How to Use Positive Reinforcement with Dogs

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Recently, I shared how I use certain concepts to improve the way I train as a professional dog trainer.

These concepts come together from the greats in the world of positive reinforcement dog training.

In it, I promised to deep-dive into reinforcement and how to use positive reinforcement with dogs – and today's post is about precisely this.

If you've not read my previous post yet, you might be wondering, “Well, why is reinforcement so important when we're working with our dogs.”

One short and powerful statement from the “Father of Operant Conditioning,” B.F. Skinner sums up the “why” of reinforcement perfectly.

Reinforcement builds behavior.

This means that the more a behavior is reinforced (rewarded), the more likely it will occur again.

Does Positive Reinforcement Increase Behavior in Dogs?

German Shepherd Dog Looking at Handler in a Training Session

Yes, it does! And it works because it's a motivator.

In a nutshell, it means adding a desirable stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

The more reinforcement history behind a particular behavior, the more it will become “second nature” to a dog.

And so, using reinforcement your dog genuinely values will build and increase all those beautiful behaviors you want to see.

But here's the kicker…

Reinforcement will also build and increase those unwanted behaviors – which are not ones we necessarily want.

For example, a dog who jumps up on people is reinforced with attention. And even if that attention is a verbal “no” or a push down (neither of which I recommend) – it's still reinforcing the dog.

Another example is a dog chasing small wildlife, the chase is reinforcing, and if they happen to catch the small animal, that's a double-whammy reinforcer.

And if your dog pulls on their leash, and you keep moving forward – your dog is being reinforced for pulling.

This kind of dual application can often muddy the waters for dog guardians.

But we can turn things around by putting on our “scientist hat” and start paying attention to what our dogs truly find rewarding.

Positive Reinforcement Examples for Dogs

Okay, so now we have our scientist hat on. We're almost ready for the fun part…

But before we dive in, there are four critical things to keep in mind for clarity as we move forward.

#1 – The word “positive” in this context means we're adding something. In science, positive and negative don't hold any moral value – they refer to adding or subtracting.

#2 – The word “reinforcement” means we're increasing the likelihood of a behavior happening again in the future.

#3 – There are two types of reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are things an animal needs to survive – like food, water, and shelter.

While secondary reinforcers are things like toys, specific activities, and tactile or verbal praise, and later on, cues and trained behaviors also become reinforcing.

#4 – Only the learner decides what's reinforcing. And in this case, the learner is your dog.

We don't get to decide or assume what our dogs find reinforcing.

Sure, once we have a handle on those highly-rewarding things, we can use this information intentionally to make the less rewarding ones grow in value.

I'm going to touch on this in a bit, but really, this subject needs its own post.

And ultimately, it's your dog and your dog alone who has the final say on whether something is reinforcing.

Now that we have that clarity on reinforcements, it's time for some fun!

In this exercise, we will write down all the things that we think our dogs find rewarding.

And we're going to be super-specific by naming each type of reinforcements we can think of into a segmented list.

Later our list will form the basis of our dog's reinforcement hierarchy and make huge strides in how we approach training, and training around distractions in general.

Here's how I break up my lists into segments – food, toys, life rewards, and tactile or verbal reinforcement.

And here are some examples of what I've written on each of my dog's lists.

Food RewardsToy RewardsLife RewardsTactile or Verbal Rewards
Homemade tuna cookiesRedline tugsGreeting guestsRoughhousing with humans
Venison JerkyPuzzle toysPlaying with other dogsEar scratches
Ostrich and Lamb SticksFlirt poleZoomiesChest scratches
Butternut cookiesTugger ballGrass rollingRump scratches
RaspberriesSqueaky turkeyWalking through an open doorCompliments
BlueberriesSqueaky possumCarrying a toyLove cues
WatermelonRogz GymstickHiking with humansAnticipation-building cues
Beef JerkyLickimatsRunning off-leashCues to behaviors
Montego Karoo Meat JerkySnuffle matsHose water chasing
SnackalamiHomemade Chuckit tugFetch and retrieve
Sardine, egg, and yogurt mixBunjee tugsCar rides
Cheddar cheeseUrban stickChewing
Orijen Six Fish kibbleFrisbeeFood chase

Making these lists will take you a few days as you start to think more about what's rewarding for your dog. So keep your list close by and add to it as you go.

Now that you've got your dog's list of reinforcers going let's look at a valid and good question about positive reinforcement in dog training…

Does Positive Reinforcement Work for all Dogs

German Shepherd Next to Handler in Training Session

Maybe you've heard other folks or trainers say that positive reinforcement doesn't work for some dogs, especially those labeled as stubborn (which no dog is, in my opinion).

Or maybe you've tried to work through a dog training challenge using positive reinforcement without making much headway, and you might be asking if this even works.

Well, I'm here to bring some optimism with a bit of brain science and let you know that positive reinforcement does work for all dogs!

Here's how the science works…

Studies into dogs' brains show that when dogs are fed, praised, touched, or engage in a game with their owners, they release a range of feel-good chemicals.

These chemicals are Serotonin, Oxytocin, Prolactin, Dopamine, and Beta-Endorphins.

And not surprisingly, these chemicals are also released in your brain when you're training your dog.

These good-feels chemicals not only facilitate learning but also build a bond of trust between the loop end and clip end of the leash – that's you and your dog.

This happens naturally because they create a feeling of trust, attachment, and love.

Hopefully, you're seeing where this is heading…

Positive reinforcement not only builds behavior, but it also builds relationship. That's some pretty powerful stuff right there!

So before we go on, I'd like to say a few words about the criticisms positive reinforcement training gets…

Many people get caught up in the idea that we need to keep increasing the food or always have food on hand to keep the positive reinforcement powered up.

No, we don't. Because if we're strategic, we can “borrow” the value from high-value rewards and transfer it to other lower-value reinforcers by layering them throughout our training.

But as I mentioned a little earlier, this subject needs a dedicated post, so I'll be writing about that real soon.

So what's next now that we have all of this information?

Your Dog's Reinforcement Hierarchy (How to Rank Reinforcements)

This exercise is a little bit like data mining. But it's fun because we can ask our dogs to help us.

And it's one that I first wrote about on my blog way back in 2015.

But first, why would you want to rank your dog's reinforcements?

In my mind, as a dog trainer, there are four main reasons…

#1 – We can use these “ranked” reinforcers on a sliding scale during training.

For example, refreshing already trained behaviors or teaching new and easy behaviors may require a low to mid-range reward. While teaching a more complicated behavior might require a high-value prize.

#2 – If we need to teach an activity our dog doesn't particularly enjoy, we can use something our dog values and teach them to enjoy the exercise over time.

For example, if our dog doesn't enjoy tugging with us, we can shape this desired behavior over time using something our dog loves as a reward.

#3 – When we know how much value our dogs attach (or don't) to a particular reinforcer, we know where to borrow value from to pass on. In this way, we layer reinforcers, and ultimately, we don't have to rely on food forever.

For example, if our dog is not all that fussed with tactile reinforcers but loves beef jerky, we can layer those two together, and over time, the value from the higher reinforcer will “rub off” and bump up the lower reinforcer.

#4 – We can leverage this information in our dog's distraction hierarchy.

For example, if our dog's four biggest distractions are other dogs, people, cats, and squirrels (in that particular order).

And we know that their top four reinforcers are balls, dehydrated tripe, kibble, and verbal praise; we can use this knowledge to teach our dog a new response to or to disengage from their distraction by pairing it with a reinforcer they find equally rewarding.

Here's what that would look like based on the example above.

DistractionReinforcement
Other dogsBalls
PeopleDehydrated tripe
CatsKibble
SquirrelsVerbal praise

Creating a Canine Smorgasbord of Reinforcements

Visla Dog Sitting infront of a Board Looking at Kibble and Raw Meat

Before we dive into this section, I need to ask…

Are you still wearing your scientist hat? Because we have more experimentation coming up!

And as I mentioned, there's a fun way you can enlist your dog to help build out their reinforcement hierarchy.

And you can use this method with food, toys, activities, and even tactile and verbal reinforcers.

  1. Ask your dog to sit and wait or tether them if they are still learning to wait patiently.
  2. Pick a handful of different food rewards (no more than five) off your list and place them in individual piles on a plate, tray, or board. Think on a
  3. Place the tray with the selection of food rewards on the floor and release your dog to investigate.
  4. Give each treat a number based on your dog's order to eat them – 1 through 5. And also, make a note if there are any treats they left without eating.

By the end of it, you'll have a long list of food rewards ranked from one through 5.

Now move on to this same experiment using toys off your dog's list. Then move on to activities and tactile or verbal reinforcements.

Conclusion

Applying this information will likely take you a few days to a week to complete, but it's worth the time, planning, and effort – so take your time and make it happen!

Let me know in the comments if you had any “surprises” during your experimentation.

Were there any reinforcements you thought your dog loved but found out they are considered only “meh?”

What about the other way around?

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