Puppy 101: Positive Reinforcement Dog Training

Written by Small Door's medical experts

If you think training your new puppy has to be all about strict discipline and “tough love,” relax: positive reinforcement training is not only effective, it’s also gentle and doesn’t involve yelling or punishment. Read on to learn more about positive reinforcement, and why it’s such an effective method for promoting good behavior.

In This Article

What is positive reinforcement dog training?

Positive reinforcement is a training method that focuses on rewarding your pet for good behavior, rather than punishing bad behavior. Giving rewards when your pet obeys you or behaves well in specific ways encourages your pet to repeat these actions or behaviors when given the command. Good behavior becomes inextricably linked with a reward.

This training method has been associated with successful outcomes and good relationships between pets and pet parents.

Some ground rules

We recommend beginning training as soon as your puppy first enters your home. Although there are some differing opinions on how to set the stage for obedience and order, many experts agree on the following recommendations:

  • Don’t reward unwanted behavior. On the surface, this may sound silly—who gives treats for bad behavior? But keep in mind that your attention is actually considered to be a treat. So don’t acknowledge your dog when they initiate play or demand attention at undesirable times. Otherwise, they’ll be learning how to get what they want, whenever they want.

  • Crate training is a helpful tool for instilling good behaviors. Your dog’s crate should be somewhere they can turn to for comfort and safety. It provides a safe space for when you need to leave them alone and also helps with housetraining and self soothing.

  • Puppy school or puppy training classes are great for laying the groundwork for training and basic commands. Once your puppy can sit and stay, these actions can be called upon at any time, which can help prevent many behavioral problems. But these skills need to be positively reinforced and continued at home for successful outcomes.

The overall point to keep in mind is that rewards, whether in the form of treats, verbal praise, or a loving touch, are good!

How to use positive reinforcement techniques

The overall point to keep in mind is that rewards, whether in the form of treats, verbal praise, or a loving touch, are good! People like rewards, and so do our pets. By rewarding good behavior, you’re reinforcing the association between good behavior and good things.

Finally, know that all dogs (like people) learn at a different pace. So be patient, consistent, and persistent.

Reward your dog immediately after a good behavior

Remember that positive reinforcement is only effective if it’s constant, predictable, reproducible, and given immediately after your dog exhibits good behavior. Rewards must occur within seconds of the desired behavior or your dog may not be able to associate the two. 

Use short direct commands

Our furry friends aren’t able to understand full sentences the way we do, so it’s important to use short, direct commands when training (“Yes!” “Good!” “Smart!”). Some of the most common and effective short commands include:

  • Sit

  • Stay

  • Down 

  • Off 

  • Watch (eyes on me)

  • Up (stand up)

  • Come 

  • Heel or walk

  • Leave it 

  • Drop or give 

Use consistent cues

Consistency is a key element in training your dog. If you live in a household with multiple people, it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page with training cues and methods, otherwise you run the risk of confusing your dog and being unproductive. 

Consistency doesn’t just apply to verbal cues and training treats, it also applies to rewarding the same types of desired behaviors and making sure negative behavior is never rewarded. For example if you reward your dog for staying off the couch but later let them on to cuddle, this sends mixed messages to your dog and is counterproductive to the training you’ve done.  

Dog training clicker

Clicker training can be a very effective method when combined with positive reinforcement training because the clicking sound is much more distinct for your dog and faster to deliver than verbal cues. At the exact time that your pup displays the behavior you want, click and then immediately give a treat to teach them the meaning of the click and provide the positive reinforcement. 

“Training clickers” are available online or at pet stores, and they are relatively inexpensive.

Keep the training fun

While training takes patience, it should also be fun for you and your pup. We recommend keeping training sessions around 10 minutes maximum (especially for puppies) to hold their attention span and make sure you both have fun with the training. 

Pay attention to your dog's physical cues. If they’re not listening, distracted or uneager to receive treats, then try training another time. Always aim to end on a good note and keep things positive — in doing so your pup may begin to associate training sessions as playtime and realize that they get good things when they listen to you. 

Types of rewards

Rewards can look like edible treats, verbal praise, physical touch, or giving your pup toys after they do something correctly. 

Remember that you want trainer treats to be small and low-calorie, since you will be giving a lot of them out, especially in the beginning. You can also use bits of cut up carrot, apple, banana, bell pepper, cucumber, strawberry, or blueberry.

We also recommend having a variety of treats and mixing them up so your dog doesn’t get bored with the same kind every time. 

Don’t reward bad behavior

Rewarding bad behavior may seem counterintuitive as you wouldn’t give a dog a treat for something they did wrong. However, affection and attention are also highly rewarding, so it’s important that you withhold these when your dog behaves badly. With positive reinforcement training, it’s best to ignore your dog when they behave badly to set the tone that they won’t get any attention for this kind of behavior.

Don’t punish your dog for not listening

We recommend that you never punish your dog for not listening. Verbal punishment only creates a negative experience where your dog develops fear or aggression. No matter what, you should never physically punish your pet, as it’s cruel, leads to a negative relationship, and induces anxiety. While positive training methods take repetition, they’re the most effective and build the best relationship between you and your dog.  

Summary of positive reinforcement dog training

  1. Reward positive behaviors (with praise, treats, and toys).

  2. Ignore unwanted behaviors and demands for attention.

  3. Never physically punish your pet. (If your puppy can sit, get them to stop the unwanted behavior by having them sit; then reward them for responding to your command.)

  4. Be patient and consistent. It’s the best way to reinforce good behavior.

Remember, for your pup to be happy and comfortable in your home, a dependable, consistent environment is important: it makes your dog feel safe and stable. By rewarding good behavior and completely ignoring unwanted ones, you can train your dog to be obedient to your commands in a way that’s agreeable for both of you.

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