If you are considering using positive reinforcement with your puppy and don’t know where to start, this page will give you an easy to understand list of “Do’s and Don’ts” to help you get started. You can also learn from an informational video with nine puppies who are barely nine weeks old learning to sit, down, stay, and heel. This video demonstrates some of the common problems you might encounter and how to fix these problems. This page is loaded with good information on how to use positive reinforcement in puppy training.
Positive Reinforcement in Puppy Training: Make Sure You Do These Things
Do Control Your Puppy and Your Puppy’s Environment
For positive reinforcement to yield its benefits, your puppy must be well-controlled so that he WILL be successful. The key to good positive reinforcement training is having something positive to reward. You cannot reward a puppy when he is busying himself with inappropriate behaviors. This is such an important aspect of good positive reinforcement training that we will be writing a separate post for this topic alone soon. Control your puppy. Set him up for success!
Do Have a Good Reinforcement Schedule
Start young puppies off with a heavy and consistent reinforcement schedule. Reward often while your puppy is learning something new and while he is being conditioned to enjoy working with you. Then when behaviors become solid and he is obviously enjoying the work, gradually move his reinforcement schedule to being random.
Do Keep Your Puppy Thinking That the Reward Could Come at Any Time
Puppies (and dogs) need to feel like a reward will come any time. This is what keeps them wanting to continue heeling or continue staying in a down for sometimes long periods of time. If a dog thinks the reward could come at any time, he will maintain focus as he anticipates his reward.
However, if you become so predictable that your dog figures out that you only reward after a certain length of time, he will loose focus until he feels like he might get rewarded. For instance, if you never reward a dog for heeling until you have taken at least 5 steps, he will quit paying attention to you until you have taken those first 5 steps. Then if something distracts him during those first few steps when he feels like he won’t be rewarded, he might forget what he’s supposed to be doing altogether.
Keep your reinforcements unpredictable and often enough so that your dog is always anticipating the reinforcement!
Do Build a Strong Foundation for Each Behavior that You Are Training With Positive Reinforcement
Work at a level that is easy for your puppy frequently. One of the biggest mistakes I see is people not working the easier exercises often enough and increasing criteria too fast. When teaching a dog to heel, I will reward the dog for just sitting with good attention and for simply taking one step in position hundreds of time. The same holds true with the stay. I will practice with a dog staying for a short time at a short distance far more often than I will ask the dog to do longer sit/stays or down/stays. Build strong wide foundations for the simplest forms of behaviors and the more complicated longer versions of behaviors will be more solid.
Work your puppy at a level that is difficult for him too much and several things will happen. First of all, he will become frustrated and loose interest in working. Second of all, if the reward isn’t coming as often as your puppy needs it to to build his confidence, he’ll wonder if he’s doing something wrong. Once he starts doubting himself, he’ll start trying other things to earn the reward. At this point, confusion will set in and your training will start to fall apart.
Do Gradually Increase Criteria
Along the same lines of working the easy stuff often, don’t increase the criteria too fast. Don’t even ask your puppy to perform at a higher level once until the lower levels are solid. I can’t stress enough that you need to keep your training fun and not too difficult. Otherwise, your puppy will get frustrated and the training will loose it’s appeal.
Do Use the 95/5 Rule With Positive Reinforcement Training
Make sure you are training at a level where your puppy is successful at least 95% of the time. Don’t let your puppy fail more than 5% of the time. If your puppy is making too many mistakes, make it easier for him or he’ll loose interest in training.
My goal is always to train 100% under my puppy’s threshold of success. However, some failure is inevitable. Don’t let failures happen more than 5% of the time and you’ll build confidence and a desire for the work.
Do Practice the Easy Things, the Basics, and the Foundational Exercises OFTEN
Puppies and dogs need far more repetitions of behaviors than most people realize. Rehearse the easy behaviors far beyond when you think your puppy knows well. Again, the fact that the training must be fun and that too much difficulty takes the fun out of it cannot be over-emphasized.
Do Keep Training Sessions Short
Puppies have short attention spans. For most young puppies with a typical inexperienced trainer, ten minutes several times a day is plenty. If you break your training up into several short intervals, you will reap a tremendous training benefit. Your Puppy will think about his training in between sessions and come back to a subsequent session better than he was at the end of the previous session. End your training before your puppy is ready to quit. Leave him wanting more!
Do Use a Reinforcement that YOUR Puppy Wants
Make sure that your puppy likes whatever it is that you will be using for his reinforcement. The more he likes it, the more motivated he will be to work for it.
Almost all puppies want food. Food is also an easy reward to give. Therefore, for most puppies, we recommend starting training by using food.
However, keep in mind the very important principle that for positive reinforcement to work, the reward needs to be something that a dog actually wants. If your puppy isn’t hungry, food will not be a reinforcer. Always train before meals, if you are using food.
Most importantly, if using food as a reward, do not overfeed your puppy. Most people over-feed their puppies. See our page on How Much to Feed Your Golden Retriever if your puppy is a Golden Retriever. Sometimes, the very fact that you are training with food can cause your puppy to overeat. If you are training frequently, take the amount of food you are using for training out of your puppy’s daily food ration.
Do Mark the Behavior With Timeliness
Timeliness with regard to reinforcement is crucial to the success of yourIf you wait too long before letting the puppy know that he did the right thing, he will have likely moved on to doing something else. Your slow response will essentially be rewarding that something else he is doing. Timeliness is one of the most important component of good training.
Positive Reinforcement in Puppy Training: DO NOT do the Following
When Training a Puppy First Thing in the Morning or When He is in a High Energy State, Lower Your Expectations
Puppies in a high energy state of mind have a hard time concentrating and an even harder time with self-control. Training in this state is okay as long as you lower your criteria for reward and have lots of patience. For inexperienced trainers, we recommend waiting until your puppy is in a calmer state of mind.
Don’t Train a Puppy That is Ready for a Nap
Conversely, puppies need enough energy to be able to focus well. Puppies that are sleepy don’t do as well in training as puppies that have adequate energy. Your puppy will be easier to train if he has a balanced amount of energy. He shouldn’t be over the top energetic and neither should he be exhausted.
Do Not Reward Your Puppy for Focusing on a Treat. Positive Reinforcement Training Is Not the Same as Treat Training!
The reward can be a treat, but the focus must be on you. Puppies need to know that the reward comes THROUGH YOU. In order to earn a reward, a puppy needs to look to you for it. Therefore, don’t show a treat to a puppy before a behavior is performed. This will turn the reward into a bribe instead of a reinforcement. More on this in a later blog post.
Do Not Use Luring on a Regular Basis
Dogs trained primarily with luring will learn to focus on treats and will never learn to shift that focus to a person. Reserve luring for those difficult behaviors that cannot be trained with shaping. How to use shaping will be another up-and-coming page.
Don’t Name a Behavior Until It is Solid
Repeating a command over and over before a puppy has learned what he is doing will cause him to learn to ignore your voice. This is especially true with regard to a recall, but this principle applies to teaching anything. You want your puppy to be in-tuned to you. Therefore, reserve speaking to your puppy for when he understands what he is listening to. A puppy that is used to hearing constant commands that mean nothing to him will quickly develop a habit of tuning you out.
Don’t Train if You are Feeling Impatient
Your state of mind is vitally important to a successful training session. Dogs and puppies can read and feel frustration if you have it. You need to be setting a tone of confidence and fun. You cannot successfully do that if you are frustrated or angry.
If your puppy isn’t cooperating as you had hoped and you begin to feel impatient, stop training. Do something else. Then before you train again, take some time to think about what you might could do better next time to help your puppy understand what you want from him. While you are taking a break and re-thinking your training, your puppy will be thinking about how he can do better too. Puppies trained with good positive reinforcement love to think about their training in between sessions! You might be surprised at how much your lesson has begun to click with your puppy in between sessions.
Do Not Assume an Incorrect Response is a Refusal or Willful Disobedience
Usually incorrect responses and what appears to be refusals are caused by confusion, not a strong will. It is quite common for puppies who have been doing a behavior well for even weeks to suddenly forget what he’s supposed to do. There are a myriad of reasons why dogs can get confused. Don’t assume the worst of your dog.
Don’t Ask Your Dog to Perform the Hard Things Often: Success is Key For Good Positive Reinforcement Training
Training sessions should be composed primarily of easy repetitions of exercises. Throw in what the puppy would consider a difficult expectation only occasionally. Never ask a dog to do something often until that something becomes fairly easy for him.
For example, you are teaching your puppy to stay in a down position. He has been consistent with his downs over 95% of the time at a distance of 5 feet for 5 seconds. It’s time to increase criteria and for you to back up 7 feet occasionally. Don’t stop repetitions of 5 feet and jump exclusively to 7 feet. Continue working with your puppy on the easy repetitions to build confidence and desire to work. Over time increase the number of 7 foot stays in a training session all the while keeping your puppy consistently doing it right at least 95% of the time.
Videos of Puppies in Training with Positive Reinforcement
This video of nine puppies doing obedience work should be helpful in fixing some of your puppy’s problems. These puppies are between the ages of 9 weeks 1 day and 9 weeks 3 days. They are in the early stages of learning and making mistakes. Watch the videos to learn how to fix some of the mistakes that your puppy might be making.
Also, see our page on After Puppy Pick up for more tips and a longer video. The After Puppy Pick Up video was created purely to show how to train with positive reinforcement and how to continue the training that we start at Summer Brook Acres.
Other Pages on Positive Reinforcement
See some of our other pages on positive reinforcement such as our pages on Why Reward Based Training is Better Than Punishment Based