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Dog training can feel overwhelming. It’s an integral part of dog ownership — in fact, we train our dogs all the time without even realizing it — but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. The training process are made only more complicated by all the conflicting information out there in the age of the internet, not to mention the huge range of training goals you might have.
Maybe you just adopted a new puppy and simply want them to grow into a polite, happy companion. Maybe your adult dog is struggling with an unwanted behavior, like leash reactivity, separation anxiety, or even fear aggression. Maybe you’re just interested in understanding more about how your dog learns and developing some training skills.
Whatever the case, we’ve got your back. Here’s the high level of everything you need to know to be on your way to a well-trained dog! While we always recommend working with an in-person professional trainer for any severe issues, this guide should get you on the right track to understand key learning theories and make some quick progress, especially when it comes to common issues like potty training and crate training (more on those and other popular training programs at the very end).
Let’s dive in!
What are the learning theories in dog training?
Dogs primarily learn through association. They don’t think about the world the same way we humans do. Researchers don’t believe they have episodic memories or are able to recall exact past events like we can. They also have poorer short term memories that might prevent them from clearly remembering even what happened just a few minutes ago.
Instead, our canine companions develop new behaviors and form habits through the principles of both operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Almost all dog training is based on these two common learning theories!
Operant conditioning is a learning theory developed by B.F. Skinner. It’s sometimes called “trial and error” or “consequence” learning. At its simplest, operant conditioning is what happens when our dogs learn to associate their behavior with certain consequences.
If a behavior leads to good things? Dogs will perform it more frequently. If a behavior leads to something unpleasant (aversive)? Dogs will perform it less often (and perhaps develop fearful emotions — more on that in the classical conditioning section below).
There are four quadrants of operant conditioning, divided up on two dimensions:
- Whether the consequence is the addition of something (like giving a treat or toy) or the removal of something (like taking away your attention)
- Whether the behavior increases or decreases
If you add something, that’s called “positive”. If you remove something, that’s called “negative”. We know this can be confusing! Try not to think of it in terms of “positive being good” and “negative being bad”. Instead think of it like math class — positive means addition, and negative means subtraction.
If the behavior increases, that’s called reinforcement. If the behavior decreases, that’s called punishment. Again, try not to think in terms of good and bad. Reinforcement and punishment, in an operant conditioning sense, simply describe whether the behavior has gotten more or less frequent.
The positive reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning is where you add something to increase a behavior.
This is where you should focus most of your training! Force free or reward-based dog training tries to use as much positive reinforcement as possible to show our dogs what we want them to do. This way we can increase behavior we like without ever creating unpleasant emotions. It’s a highly motivating, low conflict way to train. Reward-based training uses lots of food lures and favorite toys to motivate dogs.
The negative punishment quadrant of operant conditioning is where you remove something to decrease a behavior.
Most good trainers try to avoid the use of punishment. After all, it’s better to teach our dogs what to do instead of what not to do! That said, negative punishment can be unavoidable in our lives with dogs — and it can also be an effective part of training, when paired with positive reinforcement for the behavior we do like. Here’s an example:
- If your dog jumps on you to be pet, you might turn away to remove (negative) your attention in hopes that they jump on you less frequently (punishment).
- Then you might ask your dog to sit instead of jumping, at which point you give (positive) them affection in hopes that they sit more often to greet you (reinforcement).
The negative reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning is where you remove something to increase a behavior.
This might seem confusing — but you’re probably pretty familiar with negative reinforcement in your own life, even if you’ve never heard the scientific terms before. If you buckle your seatbelt so that your car stops beeping at you? That’s negative reinforcement. The removal (negative) of the annoying seatbelt alarm sound increases (reinforcement) the behavior of you buckling up.
Generally, good dog trainers avoid negative reinforcement in their training because it requires an aversive stimulus (like leash pressure) to be present at the start of a behavior. We want to minimize our dogs’ unpleasant emotions as much as possible.
The positive punishment quadrant of operant conditioning is where you add something to decrease a behavior.
This is punishment in the most familiar sense that we think of. (Though try to remember to keep your personal associations out of it at this point — again, we’re simply focusing on a decrease in behavior when we talk in an operant conditioning sense — and we’ll talk more about emotions in classical conditioning below). In positive punishment, you add something that your dog finds aversive in that moment to decrease the behavior they performed right before the consequence.
It’s important to remember that if we aren’t thoughtful, even things we want to be reinforcing can inadvertently be punishing! A great example of this is a dog who doesn’t enjoy being patted directly on top of the head. An owner might think they’re rewarding their pet for coming when called when they pet them between the ears — but the dog might actually dislike the sensation and decrease their behavior moving forward.
Generally, the use of aversives in dog training, and especially aversive-based training where punishment or corrections are used regularly, has fall out. This is because the dog often starts to associate the unpleasant consequences with their owner, trainer, or the environment itself. This process is called classical conditioning.
Pretty much everyone has heard of Pavlov’s dogs. The scientist taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell that always predicted food — although technically, “taught” isn’t quite the right word.
While operant conditioning deals with behavior (things your dog is aware of and actively chooses to do) classical conditioning deals with reflexes and emotions (things your dog can’t control). Pavlov’s dogs didn’t drool on purpose. They had just come to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food — their bodies essentially began to treat the unrelated stimulus (the bell) as a biologically relevant one (food) and have the same response to it.
Classical conditioning happens all the time with our dogs. We can never just “turn it off”! This means it’s important to be aware of what emotions we’re creating in our pets as we train them.
One common classical conditioning example is dogs getting excited when they hear the doorbell ring. They’ve come to associate the noise of the bell with the arrival of guests who give them affection, which increases their arousal in anticipation. They aren’t thinking about their behavior at this moment — they know the doorbell predicts visitors regardless of what they do.
Remember your dog doesn’t experience the world like a human
Beyond learning theory basics, here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about how to train your dog.
- Your dog likely pays more attention to your body language than the sounds you make. If you accidentally move your hand a certain way while giving a verbal cue, they might become confused. This is especially important if you notice them struggling to differentiate behaviors as you train!
- Your dog also pays more attention to the tone of your voice and any intense moments of inflection (think about the “t” sound at the end of “sit”) than the entire word you say. Remember this when deciding what cues to use for different behaviors. If you pick too many that sound similar, your dog might struggle simply because they’re confused. It’s our job to be clear with them!
- Canines have highly developed senses of smell. It can be difficult for them to resist the urge to sniff, especially in environments that have seen lots of other dogs or people (like public parks).
- It’s easier to train your dog to perform behaviors that are already natural to them (like picking up things in their mouth, sitting, moving their bodies in normal ways, and so on) than to teach skills that go against their typical tendencies (like walking on their hind legs or balancing things on their sensitive facial tissues). Keep this in mind as you decide what to prioritize, and always make sure you reward your dog generously!
What are dog training rewards and reward markers?
When we ask our dogs to work for us, it’s only fair we pay them. This is especially true if we want them to perform behaviors that are unnatural or go against their instincts — like staying still while lots of exciting things happen around them, resisting the urge to chase prey, or letting us trade them for a high value resource.
Common training rewards
Rewards are things 1) our dogs love that 2) are easy for us to give them during a training session.
Common reinforcers include:
- Store-bought dog treats
- Small pieces of human food (like meat or cheese)
- Your dog’s kibble (if they’re particularly food motivated, have a sensitive stomach, or you need to be calorie conscious)
- A favorite toy
Important note: Not every reward is always reinforcing
Remember when we talked about the operant conditioning quadrants? Our dogs are the ones who decide what is and isn’t reinforcing to them. Just because we offer them something we think they should like doesn’t mean it will actually increase the desired behavior moving forward!
How to choose the right rewards for your dog
If possible, let your dog decide what they like best. Consider setting out multiple rewards, seeing which one they go to first, and choosing that to teach new behaviors! (You can also vary between a few favorites to keep them interested.)
The more excited your dog is for their reinforcer, the more motivated they’ll be during your training session. And the faster they’ll learn!
Reward markers can help your dog understand what you want them to do
If you’ve heard of “clicker training” (first popularized by marine mammal trainers) then you’ve been exposed to the idea of a reward marker.
In technical terms, a marker is a conditioned stimulus that predicts a primary reinforcer. Put more simply? A reward marker is a sound or signal that “marks” exactly what your dog did to earn their reinforcement. This makes it possible for us to communicate clearly during training sessions — even if we’re unable to deliver a treat precisely when our dogs offer the right behavior. Reward markers are great for everything from basic obedience training to complex tricks.
Common reward markers include:
- A thumbs up (particularly useful for deaf dogs)
- Other easy-to-make noises
No marker is inherently better than the others. What matters is that you pick one that works for you and stick to it! Consistency is key.
How to charge your reward marker
To make sure your dog understands that your marker sound or signal predicts a reward, spend a few sessions conditioning them to the stimulus. (If you already use reward markers in your training, skip on to the next section.)
You can charge your dog’s reward marker by:
- First making your noise or visual signal
- Pausing for a second
- Then giving your dog their reward — this turns your chosen marker into a predictor of good things to come
- Repeating multiple times!
Eventually your dog will start to respond to the noise itself — they might run towards you before you even reach for their treat or toy. This indicates that they’re forming the right association.
How to use your dog’s reward marker in a training session
Once your dog is conditioned to your chosen reward marker, you can start using it in training sessions to teach new skills.
It’s important to mark the right behavior the instant your dog performs it. Accurate timing makes for more effective teaching! And remember to always follow your marker with a reward — you have about three seconds 1.5 seconds to deliver reinforcement, give or take, to keep up your dog’s conditioned association.
You can mark complex behaviors during trick training sessions or just simple things throughout the day, like your dog offering you eye contact on a walk.
General pet dog training principles
Be patient and keep things fun!
Before working with your dog, make sure you’re in a good headspace. It’s not always easy to communicate with another species. Even simple behaviors like sitting, giving us eye contact, or lying down on cue can confuse our pets at first!
Be prepared to take things slowly and keep your training sessions upbeat. Offer lots of praise and affection when your dog makes an effort — and keep things simple to get more buy-in from your dog, especially if they are an adolescent.
Minimize distractions when you start a new behavior or skill
Remember that our dogs have very sensitive noses and ears. The busy park is not the place to start teaching a brand-new behavior. Your quiet living room, on the other hand? Perfect. Keep distractions at a minimum until your dog shows you they understand what you’re asking. At that point you can slowly increase the difficulty and work up to more challenging environments.
Know that dogs can struggle to generalize behaviors
Dogs often struggle to generalize behaviors. This means they might be able to follow basic cues in a familiar environment but still struggle to perform out and about. Don’t worry: This is completely normal, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your training! It just means your dog needs more practice to understand that “down” always means to lie down or that “come” always means to return to you regardless of where they are.
This is important to note because it’s easy to feel frustrated when we feel like our dogs should know something but aren’t acting on it. In most cases, it’s not that our pets are purposely disobeying — they just haven’t fully generalized our cues yet!
That leads us well into our next principle of pet dog training…
Remember your dog doesn’t do things to “spite” you
Old-school dog trainers used to think that our canine companions were constantly trying to be in charge of our homes and “dominate” their surroundings. As research has evolved, we’ve learned that’s not true — in fact, the vast majority of “bad” behavior in our pets comes from simple confusion or fear.
Your dog doesn’t experience the world like you do. They don’t have an automatic understanding of human society and social norms. They’re doing their best to function in a modern environment that can be confusing and at odds with their deeply ingrained natural instincts. In short: Try to show your dog empathy! This is especially important if they’re struggling with a specific behavioral problem.
Short, frequent sessions will keep you and your dog from burning out
Dog training can be a lot of work — for both your companion and for you! It’s a good idea to keep any specific, skill-focused sessions short to avoid pushing either of you to the point of exhaustion. Consider planning for just five to ten minutes of active training a day. Some common times to fit this into your dog owner schedule are:
- During one of your dog’s mealtimes
- Before, after, or even during your dog’s evening walk
- On your lunch break if you’re able to work remotely or visit home midday
Try to always end on a good repetition (if your dog is struggling with a new behavior, take a step back and ask them to perform something they know really well) so that you both leave each session on a happy note. This will keep you motivated to dive in next time!
Common dog training goals, problems, and techniques
Let’s take a look at some common dog training goals. Read on to learn about potty training, crate training, basic cues, and more.
Every puppy needs to be house trained growing up — and some adult dogs still struggle to only use the bathroom outdoors. We know how difficult it is to enter a room only to be greeted by a big, smelly accident. This is one of the most common and most frustrating parts of dog ownership. Struggles in the house training department can take a toll on our own stress levels, routines, and homes — but we promise the process is worth it in the end.
You can read more in our potty-training focused articles:
- What is and How to Handle Potty Training Regression
- How to House Train an Adult Dog
- How to Train a Dog to Pee on Pad
- Bell Training for Dogs
Crate training is a vital skill for dogs to have. There are many situations where your dog might need to be comfortable in a confined space for a little while, ranging from vet visits to traveling in the car to staying at hotels out of town to attending sports trials and more. When trained through positive reinforcement, the crate can become a safe space for your dog — it can even make training other skills (or working on a behavioral modification plan) easier!
You can learn more in our crate training article below. A greater range of information is always available on the dog training section of our blog, too.
Teaching your dog some basic skills can open up your world. If your pet is able to sit, lie down, and come when called, you’ll be able to take them more places with you! They can enjoy the freedom to frolic off lead and join you while meeting a range of new family and friends. Plus even this simple training can do wonders for building a lasting, positive relationship between you and your companion.
Take a look at some of our articles on teaching basic cues below.
- How to Train a Dog to Lie Down: Teaching Your Dog a Basic Cue
- Reliable Recall Training: Teaching Your Dog to Come
- Complete Guide To Dog Training Hand Signals
Working through behavioral problems
Many dogs struggle with some sort of behavioral problem throughout their lives. This is especially true in our modern human world — in fact, the prevalence of things like dog reactivity is one of the reasons Sniffspot was founded in the first place. We’ve put together a huge collection of articles on everything from leash reactivity to fear regression and more.
Professional dog trainers are here to guide you
When in doubt? Professional trainers have your back! Helping you and your furry companion live your best life together is exactly what experienced force free trainers are here for. If you and your dog are struggling with anything — as simple as polishing up one of their basic cues or as complicated as devising a plan to treat severe reactivity — reach out to a professional who can guide you one on one.
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner and Lead Trainer Unleashed Joy Dog Training - Mt. Airy, MD.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)