The What and Why of Positive Reinforcement

02nd November 2023 8 min read

Guest Blog: Renee Rhoades, MSc

When it comes to teaching our dogs, positive reinforcement (also known as R+) is a methodology that stands out for its effectiveness and numerous benefits. R+ focuses on rewarding desired behaviours rather than punishing unwanted ones.

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The What and Why of Positive Reinforcement

When it comes to teaching our dogs, positive reinforcement (also known as R+) is a methodology that stands out for its effectiveness and numerous benefits. R+ focuses on rewarding desired behaviours rather than punishing unwanted ones.

Positive reinforcement provides an effective framework for dogs to learn and retain behaviours. When rewarded for desired actions, dogs quickly understand the association between the behaviour and the positive outcome. This reinforcement strengthens the neural pathways associated with the behaviour, making it more likely to be repeated. Moreover, since positive reinforcement is based on motivation and reward, dogs become eager and enthusiastic learners, actively wanting to collaborate with us.

A wealth of research dating back almost 100 years highlights how focusing on encouraging the positive when teaching can lead to better outcomes for our learners. And when it comes to our dogs, the world can be a confusing, sometimes scary place, so being kind is the most ethical way to approach how we interact with them and guide them through our human-dominated world. Let’s explore why positive reinforcement is the best choice for dogs and their guardians, highlighting its advantages for both parties.

Building the Bond

Positive reinforcement can build trust, strengthening the bond between dogs and their guardians. By rewarding desirable behaviour with food or play, dogs associate their actions with positive experiences and the presence of their caregivers. This fosters a sense of security and confidence. For the guardians, positive reinforcement creates a nurturing environment. It can also help shift the focus from what their dog might be doing “wrong” to what they find positive about their dog’s behaviour.

Right vs Wrong

Dogs do not have morality (a sense of right or wrong). They navigate through the world doing what their instincts drive them to do. That doesn’t mean they will run wild if we comfort them or treat them with kindness. Dogs, at full maturity, have the cognitive level of a 2.5-year-old child. We can see the similarities when we stop to think about a young child's emotional abilities compared to our dog’s understanding of the world! You can’t be “too soft” on your dog regardless of what you may have heard. Dogs need us to be their support system, similar to young human children who form attachments to their caregivers. It is a necessity for their mental health.

Feeling Motivated?

Motivation is something that dog guardians can misunderstand about their dogs, which can lead to poor teaching and responses. You might think your dog should do things because it makes you happy, or because you told them to; however, all animals need reinforcement. Food is the easiest, and all dogs are “food motivated”. Eating is a behaviour that can be positively reinforced or punished (often unintentionally by teaching ). Determining what food motivates your dog can lead to you gaining more and faster teaching wins!

Less Stress

Using positive reinforcement methods can significantly reduce stress and anxiety in dogs. Approaches that include punishment can cause fear and confusion, leading to heightened anxiety levels. On the other hand, positive reinforcement creates a safe and positive teaching environment. Our dogs are more likely to feel more secure as they understand that their guardians are focused on encouraging their behaviour rather than using punitive measures. This reduction in stress and anxiety enhances the overall well-being of dogs leading to fewer behaviour issues in the dog’s life - and less negativity in your relationship.

Two-way Communication

The keys to establishing clear and effective communication with our dogs lie in understanding their body language, managing them, and rewarding desirable behaviours. This is what I call two-way communication. You are listening to your dog so they can trust and listen to you more. Imagine a friend who, whenever you are with them, just tells you what to do, bossing you around. They don’t listen to you when you tell them you are tired, scared, or hungry. You wouldn’t want to be around them, would you? We have the ability to communicate our unhappiness verbally, but dogs do not. They communicate primarily through their actions; statistically, we are very poor at reading that communication. Take the time to find reputable resources for canine body language. I have many resources available on my social media (IG:

Positive reinforcement is optimal for teaching dogs. Focusing on positive outcomes creates a win-win scenario that benefits dogs and us in the long run by fostering trust, facilitating learning, reducing stress, and strengthening communication. If your dog’s behaviour stumps you or feel that you are resorting to punishment with your dog, it is best to get in touch with a qualified, ethical professional committed to only using welfare-based methods. We can help you solve the mystery of your dog’s behaviour and get you pointed toward a more positive relationship!

Renee Rhoades, MSc, is a distinguished authority in canine behaviour and welfare, recognised for her unwavering commitment to improving the lives of both dogs and humans. As the visionary founder of R+Dogs, a virtual dog behaviour consultancy, Renee offers cutting-edge private coaching and online courses to dog guardians worldwide. Renee specialises in transforming fearful and high-energy dogs, addressing aggression, reactivity, generalised anxiety and hyperactivity.

Beyond client-focused coaching, Renee is also the co-host of DogLogical, a podcast dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of our dogs.

Struggling with your dog’s behaviour? Discover how Renee can elevate your wisdom and transform your relationship by visiting

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