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Understanding and Applying Reinforcement Events in Dog Training

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Reinforcement Events in Dog Training

Dog training is an art built on the foundation of scientific principles. It requires patience, understanding, and the ability to effectively communicate with our canine companions. A crucial aspect of effective dog training is the application of "reinforcement events". In simple terms, a reinforcement event is a specific situation in which we teach our dogs the behaviors we desire and reward them when they display these behaviors. It can also guide our dogs towards more desirable behaviors when they exhibit unwanted, non-dangerous actions. You can view an in-depth explanation of reinforcement events in my recent YouTube video.

Two significant situations warrant a reinforcement event. The first is when we give a command to our dog, and they require additional guidance to execute the command. For instance, if we command our dog to "down," but they fail to comply, we may need to guide them physically with a lure or a leash cue. Once they successfully perform the command, we indicate their success with a "marker". A marker could be a unique sound from a clicker or a specific word that the dog has been conditioned to recognize. After marking the successful behavior, we initiate the reward event, which concludes once the dog has received their reward.

The second situation where a reinforcement event is required arises when the dog exhibits unwanted behavior that is not destructive or dangerous. For instance, if a dog jumps on the couch and this is considered undesirable, the owner can employ a reinforcement event to guide the dog to a more acceptable behavior. As soon as the dog jumps on the couch, the owner would use their marker that predicts negative reinforcement (for example, the word "wrong") and guide the dog off the couch with the leash. This process teaches the dog to associate the word "wrong" with the act of jumping off the couch. Please note; it's okay to have your dog on your couch if it's acceptable to you.

The term "marker" refers to a word or sound that predicts one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. If a word or sound reliably indicates any of these outcomes, it is considered a marker.

The reinforcement event can be applied to various situations. If a dog breaks a 'stay', the owner says "wrong" and returns the dog to the 'stay' position. The same process can be employed for boundaries, such as a room the dog is not allowed to enter. If the dog enters the room, the owner can say "wrong" and guide the dog out.

After enough repetitions, when the dog begins to respond correctly to the marker word, indicating that they understand the preferred behavior, the owner can then transition to positive punishment. For instance, if a dog jumps on the couch, the owner says "wrong," and the dog immediately jumps off, it is a sign that the dog understands the rule. The owner can now use a fair correction to stop the behavior. The next time the dog jumps on the couch, the owner would use their marker that predicts positive punishment (such as the word "no"), followed by a corrective action (like a leash pop or a stim from a remote training collar). This sequence ushers in a "punishment event" or a "correction event", which ends when the dog receives the correction.

Note that if a reinforcement event is initiated after a dog performs an unwanted behavior, a reward such as a treat is not given, even after they display the desired behavior. The reason for this is to avoid the dog associating the unwanted behavior with receiving a reward.

You may be asking, "how do I implement this event?" Here's how, with something I like to call a teachable moment.

Teachable Moments: At this point, it's time to select your marker word or sound. This marker is going to signal negative reinforcement. Remember, negative reinforcement refers to removing pressure when your dog performs the correct action: you apply pressure, and when the dog behaves correctly, you stop. Choose a word that suits your style. Some popular choices include 'wrong', 'oops', 'uh-oh', 'retry', and 'reset'. It's important to consistently use your chosen marker word throughout training. Also, this word should be reserved for this specific training context. The aim is to let your dog know they've made a mistake without sounding harsh or negative.

With your newfound skills in leash pressure training, you can start practicing teachable moments at home. These are opportunities for calm, constructive directions when your dog makes a mistake. Instead of just telling the dog they've made a mistake, you're demonstrating what they should do. For instance, if your dog breaks their 'down stay', calmly say your marker word, walk to your dog, and use leash cue to guide them back into position. The same method can be applied when your dog displays an unwanted behavior like jumping on the couch.

The teachable moment ends when your dog performs the desired behavior, like resuming the 'down stay' or getting off the couch. You can use this approach for most behaviors. It provides a clear, non-punitive method for teaching your dog the rules while they're still learning, which helps maintain your dog's motivation and positivity during training.

Here's the basic procedure: when your dog exhibits a behavior you don't like, calmly say your marker word, pause for half a second (to avoid overshadowing), and then use the leash cue to guide your dog into the behavior you'd prefer.

Keep in mind that your dog might repeat the unwanted behavior. That's okay! Just repeat the process. It may take multiple repetitions for your dog to understand the new rule. Lastly, remember not to reward your dog after a teachable moment. Since these moments are prompted by unwanted behaviors, rewarding your dog could create confusion. Instead, give a simple, non-exuberant praise like 'good dog!' when they perform the desired behavior.

In conclusion, reinforcement events in dog training provide a structure to guide our dogs towards desired behaviors and dissuade them from undesired ones. This process, when implemented correctly and consistently, aids in fostering a clear understanding between us and our canine companions, ultimately promoting harmony in our shared spaces.

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C Lita Pitruzzello
C Lita Pitruzzello
Jul 07, 2023

Clear and concise information as you have shared is vital whether it be human to dog or human to human. Nate you always do a great job of providing clear explanations that make dog training enjoyable and hopeful to many. Hopefully the number of pets being relinquished into dog shelters minimizes. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. Excellent job.


Sam W
Sam W
Jul 06, 2023

Agree with the article. I applied this method all the time. Especially once my dog understand the rules. I will correct my GSD with a no. If she gets it right after saying no. I will say good girl. Those teenagers years are something else for a dog. Firm but fair is the key. Well done article.

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