Reward based puppy training

What is reward based training – and why does it matter?

In simple terms, reward based training sums up an approach to training (of all sorts really but we’ll focus on puppies here) where the trainer focuses on positive behaviour, and rewarding desired behaviour from their puppy. Just to make this clear from the start, the whole Puppy Perfect approach is 100% centred around reward based training – it’s how we teach and we know it works!

There are a few terms to get out of the way, but the fundamentals are straightforward really.

Traditional puppy training has quite a strong focus on punishment or “correction”, and would aim to teach a dog not to perform certain behaviours. Time has shown punishment to be ineffective – or at best, to represent a long and hard way to get the results you want, and we don’t need it!

The aim with reward based training is to gently coax behaviours from your puppy, and then reward them with “positive reinforcement” – and then use that reward to associate the behaviour to a command. Once you’ve done that effectively, you can then work to “shape” the behaviour, so it’s performed exactly as and when you want it. So in summary – punishment is pointless. Find a way to trigger the behaviour you want (lying down, for example) and reward it, and then shape it using rewards. Ok – jargon over.

So, we can build all sorts of behaviours in puppies, and you can replace the behaviours that you don’t want. For example, a puppy that jumps up constantly, or that urinates in the house needs to be shown an alternate behaviour, rewarded for performing that alternative, and simply never rewarded for the unwanted behaviour. Very soon your puppy will hugely prefer doing things the new way, which gets rewards, and leads to a happy owner. Everyone wins, no one needs to get punished. This approach doesn’t work for everything – for example behaviours that are “self-rewarding” like chasing cats or barking at the postman, but as a basic principle it will get you a very long way indeed.

If you’re going to try this, one important thing to consider is the timing of your reward. The first time you reward an action, the puppy will ask itself “why did I get rewarded?”. So, to teach a puppy to sit, you have to gently encourage the puppy to sit, and give it a reward. But, if you get the puppy to sit, then let it get up and come to you for the reward, how will it know exactly which of those actions is being rewarded? It will probably assume that walking towards you is the action that you’re trying to encourage. Timing is EVERYTHING. Your reward needs to be the right size, given at the right frequency, and timed just right so they can work out exactly what it was that earned the reward.

While on walks, reward based training is hugely important. A recall is all about bringing the puppy away from what it wants to do (walk, play, chase the other dogs etc) to you – you can only make coming to you a “better” thing to do by appropriately rewarding it, and teaching that positive, reward based association. If you punish the puppy for not coming to you – you will never make it any more likely to want to come and see you when you call. This is something we cover extensively in our accompanied walk training sessions.

A group puppy training class, or a One-to-One puppy training session can give you a great understanding of how to use these positive training principles to your advantage – and to keep you and your puppy happy.