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The Truth About Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

The Truth About Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

If you are a new or seasoned dog owner, it is vital to understand the importance of proper training for your pup. Whether you are training a Dachshund, a Great Dane, or a mixed breed, consistent training backed by science will ensure that your dog exhibits appropriate behavior in all settings.

When deciding on what approach to take when training your pal, the options may seem a bit daunting. What is important to remember is that positive reinforcement has become the backbone of all dog training.

So why does positive reinforcement work for our furry friends?

Below, we will discuss the history of positive reinforcement and how to use it with your dog.

The History

Positive reinforcement was first described by Burrhus Frederic Skinner, more popularly known as B.F. Skinner, in his theory of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning relies on the premise that actions followed by reinforcement (rewards or punishment) will be strengthened and more likely to occur. Put simply, dogs will repeat actions that got them what they wanted and avoid actions that produced a result they didn’t want.

Positive reinforcement is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning.

Positive Reinforcement

Small Dog with a Bowl of Water and Kibble

Positive reinforcement means you add something desirable while training your dog in order to reinforce the desired behavior.

An example would be giving your dog a treat (the positive) when they sit. They will associate sitting with the treat, which will lead to them sitting more often (the reinforcement).

Positive Punishment

Brown Dog with Speed Bubble with Picture of Dog in Cage

Positive punishment is where you add something your dog doesn’t like (the positive) to reduce an undesired behavior.

An example would be a swat on the behind or squirting them with a water gun when they jump on guests.

Negative Reinforcement

Dog in Bed with Image Insert of Dog in Cage

Negative reinforcement is where you remove something unpleasant from your dog to make a desired behavior occur more frequently.

For example, if you use a choke chain with your dog while walking and your dog pulls on the lead, you may pull on the lead back to create tension in the choke chain.

But if you release pressure (the negative) when your dog is walking appropriately, they may be more likely to walk better next time (the reinforcement).

Negative Punishment

Dog Staring Mournfully in Front of Water Bowl 

The final quadrant is negative punishment. Negative punishment is when you remove something your dog enjoys (the negative) to decrease the undesired behavior (the punishment).

So, for example, if your dog barks at you and you ignore them, you are removing your attention from them, which is something your dog likes. This may discourage them from barking at you in the future. 

Good luck ignoring them when they’re barking relentlessly, though. It takes nerves of steel!

Why Use Positive Reinforcement?

While training your dog, you may find yourself using a little bit from all four quadrants of operant conditioning, but you should focus on using positive reinforcement with your dog more than the other quadrants.

When you use positive reinforcement, you are focusing on things the dog enjoys like treats, attention, games, and other activities that make your pet happy. Providing positive reinforcement is about earning rewards. This creates a positive association with training rather than a negative one.

Essentially, you will eliminate their fear of doing the wrong thing since there will be no negative consequences for unwanted actions or behavior and only rewards for desired actions and behavior.

How to Use Positive Reinforcement

Dog Staring at Treat

Here are some tips on how to use positive reinforcement properly during dog training, and how it will help train your dog to be the perfect pooch you’ve dreamed of.

Keep it Short and Sweet

Saying to your dog, “Please sit down nicely for me” is not as effective as a simple “Sit.” When it comes to giving dog commands, the less words, the better.


Dogs don’t understand spoken language the way we do. They rely heavily on facial expressions, body language, and tone. The longer your command is, the more likely they are to misinterpret any portion of the command.

So, whether you use traditional methods or opt to use an e-collar as a training aid, when giving your dog a command, try to limit it to one or two words such as:

  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Come
  • Down
  • Leave it
  • Drop it


Be Consistent

Man and Dog Shaking Hands

Decide on what verbal and/or physical cues you will be using with your dog and stick to them. If there are multiple people in your household, this will require a family meeting and some non-negotiable rules.

The reason you need to get everyone on board is because dogs need consistency for reinforcement. If there isn’t consistency across the household, your dog will likely become confused, and training will be more difficult.

In addition, make sure that everyone in the family knows when to and when not to reward your dog. An irritated member of your family may be undermining the whole training effort by giving out treats when your dog barks just to get some peace and quiet. This, in turn, teaches the dog to bark rudely when they want a snack.


A crucial aspect of positive reinforcement is timing. The reward for the desired behavior must be given immediately, so your pup will associate the treat with the behavior. If it’s not immediate, your dog will not make the association. While they’ll appreciate your kind gesture, they won’t start learning that it was their good behavior that got them the reward.

While training, make sure to have the reward at your immediate disposal, so you can give it to your dog within seconds. If you are using a clicker, the click must occur simultaneously with the good behavior and treat, too.

When to Reward

Dog with Mouth Open to Catch Treats

When you are first teaching your dog a new command or behavior, they should be rewarded every time they follow the command or demonstrate the desired behavior.

When your dog has learned the desired command or behavior, you can reward them intermittently.

As your dog becomes more proficient, you can reward them as the command or behavior becomes more challenging. This is called “shaping.”

For example, let’s say you are teaching your dog to roll over. You may first reward them for getting on the ground. As they become good at that part, you would then stop rewarding them for that and then only reward them when they roll to their side. You would continue to do this until your dog is rewarded only for rolling over completely.

Breaking down more complicated commands in this fashion helps keep the dog motivated and focused. Being too stingy with the treats from the get-go will only result in a bored, disinterested, or deflated pup that doesn’t want to learn anymore.

What Rewards Work?

Dog Playing with Small Violet Hoop

Rewards can be whatever your dog prefers, whether they’re treats or a special toy. However, most dogs are very food motivated, and so treats are the standard when it comes to training and using positive reinforcement.

Treats should be absolutely enticing for your dog; something they just cannot resist. You may have to try out a few brands and flavors or treats to see what your pup prefers. If your dog becomes bored with a once-favorite treat, don’t be afraid to try out new ones to keep them interested.

Treats should be small enough that your dog can eat them quickly so training can continue.

If your dog’s favorite treat is on the larger size, try to find one that is soft and can easily be broken into small pieces for easy and quick chewing.

Avoid giving your dog human food as treats too often. The types of food we love can be toxic foods for dogs. Things like grapes, chocolate, candy, and walnuts are just some examples of food that should not be used to reinforce training or in their diet at all.

However, some foods will be okay in moderation, like soft cheese or jerkies. Using multiple treats with different values is effective, as giving a cookie, a cookie, and then suddenly a piece of meat will cause their eyes to light up and spark their interest anew.

Giving out a “jackpot” every now and then works well too. You give one treat, one treat, plenty of praise, and then on the last command, a small handful of treats. This will make training very enticing and very rewarding for your dog, and they’ll always be alert and attentive on the next go after such a positive experience.


There are many approaches to training your dog, but positive reinforcement allows your pet to focus on the rewards that are associated with training which will make training enjoyable for them. That’s why it’s one of the best ways to approach dog training and is used widely by dog trainers everywhere.

If your dog loves their training sessions with you, it will only serve to strengthen the desired behaviors as well as the bond you both share. You’ll both enjoy the training, and enjoy a happy, healthy life together too!


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