A Dog’s Reinforcements: The Power of Positivity

Key Points

  • A dog's reinforcements reflect their personality and behavior traits.

  • Positive reinforcements are more effective than negative methods.

  • To find your dog's reinforcements, play around with different forms of positive methods.

Do you repeat the same commands to your pup each day? Much like children, dogs don't always behave the way you want them to. It's easy to get upset when your dog doesn't behave properly, but it's most often due to incomplete training. Your dog's reinforcements are your best allies. Reinforcements give your pup something to work for and an incentive for how to behave.

The secret to excellent dog training is your dog's reinforcement methods. Do you know what your dog's reinforcements are? If not, find out. There are both positive and negative reinforcements, and it's vital to know when to use each of them in your training regimen.

Reinforcements Simplified

Reinforcements are the consequence of your dog's behavior. The consequences aren't good or bad. It's all about cause and effect. Your dog's behavior is the cause and your response is the effect.

It's important how you respond to your dog's behaviors, especially early on. No matter how hard you try to communicate with your pup, they don't understand human language. If you respond to their behavior with anger and yelling, they may take your behavior as a reinforcement.

Your dog views your anger or dissatisfaction as a confirmation of their fear or worry. For example, many dogs bark at the sound of the doorbell. Do you yell to quiet them down? They view your yelling as a confirmation that there's something to be alert about, and they feel justified in their barking.

Puppy chewing bone treat

Positive Reinforcements

Positive reinforcements are a dog's best friend. Positive association with certain behaviors makes your pup more likely to behave accordingly. By using reinforcements, you communicate with your dog when words or commands fail.

What motivates your canine? Is it food, walks, treats, pets, or another form of enjoyment? Positive reinforcements are anything that your dog enjoys. Find the most effective reinforcements and use them throughout your training.

Say you want to teach your dog how to shake. Your dog doesn't naturally understand the movement and finds the action uncomfortable or unnatural at first. Teach your pup that performing positive behavior elicits a positive reward.

Practice teaching them to shake and manually move their arm and paw with your hand. Speak the "shake" command or another word of your choice so they associate "shake" with the movement. It's helpful to give them treats right off the bat so they focus and remain obedient.

Next, release their paw and speak the command. Don't lose hope if their little paw doesn't rise to greet you right away. No one ever said training your dog is easy. Practice and patience are crucial.

When you release their paw, stop giving them treats. If they don't shake after the command, reach down for their paw and speak the command again. Give them a treat this time to reinforce the behavior. Repeat the process so they catch on and understand the movement and the reward associated with it on their own.

Negative Reinforcements

Negative reinforcements aren't punishment. Negative tools are methods that teach your dog how to behave without the use of a reward. Negative reinforcement uses an uncomfortable sound or stimuli to train your pup. You teach your dog certain commands and remove the uncomfortable stimuli to reward them for good behavior.

Pup looking up at owner

For example, say you want to teach your dog to stop barking. With negative reinforcement, you use a dog whistle anytime your dog barks at a stimulus. Use the whistle until the barking stops. This teaches your dog that anytime they bark, you might blow the whistle. After a while, your dog doesn't bark as much as they normally do because of your negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcements aren't as effective as positive reinforcements. Your dog may not react to the negative reinforcement or learn the new behavior. Your dog becomes used to negative reinforcements over time and their effectiveness to teach new behaviors diminishes. Positive reinforcements are most effective, especially ones that your dog can't resist!

Is Correction the Same As Positive Reinforcement?

How do you correct your dog's behavior? Is it through verbal commands or discipline? Corrections are not positive reinforcements. Corrections are for bad behavior and only teach your dog what not to do.

Say you want to teach your dog how to stay out of the garden while they play in the yard. Every time your dog enters the garden, use a command to direct them out of the garden. You may need to physically move them while you use the command to teach them the association. As you continue the process, eventually your dog understands that you don't want them in the garden anymore.

Use positive reinforcement whenever they behave without needing correction to solidify their training. If you don't use positive reinforcement, they're less likely to understand that they need to avoid the garden at all times.

Figuring Out What Reinforcement Methods Work for Your Dog

Finding the right reinforcement methods for your dog's training is key. Dog trainer Rosee Riggs gives canine owners advice on how to tackle training from the perspective of their pets:

"I love coaching caregivers to enter the emotional and sensory world of their dogs and support them to cope better in our human world. I am passionate about good handling, including understanding how dogs naturally use the environment to orientate and communicate, and how best they can enjoy a walk. This is not just lead work, but a whole way of living in harmony with dogs."

Dog training high five

Take your time to discover your dog's personality. Your dog has a unique set of interests and triggers that draw them toward certain reinforcements. If your dog doesn't like to play with toys, then toys aren't a great reinforcement method. Find what motivates them and what reinforcements they're naturally drawn to for the best results. Here are some factors to take into consideration to find the best reinforcement for your pet.


Without consistency, your dog may find it difficult to associate reinforcements with certain behaviors. Consistent reinforcement training allows your dog to make the necessary connections to behaviors. In the beginning, train your dog multiple times throughout the day. Don't give up if they don't catch on right away; it takes time for the training to be effective. Make a training schedule and spend some quality time working with your pup and observing their progress.


Positive reinforcement is only effective during a short window of time. Don't try to reward your dog after they perform a command multiple times. Reward them as soon as they perform the command right the first time. If you wait too long, your dog won't understand which behavior the reward is for.


Just because some dogs are food-driven doesn't mean all dogs are. Food is a common place to start your reinforcement training, but if your dog doesn't respond to food, look for other options. Squeaker toys are an effective choice. Squeak the toy for good behavior and let your dog play with it in between sessions.

Dog looking at owner during training

Reinforcements for Different Environments

If your dog behaves well at home, that doesn't mean they behave well in other environments. Dog parks, pet stores, and public spaces have a lot more stimuli that keep your dog on their toes. It's important to train your dog in new or hectic environments so they continue to be on their best behavior no matter what happens around them.

Location-specific reinforcement refers to reinforcing your dog's behavior in a location that is a problem area for them. Oftentimes, the reinforcement method that works well at home isn't effective in the new environment. In these triggering new locations, the old methods sometimes aren't good enough. It's up to you to find a new way to reinforce good behavior. Play around with the options that you know work for your pup. Once those options fail, test out new tools to see what sticks.

What if Your Dog Doesn't Respond to Positive Reinforcement?

If your dog doesn't respond to positive reinforcement, there are a few things to consider. How old is your pup? If they're just a puppy, they have a harder time focusing on what you ask of them. Your pup doesn't have the same drive towards food that more mature dogs do. As your dog grows older, their drive for food increases, making the reinforcement method more effective.

Puppies don't respond to physical affection in the same way older dogs do either. Young dogs want to play more than anything and likely interpret your physical affection as playtime initiation. Give your dog the time they need to grow into themselves and teach them along the way.

Another reason your dog isn't responding to positive reinforcement is if they are older and didn't receive proper training as a pup. They don't understand the associations and aren't driven by them. Just because your dog doesn't have any associations doesn't mean you can't teach them. All it takes is figuring out what makes them tick and using it in their training protocol.

Feeding dog a treat

How Do You Reinforce Calm Behavior in Dogs?

You aren't alone — just about everyone wants their dog to be calm and collected at all times. Dogs are furballs of energy and bounce off the walls at the sound of a doorbell. It's not impossible to teach your dog how to be calm but always consider their personality.

Certain dog breeds are more high-strung than others. For example, Italian greyhounds have a lot of energy but they also enjoy laying around the house and cuddling with their owners. German shepherds, on the other hand, have a lot of energy, especially when they're younger, and require a more hands-on approach. No matter what breed of dog you have, it's possible to enforce calm behavior.

When isn't your dog calm? Are they rowdy around guests? Does your dog get a burst of energy right before bedtime? Train your dog how to stay calm during times of high energy or stress. It's essential to soothe them and let them know that everything is okay.

Get creative with your approach. Dim the lights, turn on calm music, or make a warm bed for your pup. Creating a soothing environment sets the tone for how your dog reacts. If your dog is prone to bark loudly at random, command them to stop and give them pets or a treat whenever they listen.

Training Specific Behaviors

Some behaviors or actions are easier for your pup than others. The easy ones are fun and your dog responds well to positive reinforcements. The more challenging behaviors take more effort and creativity in how you use your reinforcements.

If your dog is prone to bad behaviors and outbursts, certain positive reinforcements aren't as effective as others. Think about your dog's behaviors and find the root cause of them.

If you want your pup to be quiet or still for some time, you need more than just a big bag of treats, no matter how much your pup approves. Certain behaviors require reinforcement methods that occupy your canine for as long as you need.

Decide how long you want the behavior to occur and use a reinforcement method that supports that. For example, a toy isn't a great option to teach your dog to sit or shake. Some behaviors need repetition and your dog doesn't get the full enjoyment of playtime as you give and take the toy from them repeatedly. In certain cases, treats are a much more effective option.

Dog sitting by owner

Get Creative in Your Approach

Dogs like anything that tastes good, feels good, or allows them to run and play. Get creative in your approach to reinforcement methods. There's no wrong way to reinforce your dog's good behavior as long as the reward is something that truly benefits them.

Make delicious dog treats from homemade ingredients and keep them in a special treat jar. Buy a fun toy that your pup only gets for good behavior. Play around with the different methods in this article and find one that works best for you and your furry friend.

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