Dogs, like humans, are more likely to perform an activity again if they’re rewarded for their efforts.
Of course, for us, the reward can be psychological, emotional and physical. For dogs well, they mostly prefer physical ‘pats on the back’ in the form of food (treats), play (a ball), or yes, a pat on the back (or belly rub, that matter). For some dogs, even a positive word can be enough of a reward.
Not all dogs prefer the same training ‘reward’
In order for positive reinforcement training to work it’s important to find out what your dog gets excited about most in terms of treats. Does she or he like a little piece of chicken or cheese to motivate them best? Obviously, you can’t give them these high protein snacks all the time – they’re too expensive and not always at hand - but you can give them as a ‘high value treat.’ This can be for doing something that’s difficult or when you want to coax them to do an activity they may be nervous about (such as running through a tunnel at an agility class). The rest of the time small biscuit treats such as our natural vegan treats are great for everyday training.
For some dogs, especially the likes of collies or German Shepherds, a ball is more enticing than an edible treat. Others can be trained with a favourite furry toy – one which isn’t an everyday play thing but used only for training (so making it more special and desirable to your dog).
The main point of positive reinforcement training is to give the dog something they love and which will encourage them to perform the action again, and again, and again… you get the idea.
Owners use positive reinforcement to get their dogs to do all sorts of behavioural activities and tricks. From lifting a paw for the neighbour’s kids, to teaching them not to tear the delivery driver’s trousers and even, quite literally, to jump through hoops at agility classes, there’s no action that can’t be achieved through positive reinforcement training.
Why a training marker is important
Some people use a 'clicker' to let their dogs know they’ve done what they wanted them to. This is what’s called a ‘marker’ and a bit like saying ‘good boy,’ ‘ok’ or ‘yes.’ In other words, it’s a positive affirmation. The main point is that he or she knows their behaviour was what you wanted and that there’s a treat coming next. This means that other people can train your dog too, provided they use the same marker and treat combination.
Why positive reinforcement works
Giving your dog positive reinforcement guides them into making the right choice for themselves. And they do so in a confident manner, not because they’re frightened that if they don’t they’ll be punished. Rather, they do it because they’re rewarded and see that, as their owner, you are happy.
It’s important to state here that when the dog doesn’t do what you want them to, it’s not because they are being stubborn or disobedient; it’s more to do with a lack of communication ie he or she really doesn’t understand what you’re asking them to do. Unlike the thinking of old, a dog isn’t trying to be the pack leader and asserting its dominance. They just want to please you and be your friend.
You can read what your dog is thinking by looking at their body language – tail, head, paws etc – so that you can both learn to understand each other as your bond with positive reinforcement techniques develops.
‘The Dog Father’ - who he is and what he does
As a keen dog owner, you will no doubt have seen him on TV. These days he’s even touring the UK performing theatre shows. Graeme Hall is the 55-year-old former Weetabix manager who has jumped to fame as the UK’s most famous dog trainer.
A mild-mannered chap and a big believer in positive reinforcement, Hall encourages his charges to alter their behaviour, gently. There’s no harsh scolding or finger-wagging from him. Instead, there are treats and pats when the miscreant does the right thing. The secret to dog training, he insists, is to treat your dog at the right time so that he or she understands why it’s getting that titbit or cuddle in the first place.
Consistency is key too, he explains, adding that we should always reward good behaviour and ignore the bad stuff until the dog learns that tearing the cushions or jumping up all the time is unproductive.
“Dogs want our attention,” he says. “If they are more likely to win that by barking or jumping than by trotting quietly at heel, then that's what they will do.”
And if you’re still not convinced about the positive reinforcement method, then you don’t have to take Graeme’s (or our) word for it. Science backs it up too.
Study shows dogs are less stressed with treat-based training
A 2020 Portuguese study looked at 92 family dogs from seven different training schools and revealed that dogs who were taught via positive reinforcement training methods were less stressed than those who received adverse or mixed methods. Researchers concluded this by measuring saliva on the dog’s tongue for cortisol (stress) levels.
Other reasons to train with rewards? It’s fun – for both you and your dog (you know your dog is having a good time, which makes you feel great). It builds up your dog’s confidence and, better still, creates an even stronger bond between you and your furry best friend. And isn’t that the best bit?
The W'ZIS? answer to training treats
Check out our fabulous new menu of plant-based dog treats and chews today. Protein-light, sugar-free, low calorie and grain-free – they’re not only tasty but good for your dog too. From ‘Postman & Roast’ to ‘Slipper & Biscuit’ and ‘Lamppost & Chips’ there will definitely be something he or she loves. They also come in a handy tin for slipping in your pocket when out walking, rattle it to get them running!