position – for example, “place” or going into a “heel” position.
There are a lot of great options for training with positive reinforcement. The methods listed above can be used for a huge variety of behaviors – any trainer or dog owner can benefit from trying them all and knowing how they work. Pick a behavior and try a few of them out to see which method seems to be the most effective for you and your dog!
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.