Positive reinforcement dog training strategies

Did you know that there are different styles of training within the positive reinforcement "camp"? There are trainers that only use one style and others (like myself) use many different strategies depending on what works in a given situation. However, I NEVER use pain or fear when training.

I also feel strongly that a trainer should not be able to call him or herself a "positive reinforcement" trainer if they use or recommend choke chains, prong collars or shock collars. This might evoke some heated comments, but I have been training dogs long enough and have trained thousands of dogs. I can guarantee you that I will not change my mind.

There are humane alternatives to those methods and, if you know what you are doing, you can use positive reinforcement for basic through advanced training, fear, aggression, anxiety, or barking. You can use a clicker when using these strategies or just say, "yes" or another reward marker. This marks the specific moment in time that your dog performed the corrrect behavior. 

Training Styles


  1. Shaping – this method gives no verbal instruction. The dog's motivation is increased by rewarding certain behaviors and ignoring other behaviors. If you are consistent with when you reward and when you ignore behaviors, certain behaviors will become more reliable and other behaviors can be "extinguished" or stopped. At this point, your dog will start to anticipate getting rewarded for a certain behavior. If your dog jumps, for example, you shoule ignore the jumping behavior. As soon as your dog does anything else – sitting, standing, walking away, etc., you would mark that behavior with a "yes" or a clicker and reward that behavior. Dogs will do behaviors more often if it gets them rewards. In this case, you are communicating to your dog that jumping does not get the Reward Mark, followed by a reward. You can then fine-tune your request by only clicking certain behaviors such as SIT and ignoring any of the other behaviors. Your dog will eventually understand that the only way to get the reward is to SIT. At this point you can look at your dog and cue (with either hand signal or verbal cue) your dog to SIT.
  2. Luring – this method uses a food lure to move your dog into the right position to get the reward mark and reward. In the jumping example, if your dog is jumping you could take a food treat and position it over his head until he is looking at it and sitting. Verbal cues such as "Eh! Eh!" (wrong answer) and "Good!" are often used to help your dog move into the right position. You would then mark the behavior and reward when the expected behavior is performed.
  3. Physical prompting – this involves is using your body or the leash to gently move your dog into position and reward. An example of this is standing on the leash to prevent jumping and then rewarding when your dog sits, or gently pulling the leash towards you after saying, "Come" and then rewarding when your dog is close to you.

I use and recommend all of these techniques depending on what works with your dog. The purist Clicker trainers such as Karen Pryor are adamant about never luring because they argue that you are teaching your dog to always ask for help and blindly follow the lure and not learn the correct behavior on their own.
As long as you are using humane methods, I suggest trying different techniques. 

With any technique, it is important to have appropriate expectations and teach in small increments to keep your dog learning and to avoid frustration. If you find that your dog is not learning, you should lower your expectations and/or increase the value of the reward.

Daily Training Strategies

When using the above training styles, there are a variety of ways to motivate a dog to do correct behaviors. These are really what you should focus on when you are working with your dog. It is always important to remember that a dog is actively learning whether you are intentionally trying to teach him something. For instance, if your dog jumps on you and you pet him, he will learn that jumping is an effective way to get petted.

The following strategies will help you come up with a plan to motivate your dog to do the behaviors that you find acceptable. In the jumping example, you might ignore your dog when he jumps and then pet him and play with him when he stops jumping. You might also use a timeout if he continues to jump. That will teach him that jumping "ends the fun" and that he shouldn't jump.

Five Acceptable Ways of Teaching Your Dog

Reward acceptable behavior. This is an important strategy. Dogs do what works. 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 him and let him know "Good boy!" and periodically reward him when you walk into a room and he does not jump on you.

Ignore inappropriate behavior.
An example of this is begging at the table. If a dog gets rewarded for begging, he will do it again and again. If you stop rewarding for it, he will try something else. The first time he tries something appropriate such as lying down, give him a treat. Hopefully he 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 notice him doing it right the next time and reward him again. Eventually, he should come over to the table and lie down because that is what has worked for him in the past.

No reward mark.
This is a signal to your dog that he 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!."

Great care should then be taken to make sure they have an alternative, appropriate outlet for their behavior, or they understand what they should be doing instead.

This is probably the most powerful positive reinforcement teaching method for most dogs. You can give your dog three chances to get it right and then you remove him from the action for a short amount of time. An example of this is jumping on people. The first time he jumps you take the attention away from him because that is what he wants and we don't want him to be rewarded for inappropriate behavior. You do this by turning your back and saying (Eh! Eh!) Then, when he is on the ground, you say "Good boy!" and pet him. If he sits, that is even better and you give him a treat. The second time he jumps on you do the same thing. The third time, say "Timeout" without anger or yelling and take him to a different area of the house or a crate.

Timeout Specifics. Put him in the timeout area for 10 seconds up to a minute at the most and leave the area so he can't see you. Then, come back and say, "Ok, let's try again." Then when he comes out of the area and as he is doing it right you praise him "Thanks for not jumping, it is such a good decision to stay on the ground!" If he jumps, however, he does not get three chances, he immediately gets another timeout. 

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

If you have trouble grabbing him after you say "timeout" have him wear a short leash around the house.

I recommend wearing a collar and leash only when you are home to watch him to prevent choking accidents. 

You can also manage his behavior or time him out by looping a 4-6 foot leashes over a doorknob and attaching his collar to the leash and walking away. For jumping, you might walk a few feet away and then turn around "Good! You are not jumping!" If you walk closer and he leaves his feet, you would say "Eh! Eh!" and walk away again. This is very effective when guests come over as well.

With timeouts, make sure you focus on the correct behaviors when you take him out of the timeout area or before he makes a mistake. Talk to him or reward him for doing the right thing. Often novice trainers don't pay attention to when their dog until they do something inappropriate. Then the dog gets rewarding for acting up and he will do that again. Focus on the good behavior and your dog will learn to behave much faster.

Withhold or remove reward. This is something that you should practice daily with a variety of things that your dog wants. A good way of using this is when feeding. Have your dog sit and put the food bowl down slowly in front of him. Talk to him the whole time: "Good boy!" and continue moving the food bowl down. However, as soon as he stands up and breaks the sit, you say (Eh! Eh!) and remove the food bowl. Once again, you are teaching him that his behavior has consequences. Then put the food bowl down again. If he isn't able to hold his sit or makes a mistake 3 times in a row for any behavior, you need to make it easier. In this case, put the food bowl down faster when he is sitting and then say "OK" which means he can eat. Make it harder each day by putting it down slower and having him wait longer and longer before he can eat.

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