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What is Positive Reinforcement Anyways?

I've heard people refer to using treats as a bribe. While it is certainly possible to use a treat as a bribe, it is not how we use treats when training with positive reinforcement. When we are training with treats or food we are delivering this reinforcement right after the behavior we want. I wanted to talk a little bit more about this as I often get calls saying that a dog is not treat motivated or that the owner has been using positive reinforcement and it hasn't been working. More often than not I find that the owner is using treats of very low value in very distracting environments or trying to get a behavior in a distracting environment that has not been well trained to begin with. Other times I find that the owner is using praise or petting as the reinforcer and the dog is just not finding these rewarding. In some cases the dog has found petting aversive. If you've run into any problems training with treats or food, I invite you to read the rest of this article where I briefly touch on some key concepts. You may find some small changes to make in how you are training that will significantly change the results you are getting.


Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior or response. Every dog is different. We can use treats, toys, praise and pets as reinforcements but we need to pay attention to what the dog finds reinforcing. For example, if praise following a behavior(such as sit) is not increasing and strengthening the desired behavior it is not a reinforcement for your dog. You can experiment with all of the above reinforcers to find which ones are meaningful to your dog and this will increase the likelihood of the desired behavior.

Positive Reinforcement:

While working with us we will guide you in the use of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement means to add something positive or desirable to increase the likelihood of a behavior. For most dogs we will be using food as it is a primary reinforcer. Other examples of positive reinforcers are praise, pets and play.

We often hear that a dog is not food motivated. All dogs are food motivated as food is essential to survival. What we often find is that the food or treat that is being used does not hold enough value to the dog in different environments.


Value will be determined by your dog. When thinking about food as a reinforcer we need to consider the hierarchy of value for your dog. For example, for most dogs kibble has low value. It’s something they get everyday and often get for free in a bowl. It holds little value in a distracting environment. Experiment with different types of treats and human grade foods like chicken or cheese to find which foods your dog finds most valuable. Keep this in mind when practicing behaviors in new environments. The more distracting the environment the higher in value we will want the reinforcement.

Timing & Consistency:

When training a new behavior we want the reinforcer to immediately follow the behavior to create the association for our dogs. Timing of the reinforcer is everything. This is one of the reasons we do not advise training with positive punishment. The mistiming of a treat or praise will not have any negative fallout. We will just have less likelihood of getting the behavior we want. On the other hand, a mistimed punishment can cause fear, stress and can worsen behaviors.

Consistency is also necessary for a reinforcer to be reinforcing. When we are training a new behavior, we need to reinforce it in a timely manner and consistently. In the beginning stages of learning this means reinforcing every time immediately following the behavior.

If your dog is having trouble with reactivity or fear, you may find that your dog is not taking treats. This is quite common. When a dog is over threshold they are often unable to take treats. It's not that your dog is not treat motivated. Eating is just not a priority when an animal is in fight or flight. The above concepts still apply but you may need help learning how to implement them at the right time and how to better support your dog through stressful situations. We'd be happy to help if this is the case.


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