Reinforce Your Dog’s Good Behavior

A funny thing happens when you start to mark good behavior: More and more of it happens every day.

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The best training tip out there is so simple it likely slips your mind: Catch your dog doing something right.

We all notice when our dogs take our peanut butter toast from the table, pull crazily on the leash, fly onto the freshly made (and forbidden) guest bed, or jump up on us as we’re trying to carry in the groceries.

But what about the rest of the time? Do we notice when this very same pup is lying calmly by the breakfast table? Or walking sweetly in an unasked-for “heel” by our left knee? Or standing out of the way while we make up that guest bed and bring in the groceries?

Nope. We just ignore those moments.

That’s an enormous mistake – and here’s my guess as to why so many people fail to notice, mark, and reinforce the good stuff throughout the day with, at the very least, some verbal praise such as, “Nice job, Max!” It’s this: Compared to all the “official” training you learn in Good Dog 101 – behaviors such as sit, down, come, stay, go to your bed, etc. – the moments when your dog is just being quietly good seem like . . .  nothing. 

Hear this: It is not nothing to your dog! The moments when he receives a reinforcer for exhibiting a behavior that you like are the breadcrumbs leading him home. He needs these clues to make sense of the random human rules regarding canine behavior.

Sure, that angry reaction you had to the toast-tasting incident instilled some kind of learning. But true clarity results from discovering what it is that you actually would like to see from him via a sweet pat, a kind word, and/or a tiny treat. If this enjoyable attention comes to him just as he lays down near the table, he learns,“Ah! Everything’s always nice when I do this thing! I’ll do this thing more.” 

BEHAVIOR SCIENCE EXPERIMENT

Just try this: Today, focus on seeing and reinforcing all the “good” things you see your dog do – all the behaviors you appreciate from your dog.

  • She’s making eye contact? Aw, good girl. Talk to her.

  • You’re on Zoom and she’s just lying still at your feet? Make a point to stroke her in her favorite spot. 

  • A delivery person rang your doorbell and your pup listened when you asked for a sit before opening the front door? That warrants a tossed treat or toy.

It’s obvious to you how you want your dog to act. It is not even a little bit obvious to your dog, in whose natural canine culture it is perfectly appropriate to jump up, grab any available food, mouth everybody, and tear stuff up. Reinforcing the behavior you’d prefer to see your dog display gives him a bright trail to follow. 

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