What Is Positive Reinforcement Training? It's More Than Just Treats

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Positive reinforcement training, also known as reward-based or clicker training, is a method that focuses on telling your dog when he is correct, instead of only pointing out what is incorrect. This is done through a marker for correctness, paired with a reward that is reinforcing to the dog. If you want a well behaved dog, you need to read this!

When you make the connection between desired behavior and immediate reward consistently clear to your dog, he will change his behavior to get that reward. No hitting, shaking, jerking, or pinning your dog is ever necessary. Our dogs love to please us and training is 100% more enjoyable when you and your dog are having fun together.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you use positive reinforcement training:

Timing is Key

Correct timing is essential when using positive reinforcement.

  • You must offer the reward immediately—within seconds—or your dog may not understand which action is being rewarded. For example, if you ask your down to sit, but then give him a treat after he has stood back up, he may think that the reward was for standing.
  • Using a clicker to mark the correct behavior is the best way to ensure that you are telling your dog exactly which behavior is desired. See our post on how to use a clicker for details.

Keep It Simple

Let’s not forget that dogs don’t understand full sentences! Who else has heard a dog owner turn to their pet and say something to the tune of, “Now, Mr. Buttons, I need you to sit and stay right there and be a good boy for me, okay?” Don’t do be that guy.


Keep your commands short and simple. Common commands are:

  • sit
  • stay
  • down
  • leave it
  • off (which means “off the furniture or off the person he is jumping on”)
  • come
  • ball
  • watch me (which is a request for eye contact)
  • find it (an advanced command you can only use after you establish what “it” is)
  • speak

Fun fact: the average dog can understand around 165 words, possibly more with training. But we’re talking single words here, not complex sentences. And this learning only comes with consistency, which brings me to the next point.

Be Consistent

If there are multiple humans in your household, make sure you are all on the same page with the words you use for specific actions. Help your dog out and don’t tell your dog to “down” when your roommate is asking him to “lie down”.

You must also be consistent with your reinforcement of actions, especially in the beginning when your dog is still learning. If you say a command and your dog gives you the desired behavior, you have to let him know that he did something right or he will be confused. A simple “yes” or “good dog!” followed by a head pat is fine if you don’t have any treats on you. If you use the clicker, your dog needs to know that every time he hears a CLICK he will get a treat.

When To Use Positive Reinforcement

Throughout the day, watch for opportunities where you can reward your dog’s positive behavior. If he lies quietly on his bed while you are watching TV, give him a pat or a treat. If he doesn’t bark when a visitor comes to your door, give him a treat.

You should also actively ask for good behavior so you have an opportunity to reward your dog. One easy way to do this is to ask your dog to sit

  • before you open any door
  • before anyone pets him
  • before he eats or gets a new treat or toy

This simple action rewards your dog for polite behavior and teaches him that good things come when he is well behaved (he gets to run outside, he gets pet, he gets a treat).

Potential Misuse

Be careful that you don’t accidentally use positive reinforcement to reward unwanted behaviors. For example, if your dog jumps up on visitors and you give him a bone to distract him and make him stop… you are inadvertently teaching your dog that he will get a treat if he misbehaves. Oops!

Types of rewards

Dogs, like people, are motivated by different things – be it food (treats!), attention (head scratches!), or play time (BALL!) – you probably already have a pretty good idea about what motivates your dog. You can use this knowledge to positively reinforce good behaviors and teach your dog how to act in a way that you approve of. Since most dogs are highly food-motivated, food treats work especially well for training.

  • Only use “high value” treats for training, meaning treats that are irresistible and exciting. These are usually soft and smelly. We recommend Wellness Soft Puppy Bites or Zukes for training.
  • Treats should be small (pea-size or even smaller for little dogs), so your dog can eat it in one bite.
  • Keep a variety of treats handy so your dog won’t become bored getting the same treat every time. Besides store-bought treats, you can use cut up pieces of soft cheese or hot dogs. (My dog loves Cheerios.) Feel free to customize your treats to your dog’s tastes. You can use a treat pouch or carry the treats in your pocket.
  • Each time you use a food reward, you should couple it with verbal praise. Say something like, “Yes!” or “Good dog,” in a positive, happy tone of voice. Then give your dog a treat.

If your dog isn’t as motivated by food treats, a tennis ball, pat on the head, or brief play can be very effective rewards.

When to give treats

When your pet is learning a new behavior, reward him every time he gives you the behavior you are looking for. This is called continuous reinforcement.

Once your dog can reliably produce the behavior you are asking for, you can gradually reduce the amount of treats you give out. Continue to randomly reward, though, so your dog continues to believe that a reward could be coming. And always continue your verbal positive reinforcement, even when he has these behaviors down cold. You don’t have to loudly celebrate each time your dog sits when you ask him to, but do offer a positive “Good dog.”

In this way, you won’t have to carry around a handful of treats for the rest of your dog’s life. Your dog will soon be working for your verbal praise because he wants to please you and knows that once in a while you might give him a treat too.

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