What is positive reinforcement training?

positive reinforcementYou may have heard of ‘positive’ dog training.

Meaning that the trainer likes to use plenty of praise, and even food rewards.

You may have heard of ‘positive only’ dog training meaning that the trainer also avoids the use of any kind of punishment.

But what exactly is ‘positive-reinforcement training” and who is doing it?


Reinforcement in behavioural terms is anything that makes a behaviour more likely to be repeated.

So, if you give a dog a piece of chicken each time he touches your knee with his nose,  he will soon be bumping your knee with his nose, over and over again.

You can also reinforce a behaviour by taking something nasty away from the dog’s environment. 

In the USA for example,  during force fetch training, each time a gundog grasps an offered retrieving dummy with his mouth,  a painful ear pinch is removed.  

He soon grasps the dummy each time it is offered.

Reinforcement is a predictable outcome of any beneficial consequence, part of the elegant system of learning that has ensured the survival of the animals now living on our planet.

Make something good happen, or make something bad stop.  Both are reinforcing.


Behaviourists are scientists and they love mathematical terms.

In behavioural terms,  the word positive is used in the mathematical sense.   Meaning something added.   So in our first example above, the trainer adds some tasty chicken to the dog’s environment.

But as we saw,  reinforcement can be negative too.  Using the mathematical meaning of the word negative,  where something is taken away. In our example,  the pain of the ear pinch is taken away when the dog grasps the dummy.  This of course means that the handler must first apply the pain.  A technique that is not acceptable to many of us, and negative reinforcement is rarely used in dog training in the UK.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcements need not be food rewards.  We can reinforce behaviours by providing any happy consequence to a dog’s behaviour.  Opportunities for exercise or play for example.

The effects of positive reinforcement can be measured and observed in laboratories and in the field.

They have been proven beyond all doubt to be effective with all kinds of animals and in all manner of situations.

More and more dog trainers are turning to positive reinforcement to teach their dogs how to behave.

Positive reinforcement training

Positive reinforcement training uses positive reinforcement but it goes further than that.

It avoids the use of punishment.

Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement.  Punishment diminishes behaviours by providing an unhappy consequence,  and was traditionally used by dog trainers to decrease unwanted behaviours.

There are however, disadvantages to using punishment, and an in today’s modern society an increasing reluctance to use punishment in training our four legged friends.

Who is using positive reinforcement training

Many  professional dog trainers have now made the switch from traditional methods of training to positive reinforcement training.  Watching positive reinforcement trainers in action will help you to be a better trainer for your dog.

There are now some excellent positive reinforcement trainers online making Youtube videos that will help you to train your dog without punishment.

Where is the evidence?

You read the evidence for positive reinforcement training in this article

Video Resources

I recommend you check out Emily Larlham and her  Kikopup Youtube channel

You may also enjoy Tab at Training Positive 

And Zak George

You can find a few of my own videos here: Pippa’s Youtube Channel

Check out this article for more information about the use of reinforcement in dog training


This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on October 1, 2013

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Elaine October 15, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Hello: I have an almost 8 month chocolate lab who lately on walks no longer obeys commands. He pulls ahead (is extremely strong), nose is always on the ground, pees on everything, is very aggressive towards other dogs and people and at this point is difficult to take on a walk. He is a great dog in the house but outside is another story. Is it “raging hormones” at this stage or am I doing something wrong? He went to puppy kindergarten which was helpful but at this point I am totally frustrated. Thank you for your help.


Pippa Mattinson October 16, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Hi Elaine, have a look at this article: My Labrador won’t obey me any more This is about smaller puppies but it is relevant. At 8 month’s your dog is becoming more independent. Which means that training needs to be well proofed or you will lose control. Control issues are common at this age. You can read about proofing here. The aggression is not normal, and needs to be investigated by your vet and possibly a behaviourist (he will be able to recommend one) Treatment will depend on the cause of aggression. Some forms of aggression respond well to neutering, others (fear aggression for example) may be made worse, so you really need to get help with this.
Best wishes, Pippa


Brenda Cox August 17, 2015 at 2:11 pm

Hello Pippa, I enjoy reading your training advice via email newsletters. Sometimes I learn something new and sometimes they confirm that what I’m doing is not wrong. I wonder if you have an opinion of Glen Stanford, who calls himself the UK Dog whisperer and runs dog training psychology and behaviourist courses. He seems to be a devotee of CaesarMillan and his (Groupon) advert appears on your page. Do you know anything about him or his methods, if you think he’s bona fide I may go on one of his weekend courses? Thanks for your interesting articles and advice. B


Pippa Mattinson August 18, 2015 at 8:41 am

Hi Brenda, glad you enjoy the newsletters. I haven’t heard of Glen Stanford, but if he is a devotee of Cesar Milan then his methods probably won’t be in line with the modern science based training that I recommend and advocate. The adverts that appear on this site are controlled by google and not by me. That being said, I think there is a way I can block or ban unsuitable advertisers so thank you for the feedback and I will have a look into it. :)


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