Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Every Dog

April 19, 2016 0 Comments

Using Positive Reinforcement to Train Every Dog

This is a guest post from Barbara Rivers, a great friend of Treats Happen and the blogger behind K9sOverCoffee which h was born in August of 2014, featuring Missy and Buzz, Barbara’s two Boxer mixes. After Missy’s cancer diagnosis, treatments, and recovery throughout late 2014/early 2015, the blog’s focus has been on dog health using a combination of daily physical & mental exercise, a healthy, ideally raw, diet, and natural alternatives to chemical based skincare and pest prevention products.

How to train any dog blog post header

How to train every dog.

Have you heard someone justify their untrained dog with not having enough time or the breed being too difficult to train? In my humble opinion, those are lame excuses. Every dog is trainable - regardless of age, breed, and background.

Dont be discouraged by dog training myths, such as that old dogs cant learn new tricks, or that some breeds cant be taught tricks or basic obedience because of their genetic makeup (really?!).

Absolutely every breed is trainable. Even small lap dogs. Who are blind. Some breeds may be easier to train than others (think of a Border Collie vs a Bull Dog), but every dog can be taught certain behaviors as long as their handler is being consistent in their training approach, patient, and kind.

Blind Shih Tzu Normy sitting pretty for a treatShih Tzu Normie is one of my senior daily dog walking clients who lives with his big brother Tab, a German Short Haired Pointer. Normies owners do a wonderful job of practicing his tricks, and not pitying/over-protecting their little pup due to his blindness. His routine is kept as usual, to include playtime and rewarding him with treats for his adorable sit pretty. Doing so keeps Normie's confidence levels up.

By the way, did you know that the Sit Prettyposition increases a dogs balance, spinal support, and is an excellent core strength booster? Small breeds will generally learn this trick faster than their larger counterparts, but all breeds can learn it.

Here are my personal top three dog training tips that helped me turn my own two dogs Missy & Buzz into polite, well-behaved pups:

1.Never repeat a command.

I have internalized this brilliant advice I came across while reading Patricia McConnells dog training book The Other End Of The Leashand recommend you do the same.

Its fairly self-explanatory, really - you want your dog to obey reliably the first time you say something such as sit. Sit means sit, not sit, sit SIT SIT SIT means sit.

How do you go about it? I suggest you pick up Patricia McConnells book to read what she has to say about this topic ;-)

2. Never give a command if you’re not ready to enforce it.


This rule relies heavily on the one above. I learned it from our trainer Rhonda when we attended her basic obedience class in Leesburg, VA.

She used the example of coming home after a long day of work, getting comfy on your favorite reclining chair or couch, giving a command your dog is not listening to, and repeating it over and over again with little to no success because you dont want to get up to enforce it.

Heres the thing - theres nothing wrong with getting comfy after a long day at work. Heck, I look forward to some comfy down time after a long day of dog walking. However, when Im in a comfortable position I know I dont want to get up from within the next 30-60 mins, I will not give my pups a command. They are fairly well trained, but they certainly arent perfect, so I wont chance it.

While attending our basic obedience class, we caught ourselves several times giving a command from the couch late at night which wasnt obeyed right away. Wed look at one another, rolling our eyes because we knew wed done it again, although Rhonda specifically warned us not to!!

Whoever said the command had to get up at that point and ensure it was followed without repeating it. We learned that lesson fairly quickly ;-)

3. Be disciplined, consistent, and patient


Do yourself a favor and stick to your dog training routine. A little discipline will go a long way - as with everything in life, really. Its so rewarding to reap the fruits of your dog training labor and be able to enjoy a well-trained pup.

Raw fed dogs waiting for their dinnerThe beauty of dog training is that you dont have to train for hours on end. Several short training sessions throughout the day will do just fine, just just five to fifteen minutes each. Thats all you need to shape a new behavior or practice an old one, and everyone can spare a few minutes - even if its just during a commercial break while youre catching up on your favorite TV show.

Pick whatever times work best for your schedule - I like to practice basic obedience commands during mealtimes and will put the pups in a down-stay while fixing their breakfast and dinner. They stay put until I release them to go eat. Knowing that their food will be the reward for obeying my command(s) (first the down, then the stay) is a huge motivator for the pups theyre more than glad to work for!

I started shaping this behavior very early on (Missy and Buzz came into my life when they were just eight weeks old) and would use a behavior they already performed in my favor by rewarding and associating a command with it.

Let me explain - our morning routine always began with a walk which has increased in time as the pups have aged. Once we were back inside from our walk, the pups would play for a few minutes, and then plop down on the floor since they just expanded quite a bit of energy. The moment they lied down, I would say down, thus creating the link between their movement and the command.

It will take several repetitions before dogs associate your words with their actions (anywhere from a few days to a few weeks) making consistency key! Some dogs will learn faster than others, so dont be discouraged too soon- your dog will understand your command eventually. I enjoyed rewarding myself for a job well done once the pups learned something new - it was (and remains) a fun motivator for myself!

Benefits of obedience and trick training:

  • Provides mental stimulation and therefore helps keep our dogs balanced on both a physical as well as a psychological level. The right balance between physical and mental exercise is important for their overall health.
  • A trained dog will allow you to welcome guests into your home without your dog(s) knocking them over or hanging on to their ankles. My dad is not a dog person (he has always preferred cats), so when he learned that two dogs would be moving in with me, he was less than thrilled. BUT positively surprised once he saw how well behaved both Missy and Buzz turned out to be!
  • Whether or not a dog is trained could save his life. A solid leave itcan keep him from ingesting those toxic Easter chocolates left sitting out on the coffee table, and a sit-staywill keep him from running into traffic.
  • Training your dog to follow certain commands will make for a very strong bond between you and him as youre working together as a team!

Training motivators

Knowing what motivates your dog is an important part of the dog training equation. Some dogs are very food motivated, while others will do anything for their favorite toy or a nice belly rub. Try different approaches and observe how your dog reacts to them. Youll figure out what motivates him fairly quickly.

Dog with Treats Happen Bully Stick PizzleMy girl Missy for example is a total slave to her stomach. She will do anything for a treat or food in general. Her brother Buzz is somewhat motivated by treats and food, but hes much more of a gourmet than Missy. He will ignore mediocre treats any day of the week - if you want to get his attention, you better pull out the good, single-ingredient stuff!

Buzzs number one motivator is his all-time favorite chuck-it ball. He loves it and is in heaven when I pull it out and start a session of fetch after having practiced a trick for a few minutes. Ive also started taking his ball along when were going places, such as on walks or to the vets.

Buzz waiting for his chuck it ballHe tends to be a little dog reactive, but as soon as I pull out the ball, he focuses on it and loses all interest in any dog that might be walking past or be present in the waiting area at the vets. Pretty amazing!


As mentioned above, high value treats can be a wonderful means of helping you train your pup ~ just be sure to eventually wean your pup off the treats to ensure he'll perform the command without expecting food at all times in return. Verbal praise, some lovings, or a favorite toy can go a long way, too!

A good way to start your pup(s) on the right training paw is by signing up for a basic obedience class. Trick training classes require a basic obedience foundation and can be added later on.

I also found it helpful to pick up a few actionable dog training books besides the one I mentioned earlier from Patricia McConnell. My 3 favorite ones are Dog Tricks for DUMMIESby Sarah Hodgson, Training Your Boxerby Joan Hustace Walker, and 101 Fun Things To Do With Your Dogby Alison Smith, but there are a plethora of training books out there!

Most importantly, have fun while training! If one training approach does not seem to be working, try another one. Your pup may just need to be trained from a different angle.