The term "positive reinforcement" is thrown around a whole bunch on the SideKick Dog Training website (there's even a little corner of the website that defines positive reinforcement).
But, what is positive reinforcement really all about?
To begin any discussion of positive reinforcement, it's important to first define the two words in the phrase as they relate to dog training:
Positive means that something - usually something pleasant - is being added.
Reinforcement means that a specific behavior increases.
Put together, something pleasant is given to someone for a specific behavior to increase the likelihood that the behavior will happen again.
When you show up to work, you get a paycheck every other Friday; so you keep going to work.
If someone gave me a $20 bill every time I touched my nose, I'd bruise my nose touching it so often.
When you're teaching your SideKick to sit, they get a tasty treat every time their toosh touches the floor; so, your dog is going to offer a sit more and more.
What should be used for reinforcement?
Reinforcement comes in many forms because it can be anything your SideKick likes! A pretty good portion of the time, we use food as the main reward or reinforcement - and for good reasons:
All dogs need food;
Most dogs like a big variety of foods;
Food is easy to carry;
And it's easy to deliver quickly.
But, if your SideKick is a picky eater, has food allergies, or the training scenario isn't a good fit for food rewards, there are certainly other things that can be used as reinforcement:
Playtime! Playing tug, fetch, a short wrestling session, etc.
Praise and petting
Ear/Belly/Chest scratches (whatever your dog likes)
An important thing to note is that your SideKick always chooses the reinforcement. When I'm out for a walk with my SideKick, Ruby, she's almost never interested in food; her reward for keeping a loose leash or for practicing other behaviors is being released to go sniff and explore. If your dog doesn't like hot dogs, even the top-notch all-beef dogs won't be very rewarding.
More rewarding reinforcement = more motivation to participate in training
What kind of food reinforcement should be used?
Ok, so you've decided that you'd like to use food to motivate your dog, but...what do you give them? The good news is that you have many options! The bad news is that you have many options!
Dry or wet dog food
A wide variety of store-bought treats
"Human" food (cheese, hot dogs, boiled chicken, carrots, etc.)
Homemade treats (a wealth of recipes are available on the internet)
Experimentation is key! Find a few different things your dog likes and keep a variety of those around for training sessions at home or when you're out-and-about. I always say, "Pick something - several somethings - you think your dog would do back flips over!" As I touched on earlier, if your SideKick loves what you're offering, they'll be way more motivated to work with you to earn the food rewards.
Also, bear in mind that your surroundings play a big part in what your SideKick likes (remember how I said your SideKick chooses the reinforcement?). For instance, your SideKick's regular kibble may work at home just fine at home in the middle of your boring, everyday, low-distraction living room; but you may have to bust out the "good stuff" for working in a training class or at the park where it's very distracting for your SideKick and you are definitely not the most interesting thing around. You and your food rewards need to be good enough and way better than everything else around you if you're going to get and keep your SideKick's attention!
"But, my dog isn't food-motivated..."
This is a fairly common phrase and, if you find yourself saying it or if you suspect your dog is not "food-motivated," consider the following questions:
Could there be any medical issues? All dogs need to eat and if your dog isn't interested in food, it could be a sign of an underlying medical issue.
Are your food treats enticing enough to make it worth your SideKick's time? Think of when you're on a diet; would you be motivated to go to the gym if your reward was a stalk broccoli? Or would you hold out for your favorite candy bar? Sweeten the deal for your SideKick and they'll be more likely to participate in training with you.
Is your SideKick hungry? If Rover has a belly full of dinner, he probably won't be willing to work for the food you have - even if it is the good stuff.
Is your SideKick stressed out? If they're uncomfortable, anxious, or experiencing stress because of some element of their environment, they may not be interested in food right now.
Disclaimers: Be sure to research foods that are dangerous to your dog; some human food is not good for dogs or contains ingredients that are poisonous to dogs. Additionally, I encourage you to read the nutrition labels on the food and treats you give your dog to be sure that you're comfortable giving those ingredients to your dog or to ensure there are not ingredients your dog is allergic to.