Seven Reasons to Use Reward-Based Dog Training Methods

Reward-based training is the best way to train dogs. Here's what it means, and seven reasons to give it a try.

Reward-based training makes dogs happy. Photo shows a happy dog waiting for a reward
Photo: Lunja/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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What is reward-based dog training? Put simply, it's using rewards to train dogs - giving rewards for good behaviour and withholding rewards for behaviours we don't like.

Instead of using ideas like respect or dominance to train dogs, reward-based training looks at what motivates dogs and uses that in a humane manner to improve your dog's behaviour.

Reward-based training is also commonly known as force free dog training or positive dog training, because it relies on positive reinforcement.

Whether you're new to training or an experienced pro, here are seven reasons to use reward-based dog training.

1. Positive reinforcement is recommended by professional organizations

Many professional organizations have spoken out against the use of punishment in dog training because the scientific evidence shows that it carries risks.

For example, Dogs Trust recommend the use of rewards in dog training.
“In order to be effective and to gain the best results, all training should be based around positive rewards. Positive reward training works because if you reward your dog with something he wants as soon as he does what you ask, he is far more likely to do it again.”
In their advice on finding a dog trainer, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour says,
“AVSAB endorses training methods which allow animals to work for things (e.g., food, play, affection) that motivate them rather than techniques that focus on using fear or pain to punish them for undesirable behaviors. Look for a trainer who uses primarily or only reward-based training with treats, toys, and play. Avoid any trainer who advocates methods of physical force that can harm your pet such as hanging dogs by their collars or hitting them with their hands, feet, or leashes."
Some organizations (such as the Pet Professional Guild and the APDT (UK)) and some dog training schools (such as the Academy for Dog TrainersKaren Pryor Academy, and the Victoria Stilwell Academy) have a code of practice that requires their members to use kind, humane methods instead of aversive techniques.

Seven reasons to use positive reinforcement in dog training. Photo shows happy, hairy dog
Photo: Pontus Edenburg/Shutterstock/Zazie Todd

If you are looking for a dog trainer, whether for puppy class or behaviour problems, see my article on how to choose a dog trainer.

2. People report better results with positive reinforcement

Several studies have found that people who use positive reinforcement to train their dogs report a better-behaved dog than those who use aversive techniques.

In one study, the dogs of people who used only positive reinforcement training were less likely to have behaviour problems (Blackwell et al,, 2008). They suggested this could be because dogs don’t associate punishment with their behaviour, but instead with the owner or the context, and hence may become fearful and anxious.

Another study found if dog owners used punishment (whether or not they also used rewards) their dogs were more likely to have problem behaviours (Hiby et al., 2004). People who only used reward-based methods reported more obedient dogs

These results apply to dogs of all sizes. In a study that compared small and large dogs, those whose owners used more punishment were reported to have more problems of aggression and excitability whatever their size (Arhant et al., 2010). However this was most pronounced for little dogs (less than 20kg).

Of particular concern is the finding that people who use confrontational methods (such as prong, choke and shock collars or growling at the dog) sometimes report an aggressive response (Herron, Shofer and Reisner, 2009). This was never reported in response to using rewards.

These studies relied on owner reports, but another study used an experimental design to compare positive reinforcement to shock collars. They looked at teaching recall in the presence of livestock and found that, contrary to popular belief, the shock collars did not lead to better trained dogs (Cooper et al., 2014). And in fact, the dogs trained with shock showed signs of stress, which brings us to the next point.

3. Reward-based training is better for animal welfare 

Good animal welfare is an important consideration in dog training, and research shows that reward-based training is good for animal welfare, while training with aversive methods has risks for welfare.

Seven reasons to use reward-based dog training methods. Photo shows happy Afghan hound
Photo: Anna Goroshnikova/Shutterstock/Zazie Todd

The conclusion of the shock collar study just mentioned is that,
“immediate effects of training with an e-collar give rise to behavioural signs of distress in pet dogs, particularly when used at high settings.”
Another study looked at the body language of dogs at two training schools where the dogs had already learned sit and loose-leash walking. One school used positive reinforcement while the other school used tugging the leash or pushing the dog’s bottom down until it did the required behaviour.

Dogs previously trained with the aversive techniques showed more stress-related behaviours, such as a lowered body posture, and looked less at their owner compared to those trained with positive reinforcement (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014).

If you use reward-based training, you avoid the risk that aversive techniques will cause stress, anxiety or fear. This is better for both the dog and you.
“Ultimately, reward-based training is less stressful or painful for the dog, and, hence, safer for the owner,” (Herron, Shofer and Reisner, 2009)
A review of the scientific literature concluded that reward-based training has fewer risks than aversive methods, and may even have better results.

4. Positive reinforcement dog training is good enrichment 

Successful problem-solving, like learning a behaviour in exchange for a reward, makes dogs happy.

Research has shown dogs that work to earn a reward are happier than those that are just given a reward (McGowan et al 2014). The scientists called the dog learning s/he could earn a reward the “Eureka effect”.

Dr. Ragen McGowan told me
“Think back to last time you learned a complicated new task... do you remember the excitement you felt when you completed the task correctly? Our work suggests that dogs may also experience this 'Eureka Effect.' In other words, learning itself is rewarding for dogs.”
This study shows that giving your dog the opportunity to earn rewards is a good enrichment activity (another thing that's good for animal welfare).

If you need ideas for good rewards, check out the best dog training treats which includes recipes too.

5. Dogs get better at learning with rewards

Dogs that have previously been trained using positive reinforcement do better at learning a new task.

This was the finding of a study which took videos of owners and their dogs interacting at home (Rooney and Cowan, 2011). One of the tasks involved giving owners a ball and a bag of treats that they could use (or not) as they wished. The owners were asked to teach their dog to touch a spoon.

The dogs who learned the new task more quickly were the ones whose owners had used more rewards in earlier training.

The explanation? It’s probably down to a more motivated dog. The scientists say,
“a past history of rewards-based training increases a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.”

6. It focuses on what your dog can do

It makes sense to teach your dog what to do, rather than what not to do. It can get very frustrating if your dog keeps doing something you don’t like. It’s probably frustrating for your dog too.

For example, suppose your dog jumps up on you. They are probably trying to get close to you and wanting some fuss, which they don’t get if you push them away.

However you can teach them that if they keep all four paws on the ground they will be rewarded with affection and a treat. Over time, they will learn to do this instead. It’s a win for you and the dog.

If you don’t actually teach them what to do, how can you expect them to learn it?

7. Reward-based dog training is fun 

Dog training should be fun for you and your dog. Using rewards to teach your dog what to do can be a fun game for you and your dog to enjoy together. As well as basic obedience behaviours like sit, down and stay, you can teach tricks such as shake hands, wave, say your prayers, sit pretty, or spin.

Don’t forget to reward yourself after a good training session – you’ve earned it, too!

What do you like best about using rewards to train your dog?

If you liked this post, check out my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Cat Warren, NYT-bestselling author of What the Dog Knows, says "Wag is also a gift you should give to yourself and the dog or dogs in your life. I loved it!”

Reward-based training methods are also for cats. Learn more in my new book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

You might also like: What is positive reinforcement in dog training? on this blog; and the double advantage of reward-based training (over at the Academy for Dog Trainers).

Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123 (3-4), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Blackwell, E., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 3 (5), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008
Cooper, J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training PLoS ONE, 9 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102722
Gaunet, F. (2009). How do guide dogs and pet dogs (Canis familiaris) ask their owners for their toy and for playing? Animal Cognition, 13 (2), 311-323 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-009-0279-z
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare Animal Welfare, 13, 63-69
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Rooney, N., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 169-177 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007

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