Training your Dog with Positive Reinforcement

One of the most important things you can understand in the training of your dog is the concept of positive reinforcement. My name is Dr. Marika Zoll and I am by education a clinical psychologist. I am also a breeder of French Bulldogs and an animal trainer. There are many facets of training children or people in general that are very similar to the way that animals are trained. We call it behavioral psychology. It is about how our behaviors are connected to what our brains are taught.

Let’s go back to basics for a moment because I’m sure that somewhere in your early education you learned about the premise of putting your finger in the flame and how once you’ve done that and hurt yourself you will pretty much never do it intentionally again and often times even getting near the flame will stimulate a reflex whereby someone pulls their hand away so quickly that there is no chance of injury. Take a moment to remember anything that is for you either pleasant or unpleasant. If it made you feel good you usually want to do it again and if it left you feeling fear or any sort of negative feelings you pretty much want to stay away from it. Correct?

So let’s use a human child first for our example. You have a baby that is crying in its crib and the mother or the father go into the room and comfort the child by picking it up, taking him in their arms and eventually rocking it to sleep. The next night comes and the child’s put to bed and the baby cries again and again the parents actually remember how when they picked up the baby that they rocked to sleep the night before and the child went to sleep and then they had relief of the crying child. However the child has just learned for the second time that when it cries it will be picked up. This is a simple example of what we call positive reinforcement which means that something is gained by the behavior. The child cries and then it learns that it will be picked up. This positive reinforcement of the behavior teaches the child very quickly that if he cries he gets the results he wants. Funny enough the parents are also being reinforced because they are learning that when they pick up the child it stops crying.

This can become a vicious cycle because even though most parents probably deep down do understand that they really want their kid to go to sleep without the necessity for crying and cradling and rocking it to sleep, in the immediacy of the situation, relief is wanted and the parents continue to pick up the crying child night after night, week after week, month after month, and sometimes for years.

These parents eventually come seeking help from somebody like me asking what they can do, not realizing that they have themselves encouraged the entire problem. So the remedy is to un-teach this expected result from the bad behavior by NOT picking the child up. Initially for most parents this will be the four most difficult days of their lives with their new baby because they believe in their hearts that they are hurting the child somehow when it screams bloody murder. Seriously though, it takes on average four days or often less to simply re-teach the child that it can, in fact, on its own, stop crying, lay down and get comfortable and fall asleep. In fact once it has this example the child, for the first time, realizes its own abilities to take care of itself. This is the beginning of a very positive life lesson.

So how does this relate to your dog? Are you familiar with the scenario where the dogs are barking and then somebody yells at the dogs to be quiet or even walks into the room and scolds the animals to shut them up? The dog stops for a few moments, looks at you, and as soon as you leave the room the dog starts barking again. Well guess what? You just taught the dog when he barks you will come to the room and give him attention much like the parents going to the baby crying in the crib. Ultimately a stern voice in the distance but not showing your face to the dog is a better solution.

Have you ever seen the bad behavior of a small dog that is being carried around by its owner? The dog growls and snarls at people who come close to pet it in the owners arms. Or a dog snarls when someone tries to come up on the couch where it’s owner is sitting. The solution is to remove the dog from the owner rather than what most often times happens is the owner picks up the dog, scolds it while holding it but then continues to hold the dog and keep it nearby. The fault of the dog’s bad behavior is not really the dog, it’s the owner who has taught the dog that when he behaves badly he gets attention for it.

All of these examples are positive reinforcement. The animal is getting something good for his bad behavior.

So from now on when you notice the bad behavior in your dog or puppy be mindful of the fact that the very thing that you’re doing could be perceived as positive reinforcement for the bad behavior. Instead consider ignoring the animal, turning your back and walking away. Overtime the animal will learn that it gets nothing from you by behaving in that way or in fact loses the privilege of being near you, probably the most devastating thing for a dog in love with its owner.


Author: Dr. Marika Zoll is a clinical psychologist and breeder of French Bulldogs. Her site is She practices alternative medicine healing along with traditional preventive medicine