3 ways positive reinforcement can change your pet's behaviour

Positive vs negative

Until the 1980s, most pet experts believed that the best way to train your dog was by showing him that you were 'boss' right from the start, and then maintaining that power balance throughout your pet's life. This training method is known as theory of dominance, and uses punishment and negative experiences (such as inflicting pain or withdrawing privileges) to discourage any unwanted behaviour.

However, most behaviourists and trainers now know that this concept is flawed: dominance theory was based on faulty research that came from observing wolves in captivity. 'This led to the belief that an alpha male in a pack leads through aggression,' explains Inga. 'However, the wolves observed in captivity were often unrelated and forced to live together in small, man-made enclosures. We now understand that wolves act in a very different way when living in natural family packs in the wild. But, most importantly, we know that although dogs evolved from wolves, domestic dogs behave in a different manner. They don't form the same sort of family packs as wolves do, and they've adapted to live in cooperation with strangers – be it humans or other dogs.'

Positively better

'Positive reinforcement is a fun and kind way to train dogs,' explains Inga. 'It recognises that they are social animals and enjoy interaction, and so it works on the principle of rewarding correct behaviour. For example, if a dog is given a reward for sitting he will be more likely to sit again.'

On the other hand, a dog who has been punished is very likely to grow up to be fearful and could even lash out. 'Because dominance-based training involves confrontation, it can be very stressful for dogs,' says Inga. 'Shouting at and punishing a dog will confuse him, which will most likely make him anxious and cause him to resort to defensive behaviour such as aggression. Instead, I believe in developing a relationship with your dog where he's obedient because he's happy to do what you ask, rather than because he's fearful of punishment.'

Training this way is also a much more enjoyable experience for you and your dog. 'It's important for your bond with your pet to have a relationship based on kindness,' Inga says. 'And, as an added bonus, positive reinforcement works really well. Most dogs are very happy to work for rewards such as treats, toys or praise from their owners.'

Using positive reinforcement in 3 everyday situations

1. To prevent jumping up

You might not have minded your dog jumping up at you excitedly when he was a puppy, but as a fully-grown dog it can be harder to deal with. Here are Inga's tips for changing this behaviour:

2. To teach recall

Recall training is essential for your dog's safety. Inga explains how positive reinforcement can help you ensure he comes the first time he is called.

3. Training to sit

In the past, some trainers recommended forcing a dog to sit by pushing his bottom down to the ground – a more confrontational method, which caused confusion and anxiety for many pets. Using positive reinforcement is not only kinder, but will also make this basic command simple to teach. Inga explains how:

Treats and your pet's calorie intake

While edible treats are a sure way to motivate your dog during training, keep in mind that the calories can add up. To ensure this doesn't lead to weight gain, you can feed tiny lower-calorie options (such as a scrap of chicken the size of your little finger nail), rather than shop-bought treats.

Alternatively, decrease the portion size of your dog's regular meals on days he's had plenty of treats.