Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training

This week is the start of a series about the science of positive reinforcement in dog training.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Whether you already use positive reinforcement, or you’re yet to be sold on the idea, this series is for you. I’m going to look at studies that investigate different methods of training, and consider what they mean for the average dog owner.

Some time ago, there was a change in the way dogs are trained. Instead of using punishment when dogs did the wrong thing, people started to reward dogs for doing the right thing – and ignore what they did wrong, or distract them from it.

But in everyday life, you hear people talk about dominance in dogs, even though we know that dominance – as the term is usually used – is a myth. And when you watch TV, some trainers still use punishment. You can watch two different dog programmes and see completely different approaches to the same problem, whether it’s pulling on a leash, begging at table, or growling at skateboards and bicycles. It’s no wonder dog owners get confused.

Series on positive reinforcement dog training, for dogs like this chocolate Lab

So, what do we mean by positive reinforcement? Put simply, it’s rewarding the dog for doing what you ask so that they are more likely to do it again.  

Some people assume this means feeding the dog treats, but in fact the reward can be anything – so long as the dog finds it rewarding. So the reward might be food, affection, praise, or a quick game of tug. If you’ve ever watched agility championships, you’ll have noticed the dogs are often rewarded at the end with a tug toy. (But see the importance of food in dog training for some science on what dogs like best as a reward).

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This series is about training pet dogs. Although we can learn a lot from the way dogs are trained to do specialist jobs – like search-and-rescue, assistance dogs, drug detection, and police and military dogs – they are trained by specialists. It’s a different situation than a dog that is being kept as a companion, and I want to focus on things that are achievable for a normal dog owner. 

So, is it better to use only positive reinforcement? Next week, I’m going to look at one of the first scientific studies to investigate how ordinary people train their dogs, and the factors that influence their success.

Read the Series on Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

This is part one in the series on the science of using positive reinforcement in dog training. Here are the other parts:

Positive reinforcement and dog training II. Training with rewards is linked to more obedient dogs with fewer problem behaviours, according to owners.

Positive reinforcement and dog training III. A study finds people who only use positive reinforcement report their dogs are less attention-seeking, aggressive or fearful.

Positive reinforcement and dog training IV: Little dogs vs big dogs. We investigate whether small dogs are treated differently than large dogs.

Part V of positive reinforcement and dog training: Dogs with behaviour problems. For dogs with problem behaviours, the use of aversive techniques can lead to an aggressive response.

Part VI of positive reinforcement and dog training: Learning new behaviours. A past history of reward-based training leads to more success in future dog training sessions.

Positive reinforcement and dog training VII: Summary and Conclusions. The best way to train a dog is by using rewards, but many owners continue to use aversive techniques.

You might also like: New literature review recommends reward-based training.

If you want even more information about the science of dog training, check out my list of dog training research resources, which lists scientific articles (and places where you can read about them for free).

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Do you have any questions about the use of positive reinforcement? Leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to include answers somewhere in the series.

Photo: Shutterstock.

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  1. Curious: why do you say "Some dogs aren’t food motivated at all"? How can that be? Don't all animals have a pretty basic need to eat?

    IME when people say a dog isn't food motivated, it's easy to fix. 1. don't free feed (ie, don't just leave food down in a bowl all day); 2. if necessary, take away the bowl for one of the daily meals; 3. feed something the dog actually likes - either for all meals or just for training (one of the best clicker trainers that I know of has world champ agility dogs & she uses only her dogs' regular kibble for clicker training them to do agility)

    In fact, once training with food is well established, I find that a dog refusing food is a very helpful signal of too much stress: either due to the environment, or confusion about the behavior.

    I do find agree though that since we don't keep dogs hungry on purpose - indeed, I think it would be cruel & the antithesis of positive - it is true that for some dogs while food is nice, an opportunity to play ball or chase the owner, or take an agility jump or play tug might well be considerably more rewarding & can therefore be used very effectively as a reward.

    1. My mum's dog isn't motivated by food. He is a collie and very skatty. He is very obsessive about certain things and when he gets focused on something, food doesn't distract him. He is however, very motivated by high energy games and you can usually distract him by jumping up and down and squealing to get his attention with a toy to throw for him.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment. I agree that often when a dog is not interested in food it is because of stress, or because there are too many other interesting things going on. For example, if the dog is used to the behaviour at home, but not yet used to doing it while there are distractions, the distractions might be more interesting than the food. Some dogs are very play motivated - after all, that's what the police look for in drug-detection dogs - and we see this when owners use a ball or other toy to keep a dog's attention from other dogs going by. Every dog is different and for some dogs this will work better than even a piece of sausage.

    I agree completely that 'once training with food is well established ... a dog refusing food is a very helpful signal of stress'. But I think it's useful to know that food isn't the only possible reward.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments :).

  3. Such a great and informative post about dog training. Thanks for sharing this to us as well as the dog owners.

  4. Great and informative post about dog training. This will really help dog owners. Keep posting.

  5. Here's my response, and I welcome any outside input that could help Lauren figure out these issues. I could especially use some help on the height of food dishes — I've heard some people say a raised bowl reduces a dog's chance of bloat and others say exactly the opposite. I'm not honestly sure what the correct answer is, so I welcome some insight on that matter.

  6. Some time ago, there was a change in the way dogs are trained. Instead of using punishment when dogs did the wrong thing, people started to reward them for doing the right thing – and ignore what they did wrong, or distract them from it.

  7. Hello. Underneath the stock photo of the chocolate labrador says that the photo is from shutterstock. When I went there to buy the rights to use it, however, I couldn't find it anywhere. How did you find that exact photo on shutterstock? Thank you for your help!

    1. It's a nice photo, isn't it? I went and checked my shutterstock account and it says the image is no longer available.


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