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Understanding and implementing the power of positive reinforcement training

If you reward your dog with something they value, when they have demonstrated a behaviour that is desirable to you, that behaviour becomes associated with a desirable outcome for your dog, which in turn means they will be motivated to repeat it. It's a win-win for you both!

Poodle taking a treat from owner's hand
Rewarding your dog for performing a desirable action means they are more likely to repeat it

Although it doesn’t happen very often, occasionally a client will voice the following belief they have about giving a dog nice things like food and toys whilst training:

“Oh, so you’re bribing the dog to do what you want”

Actually no. Here’s why:

Rewards vs bribes

BRIBERY comes BEFORE an individual has engaged in a desirable behaviour

REWARDS (positive reinforcement) come AFTER an individual has engaged in a desirable behaviour

The training sequence is:

  1. CUE a behaviour (using a sensory guide e.g. a lure, a hand signal, a spoken word)

  2. MARK the behaviour (using a verbal ‘yes’ marker or a clicker) to let your dog know exactly what it was they did they you wanted

  3. PAUSE

  4. THEN present the dog with their REWARD

You have not given your dog the ‘nice thing’ first in the hope they will then do what you want, you have asked them to work for you first and then ‘paid’ them afterwards for their effort.

By paying your dog for working, they will be more inclined to offer you behaviour which they have previously been paid for (what gets positively reinforced gets repeated), and to try and work out what it is you want when you are training something new, with the expectation that you will pay them when they get it right.

Puppy being lured with a treat through a spin trick
A lure is a guide to help show your dog the action you are looking for

Using lures

One might ask, isn’t luring bribing though since you’re presenting your dog with something they want before they’ve performed the behaviour?

Again no. A lure is a CUE which is used to guide your dog at the beginning of training something new when you don’t have an alternative cue available / strongly enough established.

By showing your dog you have a tasty food item in your hand for example, your dog will then follow your hand. If you then manoeuvre your hand correctly, your dog will follow it in such a way that they perform the behaviour you want whilst they are following the lure. When they perform the desired behaviour you MARK it, PAUSE, and THEN give your dog their REWARD (which may or may not be the food you were luring with). When your dog understands what you are asking for when you are making a certain hand gesture with food in your hand, you can move onto just giving the hand signal without holding any food in your hand to cue the behaviour.

Luring is a guide not a bribe.

Australian Shepherd dog rolling on floor with toy in mouth
Some dogs prefer their favourite toy to food as their reward

Types of rewards

Food is possibly the most commonly used form of reward when training using positive reinforcement, however there are a number of other ways you can reward your dog for performing desirable actions.

Rewards can include:

  • Food

  • Toys

  • Verbal praise

  • Petting

  • Access to other valued reinforcement (e.g. being invited to say hello to a person or other dog, or to sniff in the hedgerow)

Value of rewards

Every dog will have their own opinion about what they consider to be valuable to them. A reward is only a reward if your dog believes it is.

Some dogs will find their favourite toy more rewarding than a piece of chicken for example, whereas others will find it more rewarding to be allowed to play with their friends than be told what a good boy / girl they are.

Chocolate Labrador with mouth open licking their lips
Make a list of which rewards your dog values the most - the harder the training activity, the higher value of rewards you will need to succeed

As well as making a preference list of your dog’s favourite types of reward, it is also useful to rank your dog’s most valued reward within each category. For example, if you are using food, does your dog remain more engaged with you and try harder when the reward on offer is chicken, or liver, or cheese?

In order to be able to use positive reinforcement most successfully when training, you need to work out what your dog finds most rewarding out of all the options available, and be aware that this might change depending on what you are asking them to do, when you are asking them to do it, where you are training and who they are training with.

The harder the training activity is for your dog, the higher the value of the reward you will need to use to keep your dog’s interest and maintain their effort, and remember, it is your dog who decides which rewards they value most highly. You have to reinforce their choices to do the things you would like, by paying them with things that matter to them. It’s not about what you want to give them, it’s about what they value.

Step into your dog’s paws and view training from their perspective. Another being is trying to communicate with you in a language you don’t understand, to ask you to do something you don’t know how to do yet, possibly in an environment where there are a lot of other things going on that take your interest, some of which you know you already enjoy doing that don’t need you to concentrate very much. If that other being isn’t making a good show of trying to make the activity fun for you, and isn’t demonstrating to you right from the beginning, that when you choose to engage with them rather than anything else in the environment, that you will be rewarded with something you really like and value for maintaining your focus and effort, then it’s very likely that you will look to other things in your environment to interest and entertain you instead.

The key to your training success

Positive reinforcement, or reward-based, training is powerful. By rewarding your dog for effort, progress and making choices that you like, your dog will be happier, your relationship will be closer, and your dog will be much more likely to favour repeating behaviours that you find desirable, instead of engaging in activities that you’d rather they didn’t!

So remember, rewards aren’t bribes, they are payments for work done by your dog, for you.

Be a great employer and reward your dog well, you’ll both reap the benefits!

Complete Canine Dog Training is a positive reinforcement trainer based in Henley-on-Thames, South Oxfordshire. In addition to running puppy and dog training classes and workshops local to home, Sara provides one-to-one training throughout the Thames Valley. To find out how we can help with your puppy / dog training needs by harnessing the power of positive reinforcement, contact us by telephone 07833 662417, email submit the contact form on our website at

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