What You Need to Know About Positive Reinforcement Training



There was a time when the saying “spare the rod, spoil the child” described a widely accepted approach to rearing children. Today, not so much.


Views on child raising are always evolving and changing with the times, as research and just plain old observation give experts—and parents—new perspectives on the best ways to both nurture and discipline children. A similar dynamic is at play in dog training. 


There is no definitive singular method of training dogs, and experts continue to offer developing insight on how to effectively shape dogs’ behavior. Many in the field today are promoting forms of positive reinforcement training. Advocates say that a growing body of evidence suggests that this reward-based approach is the kindest and most effective way to train pets. 


Recently, Pet Business reached out to animal behavior consultant Darlene Arden to hear her opinions on positive reinforcement and how retailers may support their customers’ efforts to adopt this approach.



Pet Business: Can you define positive reinforcement training? 


Darlene Arden: Positive reinforcement training means that the dog, or any other pet, is rewarded when he does something right. He is set up to win. He receives no punishment, only reinforcement of the correct action. This helps to build the human-animal bond, not break it down. Why would any living being want to do something to please someone who is only going to punish them if they don’t do the right thing when they don’t understand exactly what that person wants? There are two types: Lure and Reward, and Operant Conditioning—commonly called Clicker Training. Operant means that the dog is the one who is doing the action. The dog thinks he’s training you by getting you to click but you know that you are training him so everyone is happy.



PB: What does positive enforcement training entail?


DA: Positive Reinforcement Training’s reward can be a small food treat, play and lots of praise for doing something right. Some dogs and cats are happy to work for affection because their owner’s love is what best motivates them. Others prefer a game or a treat.


In Lure and Reward Training, you use something—a small treat—to get the dog to do what you want him to do. For example, if you want the dog or puppy to sit, you let him smell the treat you are holding between your fingers, slowly raise the treat up until it is over the dog’s head, between his ears. His head will go up to follow it, and his butt will automatically go down on the floor. Praise him for a good sit, and give him the treat.


In Clicker Training—operant conditioning—you first “load” or “charge” the clicker. To do this, you get a lot of little treats if that is what motivates your pet—teeny pieces of chicken or non-sticky cheese or a tiny, healthy treat they can buy at a pet supply store— click and treat about six to eight times in quick succession, so the pet understands that click means treat. That’s your first training session. Sessions only need to last about five minutes, and you can have two or three sessions a day. 


Once he understands that concept, you must decide on the first thing you want to teach him because that will become his default behavior—what he will do whenever he doesn’t know what to do. Some people like to teach “go to your mat.” Others like to teach “stand,” if the dog is going to be a show dog. I like to teach “sit,” because most pets on a walk with their owner will come upon a friend or neighbor during the walk, and while the owner stops to talk, the dog can comfortably sit until it’s time to move on. 


Dogs will always sit at some point. Clicker trainers have a saying, “Sit Happens.” You can either wait for that first “sit,” or you can use lure and reward to get him to sit but rapidly fade the lure. Once he is sitting five or six times in a row, then you can pair it with the word “sit.” You are, up until this point, just rewarding with a click as soon as his butt hits the floor and then a treat in rapid succession. You don’t use the word for the action until the dog is doing the action repeatedly. The clicker is an event marker to tell the dog he did something right. It breaks through the language barrier.


The dog receives only positive things—treats, pats, games, whatever truly motivates the individual pet. There’s no pain involved. And the dog learns quickly. Ultimately, the click or the lure is faded out, but the treat always comes at some point later, once the dog is trained. The treat, in fact, during the training, is given on a variable reward schedule once the pet understands that a treat will be coming, so they try to show you a better sit, or a better down in order to get that treat, like someone waiting for a slot machine to pay off.



PB: How does positive reinforcement training differ from other forms of training?


DA: Other forms of training involve punishment. Choke and prong collars cause the animal pain. A “pop” on a choke collar hurts, and it’s done when the dog does something wrong. What part of “choke” don’t people understand? But how does the dog know what is really wanted? He just knows that he has felt pain. A prong collar digs into the skin. And you should know that a choke collar can cause damage to the dog’s trachea. Will the dog learn? Yes, but ultimately coercion has its fallout. Aversive training breaks down the human-animal bond. Another form of training is to use an electronic collar. This also causes the dog pain. Some people even put them on tiny dogs and cats. Having seen all of these methods used, I have observed the dog’s body language. It changes with the aversive methods. His head and tail go down, and he appears defeated. Is that really the response you want from your dog? 


In fact, most dogs are better off with a harness than a collar. There is no chance of damaging the dog’s trachea when using a harness rather than a collar, let alone a choke, prong or electronic collar. People who train hunting dogs are still using the painful ear pinch, which is not only unnecessary, but cruel. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement do just as well, if not better, in all sorts of sporting events.



PB: Are more pet parents becoming aware of this form of training and choosing it for their pets?


DA: Yes, I think they are becoming more aware in many places, but others are still sucked in by promises of quick training by big companies whose methods are touted to stop barking and to have fast results. Never sign up for a training class or program that you haven’t observed, and if it seems wrong, trust your instincts. When people see how quickly dogs learn with the new, kinder methods, how easy it is to do and how the whole family can participate, they want to do it, too. But it’s important that we keep spreading the word that there is a kinder, gentler way to train that will help make dog/owner relationships much better.



PB: What should retailers know about positive reinforcement training, and what can they do to help support their customers who are choosing this training? 


DA: Retailers should know that there is a plethora of really wonderful products that they can stock and sell to help support their customers who are choosing positive training. They can stock items like clickers—at least two or three types—treat bags that the owner wears to hold the training treats, target sticks, really good harnesses that help teach the dog to walk properly, flat collars, clicker training books, click sticks, clicker leashes, small healthy treats, halters, puzzle toys, food- or treat-release toys for playtime when the dog isn’t training but needs something to keep him busy in the house. Different length leashes for training are also helpful. It helps to have a list of local, positive trainers. And it’s a good idea to encourage this sort of training, as well as support it, so you become known as the go-to business for the latest and best in information and supportive products.




Darlene Arden, an award-winning writer, lecturer and author of The Irrepressible Toy Do,g and The Angell Memorial Animal Hospital Book of Wellness and Preventive Care for Dogs, is an internationally recognized authority on toy dogs and their care, and a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant.

Darlene has written hundreds of articles and columns for all of the major dog and cat publications, as well as newspapers and general interest publications.

A former member of Dog Writers’ Association of America, Inc., and former director of the Cat Writers’ Association and a member of Boston Authors, Darlene is a recipient of numerous awards, including the Maxwell Award, the Muse Medallion, and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals/American Humane Education Society’s Media Award for veterinary writing and animal welfare.

She also writes celebrity profiles and travel features, is a frequent guest on radio and television, and she produces and hosts her own cable television show, Creatively Speaking.