Positive reinforcement is a training technique where something is introduced to the environment (food) to get a behavior (sit) to happen more frequently. It is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning and is known for being both an effective and humane method of behavior modification.
One benefit of positive reinforcement training is that we don’t need to wait for a dog to misbehave. Instead, we teach the dog what we want them to do, and reward that behavior. For example, if a dog is jumping up on guests, we can practice sitting before guests arrive, then when they do, ask for the sit we've been practicing. This repetition allows us to build a rock solid behavior in a number of distracting environments, and unlike methods that cause pain or frustration for the dog, we can train and reward the behavior as frequently as we want without creating a negative emotional or physical association.
A second benefit to positive reinforcement is that by frequently giving our dogs high value rewards, they begin to associate us with those rewards, and will prefer being near us. For most of us this is nice in and of itself, but it also makes it easier to get some valuable behaviors, most significantly a recall.
Finally, in using positive reinforcement training, we are giving a dog a choice, and when they make a choice that is aligned with what we would like them to do, they are rewarded. By offering this choice we provide them with a limited control over their environment. This ability to choose can increase confidence, reduce stress and build trust between us and our dogs.
Two variables that can significantly alter the effectiveness of positive reinforcement are the rate of reinforcement and the value of the reward. The higher the rate of reinforcement and the value of the reward the more likely the dog will be to perform the behavior and continue to be focused. Anything the dog finds reinforcing can be a reward, including but not limited to food, toys and access to the outdoors.
Food is the most common reward for dogs since it is easily available, almost universally reinforcing and easy to control access to. Treats should be soft and easy to ingest and as small as you can effectively handle them. This allows for the dogs to work quickly without chewing, and using small treats we can reinforce more with the same amount of food.
It is important to remember that during intensive training periods we may be giving our dogs a lot of treats, so their regular food can be reduced by an appropriate amount so they don’t gain extra weight.