What Is Positive Reinforcement Training for Dogs?

Among the many training methods available, positive reinforcement training for dogs (also known as R+, force-free, or reward-based training) is one of the most reputable and effective, experts say.

Positive reinforcement training is based on a humane ethos, one that prioritizes building a strong bond with your dog. Instead of relying on coercive techniques or physical punishment, positive reinforcement teaches dogs through a reward system: When the dog performs a desired skill or exhibits a wanted behavior, they are rewarded. Over time, the dog learns training cues and commands because of the encouragement the reward provides.

Often, the reward is a small-sized treat that won’t add up to a huge calorie load. Sometimes a dog can be motivated by simple praise, a toy, or a game. There are many approaches to the training, as well as rewards that produce results.

Whether you’ve begun training your dog using another method or are interested in learning about positive reinforcement training from the ground up, read on to learn more about how the training works and how to incorporate its central techniques to reward, and reinforce, good behavior in your dog.

How It Works: The Science and Techniques Behind Positive Reinforcement

The origin of positive reinforcement training is often attributed to the research of psychologist B.F. Skinner and his work at Harvard in the 1930s and 1940s in what he called “operant conditioning.” Skinner studied the behavior of pigeons and rats in clinical settings to see how their behaviors were motivated by negative or positive stimuli. He coined the term “operant conditioning” to define the process by which an organism learns to associate a behavior that is influenced by its consequences.

According to Skinner, the word “operant” refers to the behavior that then generates consequences—so in positive reinforcement training, it’s all about inducing the behavior that can then elicit the reward.

It’s easy to see understand why training a dog to work for a treat or praise can be so effective—Skinner found the same principles work for people, too!

An African American woman in her mid 20s trains her puppy, a handsome male golden retriever. They sit on green grass in a city park. Shot in Tacoma, Washington, USA.


The four quadrants of dog training

Positive reinforcement techniques are one part of what is generally seen as a four quadrant model of dog training. The quadrants are as follows:

  • Positive reinforcement: The dog gets praise, treats, or toys when they do the desired behavior. Some trainers also combine this with “clicker training,” making a sound with a clicker training device as soon as the dog engages in the wanted behavior. That’s followed by a treat, toy, or other positive stimulus. Over time, after hearing the “click” when they sit or stay, for example, the dog learns to associate the sound of the click with a treat or other reward.
  • Negative reinforcement: A negative stimulus is taken away in order to get the desired behavior, or once the behavior is achieved. For example, you may shut off an e-collar when the dog does what you want them to do. The dog learns that negative stimulus is removed when they perform the desired cue or command.
  • Positive punishment: Adding a negative stimulus so that the dog does less of the undesired behavior. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, positive punishment “refers to applying something unpleasant to decrease a behavior,” such as a bop on the nose or the jerk of a leash. Merck cautions that this aspect of training comes with a “high chance of failure” and has the possibility of “increasing the chance of fear or aggression,” among other undesirable outcomes.
  • Negative punishment: This “refers to removing something positive to decrease a behavior,” Merck states. This is usually denying a treat, toy, or other reward that you know your dog considers valuable when they don’t behave in the desired way.

Positive reinforcement is generally considered the optimal way to train

For some trainers, positive reinforcement is used in tandem with other training quadrants, such as negative punishment. Yet many trainers are moving away from aversive or traditional punishment-based training altogether.

It’s like seeing the good in people and focusing on that: We’re seeing the good in dogs and we’re rewarding what we like.

In 2021, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) officially endorsed reward-based methods for training of all dogs in a statement. “Based on current scientific evidence, AVSAB recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems,” AVSAB’s 2021 position paper stated. “Aversive training methods have a damaging effect on both animal welfare and the human-animal bond.” (The AKC also indicates that trainers should “focus on positive reinforcement.”)

Camille Ward, board certified Applied Animal Behaviorist at All About Dogs, a behavioral prevention and treatment service for dogs in Michigan, explains why positive reinforcement training is so effective.

“It’s natural. It’s like seeing the good in people and focusing on that: We’re seeing the good in dogs and we’re rewarding what we like,” said Ward, the animal behaviorist. “And basically, what it teaches us to do is be a better observer of animal behavior, because we watch our dog, we catch them doing something right, and we reinforce that.”

Positive reinforcement training techniques

There are three main techniques that are used in various stages of positive reinforcement training. Those techniques are:

  • Shaping, which helps the dog begin to learn that performing the behavior will lead to a reward. This is a way of initially rewarding your dog for every little baby step they make towards the desired behavior. Slowly, you work your way to only rewarding your dog once they have performed the desired response.
  • Luring, which Patricia B. McConnell, an applied animal behaviorist, describes as “showing the animal something it wants, usually food, and using it to encourage the animal to move in the desired way.”
  • Capturing rewards good behaviors your dog is doing as they happen. This is a great way to capitalize on your dog’s attention in the moment, and his motivation for rewards, but it requires a level of patience and vigilance to do it consistently, which is needed for maximum effectiveness.

adult Caucasian woman gives her dog a treat as she trains him. They are in a dog park.

iStock/SDI Productions

The Benefits of Positive Reinforcement: Why Choose R+ Training?

Because positive reinforcement offers dogs a reward for their good behavior, the results can be a more engaged and happy dog. Positive reinforcement training is being recommended by experts including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior for one good reason: R+ training markedly results in less anxious and more confident dogs.

Positive reinforcement is setting up the dog for success, allowing the dog to make choices, and then reinforcing correct choices.

“The whole idea of positive reinforcement is that it should be basically fear free. The dog is not coerced or punished for making a mistake. The dog becomes a willing participant,” said Ward. “It’s setting up the dog for success, allowing the dog to make choices, and then reinforcing correct choices.”

Hungarian Vizsla puppy and its owner during obedience training outdoors. Sit command side view.


“If you really want a dog that’s happy and outgoing, positive reinforcement is the way to go,” Ward said. “If somebody set you up for success in a work environment and gave you things that maybe were a bit challenging but allowed you to shine, and then when you did, they told you you’re doing such a great job, you’re going to feel a lot better than if you’re doing things that are really difficult, and you’re told something negative that makes you feel bad. What approach would you like?”

What to Consider Before Starting Positive Reinforcement Training

You can start positive reinforcement training with a dog of nearly any age. It’s fine to start puppies who have just come home with you, as early as eight weeks, on a training regimen rooted in positive reinforcement, says the American Kennel Club. You don’t have to worry about confusing your dog if you’ve already begun other types of training. Your dog will be naturally drawn to the rewards of R+ training.

And since the main piece of equipment is a simple bag of treats, it’s easy to get started.

Try any or all of the techniques of positive reinforcement training, including shaping, luring, and capturing. But try working on one behavior to start with, such as sitting or going to their bed. Reward your dog anytime they do the desired thing—or in the case of shaping, anytime they get close. Choose treats your dog will stay excited about (here is an idea for puppies, and a recipe you can make at home). The idea is to offer something irresistible and truly enticing.

Happy man training dogs at the park and giving them treats


Tips for Getting Started With Positive Reinforcement

OK, you’ve decided that positive reinforcement training could be for you, and you’re excited to get started. But where to begin? The mantra here should be to start out slow and steady and keep things consistent. Here are the most important things to keep in mind with positive reinforcement training:

  • Keep it fun! Your dog is your partner, and you’ll get the best results by keeping things positive.
  • If your dog is looking anxious, frustrated or bored, stop.
  • Set goals, but monitor your dog to set realistic goals. You may want him to be sitting by the end of the week, but by monitoring his progress, another goal might be more realistic.
  • Keep consistent! Work on your first desired behavior a little bit each day. Over time, the process of rewarding good behaviors will stick.

Troubleshooting: Why Isn’t Your Dog Doing the Thing?

There’s a lot to look forward to with positive reinforcement training, but every dog is unique and some will naturally pick it up sooner than others. Often, the issues just require more time spent with the dog. Potential issues include:

  • The dog is getting distracted. Sometimes, the treat is not “high value” enough, advises the Animal Behavior College of Valencia, Calif. Small pieces of a hot dog, or cheese, are often used as “high value” treats.
  • Even with treats, the dog is making an unpleasant association. In this case, you may have to reward more often. This might mean “rewarding your dog for every successful attempt toward the behavior,” the Animal Behavior College says. That could even mean rewarding your dog every two to three seconds. (Super small training-specific treats are great for this.)
  • If your dog has a lot of anxiety or a range of complex emotions, you will likely have to take it extra slow. Reward a dog when she keeps her feet on the floor, for example. That’s the first step toward stopping a jumping behavior.
  • And if you accidentally reinforced an undesirable behavior, start again. Start with incremental rewards that reward the desired behavior once again.


Positive reinforcement dog training is one of the most humane and effective ways to train your dog, period. Plus, it’s a win-win for you and your pet—it’s a natural way to increase your bond while motivating your dog to earn what they crave most—treats, and you!

If things become challenging, remember to take it easy on yourself and your dog, and take a break. Keep in mind that you don’t have to do it all yourself, either. You can always loop in a professional with an accredited, positive reinforcement dog trainer—learn how to find one here.

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