Reward-based training for dogs
Training is a great way to keep your dog’s mind active. It also helps you bond and understand each other.
Without training, the world can be a pretty confusing place for your dog. We all expect dogs to behave in set ways and follow certain rules. Your dog needs to understand those rules before they can stick to them!
It’s easier to learn when it’s fun. The kindest and most effective method is called “reward-based training” – also called “positive reinforcement”.
How reward-based training works
By rewarding your dog with a treat when they do what you want, they will want to behave that way again.
Repeat this several times. So if you want them to sit, give the command and give the treat either during the good behaviour or immediately afterwards. Your dog will eventually respond to your command without needing the reward.
The leader of the pack
It’s a myth that some dogs always want to be the dominant one and that you need to be the leader of the pack in order to control them. Your dog doesn’t need to view you as more dominant than them, but they do need to learn to trust you and understand your commands.
The Golden Rules of Reward-Based Training
- Know what makes your dog tick! The reward has to be something that your dog really likes, so that they’re prepared to work for it. Some dogs like food treats, others prefer praise or a favourite toy.
- Timing is everything. Help the dog link the behaviour with the reward: give the reward during the behaviour or within half a second after they’ve done it.
- Keep it short. Don’t make training sessions too long, or your dog will lose interest or get frustrated. Always end on a high, after a success.
- One by one. Focus on training one command at a time. When your dog has learnt one, then you can move on to the next.
- Clear commands. Use short commands. Avoid confusion by only using the command for the behaviour you want.
- Keep going. Keep rewarding when your dog does what you want. It may take lots of repetition but, with patience, your dog will eventually understand the command and what you want. It’s a great moment when, suddenly, the penny drops and your dog gets it!
- Ignore mistakes. Every dog makes mistakes sometimes. It’s not their fault – it just means they haven’t learnt the task yet. Ignore the mistake and give the reward next time they get it right.
- Never use punishment. Shouting, smacking, hitting, using gadgets like water pistols, or using rattle cans and choke chains are all forms of punishment. They cause anxiety and fear; which are proven to make animals learn slower. It’s unkind and doesn’t create lasting results. It teaches your dog that people can’t be trusted and this can lead to behavioural problems later in life. Instead, use positive, fun, reward-based training – it’s kind and effective.
- Get everyone on board. Everyone in contact with your dog should praise the right behaviour, use the same commands and ignore mistakes. So your dog gets the same message from everyone, rather than gets confused by different messages.
- Get them to eat the right treats. Dog obesity causes health problems. Try using healthy food as rewards, e.g. a very small slice of carrot. If your dog is only interested in less healthy food, such as small pieces of sausage, give them a smaller main meal so they don’t get too much food on training days.
As soon as your puppy has had their vaccinations, they’re ready to start training classes. It’s best to start training when your dog is still young but it’s never too late to start – old dogs can learn new tricks, too!
- Choose a class that uses reward-based training.
- Avoid any class which use water pistols, rattle cans or similar training gadgets.
- Avoid any class which bases their training on the idea that dogs need to be dominant.
- Members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers only use reward-based methods – visit their website to find a trainer in your area.
Reward-based training in action: Teaching your dog to ‘come’
Here’s an example of how to use reward-based training to teach your dog basic recall. Once they’ve got the hang of it, your dog will come to you when they’re called.
Your dog is much more likely to want to come back to you if you’re being exciting and fun – so remember to keep the training positive and upbeat!
- Start off somewhere quiet, where there’s very little that can distract your dog (for example, in your living room or garden).
- Call your dog, then back away from them.
- Kneel down, hold your arms out and call them to you. Remember to make sure you keep your voice light and cheerful – your dog won’t want to come if you sound serious or angry.
- When your dog comes to you, remember to reward them with lots of praise and a small healthy treat straight away. As your dog gets better at recall, you won’t need to reward them every time.
- Once your dog’s got the hang of it, move further away from them before you give your ‘come’ command. When you feel your dog is doing well, go out to a local park and work on recall in a busier environment.
Put reward-based training into practice with our tips on how to toilet train your dog.
Clicker training is another kind of reward based training. Read advice from our vets about successfully clicker training your dog.