To Promote Positive Reinforcement Dog Training, Teach, Engage, and Amplify

Three tips to encourage and support people to use reward-based training methods with their dog or other pet.

Tips to promote positive reinforcement dog training
Photo: D.K. Grove/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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How can we encourage more people to use positive reinforcement to train their dog?

Those of you who know me know that this question is often on my mind. It’s because positive reinforcement is good for animal welfare and fun for the dog. I explore some of this in the post that kicked off the very first Train for Rewards blog party, seven reasons to use reward-based training methods. I even wrote an article for the Journal of Veterinary Behavior about the barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods, which you can read about in why don’t more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs.

Today, I want to share three tips that we all can use to help encourage and support people to use reward-based training methods with their dog, or other animal (because reward-based training is for all our pets).

Teach people how to use positive reinforcement successfully

We know that positive reinforcement is an effective and successful way to train dogs, but for beginners in particular there can be some technical roadblocks. These can be especially frustrating if we suddenly get a dog that seems harder to train. Or if we’ve simply forgotten what it’s like to train a novice dog who has still to learn that doing the right stuff results in food and is busy bouncing all over the place instead.

Perhaps it’s especially difficult when the dog’s unwanted behaviour happens in public, which can make us feel embarrassed, awkward, or even upset.

In fact a recent study of the training choices made by owners of reactive dogs shows that these negative emotions can get in the way of the right decision. As well, people are more likely to say they will use positive reinforcement if they feel confident in their abilities to do so.

What this means is that dog trainers need to work hard to support their clients in developing their training skills, and provide scaffolding on which future training can be based. Just as we make things easy for the dog to begin with, we should also make it easy for the person so they don’t become discouraged.

Teach people how to use positive reinforcement dog training. Photo shows puppy high-five
Photo: manushot/Shutterstock

This means paying attention to things like using the right rewards (see the best dog training treats  and do dogs prefer petting or praise). As well, it means paying attention to timing, both the timing of the click (if using a clicker) and the timing of the food reward (whether using a clicker or not).

It means working on training scenarios in easy locations, so that by the time someone has to use their skills in public, they have got those skills down pat. And it may also mean rehearsing things to say or do in case difficult situations pop up or another dog owner decides to make an unwelcome comment, because we all know it can happen.

And it means meeting the person where they are, having a sense of humour, and not being judgemental. For those of us who’ve trained dozens of dogs, it’s easy to forget what it all felt like when it was new.

For me, having treats in my pocket for those occasions when they are required is second nature, but not everyone wants stinky tripe treats on their person. I do understand.

So then it’s a case of helping the person figure out where they could keep treats so they are to hand when they need to reinforce their dog’s behaviour.

All of these things (and more) become habits as we learn to train dogs, but it’s a lot to learn when just starting out. To encourage more people to use positive reinforcement, we need to help them build their skills and confidence.

To promote positive dog training, teach, engage, and amplify. Pembroke Welsh Corgi practices recall.
Photo: Maxfromhell/Shutterstock

Engage people with positive posts about positive reinforcement

Often when we see that someone has posted something wrong about dog training on the internet, we feel the urge to write a post about it and correct it. Unfortunately, attempts to correct misinformation often backfire; one reason is that they tend to spread the misinformation further (see reasons to be positive about being positive in dog training for more on this).

But we also know that to be effective, messages should be visually appealing and easy for people to understand. Positive messages are easy for people to get behind. As well, messages should connect with the audience, for example by telling a story.

Can you see where I’m going with this? If only dog trainers had lots of positive stories about cute dogs whose lives are better (and whose owners are happier) because of positive reinforcement training…

As people with pets, we can share the positive stories of things we’ve done and the ways they’ve helped, along with nice photos of our pet to get people’s interest.

As dog trainers, we can share positive stories of clients we have helped, with little bits of information about the kind of thing that worked, and again, beautiful photos of the pet. This isn’t just helping to drum up future business for you (though it is, I’m sure) but it’s also contributing to positive change in the dog training industry by showing people examples of what can be done.

Teach, engage and amplify messages about R+ dog training. Photo of Jack Russell on couch
Photo: dezy/Shutterstock

Write for the world you want to see. The more people hear positive examples, the more likely they are to think of giving positive reinforcement a try.

So take that rant that you really feel like posting, and turn it instead into a positive story about something that has made a difference. Add a nice photo. In the end, it’s the sweeter option. The fact that it shows off your knowledge and expertise too is an added benefit.

Write for the world you want to see, banner with text over dog in bluebell woods

Amplify messages about positive reinforcement

The number of people who are putting out great content about reward-based dog training keeps on going up, which means there is a lot of amazing content out there we can amplify. Books, blog posts, newspaper articles, stories on social media, talks… it all counts.

We can amplify messages by sharing them on social media, or simply talking to friends about them over coffee.

Every time we amplify something about the benefits of using positive reinforcement to train dogs, we are helping to build up social norms that this is the way to train dogs. Which means that next time someone is thinking about dog training, they are more likely to think of positive reinforcement.

This is one of the reasons I love to share my favourite links in my monthly newsletter. If I’ve read something fantastic, I want others to know about it too. Since my newsletter appears on the web as well as in other people’s inboxes, it gives those posts a link too, which hopefully helps them with the search engines (search engines love backlinks).

Amplify messages about positive reinforcement dog training. Photo shows husky singing with two women
Photo:Milica Nistoran/Shutterstock

Even if you only have a small following on your social media account, your shares reach people who would not have otherwise seen or heard about the content. So amplification is something everyone can take part in.

Plus, these are our fellow animal lovers whose posts we are sharing. We are all part of a bigger network that wants to make the world a better place. Dog trainers, vets, pet sitters, vet techs, cat behaviourists, dog walkers, horse trainers… we all need to work together to promote the best ways to train our animals.

So be generous. Generosity feels good, and it does good.

Rewarding the right behaviours

So if we want to encourage more people to use positive reinforcement, we have to Teach, Engage, and Amplify.

Which handily spells TEA.

And I’m British, so I like tea. (Bear with me for a moment…).

What I’m building up to is that it’s important to reward yourself for doing these things (which is also a theme for participants in the Train for Rewards blog party). You might like tea and biscuits, coffee and cake, or a glass of wine… that’s up to you.

Sometimes change happens more slowly than we would like. The thing is, it can get depressing and there’s no point in trying to hide it. The more you learn about animal welfare, animal behaviour, and dog training, the more you see things that aren’t quite right. It’s hard.

So we have to take care of ourselves, because this stuff is important. One way to do that is with tea (or wine or chocolate or…) after we’ve done our TEA. So it's TEA-tea, or TEA-wine, or whatever works for you.

Teach, engage and amplify positive training methods. Photo shows cats curled up by window on rainy day
Photo:Irina Kozorog/Shutterstock

Thank you to everyone who amplifies this blog. You helped me get over half a million different visitors in the last twelve months, which is incredible. If you like this post, I think you will also like my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Cat Warren, NYT-bestselling author of What the Dog Knows, says "Wag is a gift you should give to yourself and the dog or dogs in your life. I loved it!”

Wag is a clear and compassionate guide to bringing out the best in your dog
Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

If you want to read more about communicating about dog training and animal behaviour, check out these posts:

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, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Bush, J. M., Jung, H., Connell, J. P., & Freeberg, T. M. (2018). Duty now for the future: a call for public outreach by animal behaviour researchers. Animal Behaviour, 139, 161-169.
Todd, Z. (2018). Barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 25, 28-34.
Williams, E. J., & Blackwell, E. (2019). Managing the risk of aggressive dog behavior: investigating the influence of owner threat and efficacy perceptions. Risk Analysis.

Tips on R+ for the 2019 Train for Rewards blog party

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