What does positive reinforcement based training mean to you?

For some trainers, it means a lot of cookies and maybe throwing a toy into the mix on occasion.   I see that kind of training a lot. As a matter of fact, it’s the most common type of positive reinforcement training I see and sometimes it doesn’t look like anyone is having much fun at all.  The training appears sterile. Boring.  Quid pro quo – a cookie for a behavior.

Some consider that sterility a benefit because it leads to the faster acquisition of behaviors.  True enough.  On the other hand, it’s hard to express how fantastic you’ll feel at the end of a session where you were genuinely playing with your dog; your buddy!  Your friend who joins you in cool activities that you share with each other!

The more externally you express your happy emotions, the more your dog will learn to look for them.  If you can get your dog addicted to your happy emotions, then your dog will work to elicit them. Teach your dog to work you, not just for food and toys, but for your emotional reactions.  In general, my advice is to look at what your dog is offering naturally in terms of energy and try to match it. Don’t overwhelm your dog! On the other hand, you need to learn to smile!

This approach to training isn’t hard, but you will need to give yourself permission to show on the outside what you’re already feeling on the inside.  Once you get the hang of it, you’ll love it.  It feels good to play with your dog and soon, your dog will start to smile right back at you!  Then it’s almost impossible to stop training because you’ll get addicted to that happy feeling.

It astonishes me to hear well-regarded trainers say that dogs require a paycheck to perform, and then imply that food is the only paycheck that really matters.  Yes, the dog requires a paycheck, but don’t assume food is the only currency.

A high percentage of dogs will work to play and interact, but only if you build and maintain that interest.  If you train as if you have no more value than a food dispenser, then you will remove your dog’s love of interaction, but when you celebrate with your dog, you take advantage of a unique and powerful aspect of dogs: they CARE what you think about them.  When you talk to your dog, they wag their tails because they like to hear your sincere and enthusiastic praise.  When you run around and act silly with your dog, they will join you, especially if you start when they are young and you work to build and maintain that interest.

If you show genuine expressions of joyful emotion, you’ll be surprised how much you can reduce your food and toy rewards.  If you’ve been shoveling out food for years then you’ll struggle with this concept, because now it’s a matter of food deprivation rather than attractive alternatives.  But if you’ve naturally blended the existence of classic rewards (food and toy) with interactive rewards (play and praise) then the issue of deprivation does not arise.  It’s simply varied reinforcement.

Do you have any of your training sessions videotaped?  Let’s take a look.  But this time, don’t look for the quality of the training – look for the joy in the interaction.  If you can’t find it – if you think an outsider would find it boring to watch you – then give that some thought.  Is it time for a change?  If an outsider can’t find the joy, how can your dog?

If you’d like to learn more, I did an entire podcast on this topic.  You can listen for free here:

If you think a bit of additional guidance might help you to develop your playful side, join me for my class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy that starts on August 1st, called “Relationship Building Thru Play“. There we can explore a wide variety of options to help you become a more playful partner for your dog, whether your beloved pet or highly polished competition dog.  Bronze level costs $65 for six weeks of instruction and the lectures remain in your school library for at least a year; longer if you take more classes.