Training the Good in Your Pet with Proper Reinforcement

( 5 mins read)

Proper training is a critical part of pet ownership. In Podcast #13, I outlined why punishment doesn’t work in most situations and can harm the human-animal bond. Encouraging good behaviour with reinforcement is effective and a much better option. And it’s easy to do once you understand how it works. 

Before we talk about reinforcement, we should review a common and dangerous trap that we all fall into called anthropomorphism. It’s when we place human behaviours and characteristics on our pets (like dressing them when it’s cold). I will cover that topic in more detail in a future podcast. 

Treating your pet like a person is not always bad, but there are times when it can cause harm to your companion animal. For instance, when you are unhappy and raise your voice, you may think your pet understands at least some of what you are saying because they “look guilty.” But our pets’ forebrains are not developed enough to make them feel guilty. We experience guilt; they don’t. What you see is more likely fear and confusion about why you are upset with them.

Another mistake many pet owners make is believing their pets can make the same associations humans can. Our well-developed forebrains allow us to make very complex associations that even include imagining different possible future consequences of our actions. With dogs and cats, associations are not complex at all. They’re extremely simple.

With pets, associations are instant, and any connection needs to occur immediately following the behaviour. Even a few seconds after is too long for them to make the connection. If your pet jumps up on someone and you don’t notice for three or four seconds, then raising your voice will not help them to resist in the future because they will have no idea why you are angry or what they did wrong. To stop an unwanted behaviour (or reinforce a good one), you need to think like a dog or cat, not as a person.

Punishment versus Reinforcement

Punishment does not refer specifically to yelling or time outs or other adverse action. It is a term in psychology defined as ‘anything done after a behaviour that reduces the probability it will reoccur.’ There are three keys to effective punishment: perfect timing, perfect intensity, and follow-up reinforcement. Punishment will only work successfully when all three keys are executed… well … perfectly. It is the reason that method is not a good option.

Using reinforcement, on the other hand, relies on just two principles: timing and intensity. To illustrate, let’s say you are house training your puppy and let her out for a pee. She sniffs around the yard, does her business, and then proceeds to come back inside. As you let her in, you tell her, “Good girl.” You think you’ve helped establish in her mind that peeing outside is good, but really all you’ve done is offer weak praise for walking into the house. It was too late to connect your words to her act of urination, and the less-than-enthusiastic comment would likely not have even registered as praise. Perfect timing for your pet means ‘during the act,’ and perfect intensity means feeling the excitement and joy in your voice and body language. The best way to do that is by animating your voice and ‘making a fuss.’ If you want your young pet to get it, you’ll need to dump the ‘too cool for school ‘tude’ and get all gooey and gushy with Puppy!

I love the timing and intensity part of reinforcement when training for a specific behavior because it’s so easy to get right. When you ask your pet to sit or roll over or ‘high 5,’ you expect it to happen, so you are there waiting. When it happens, you should be happy. After all, you asked for it! The immediate excitement should be pretty easy to verbalize and is a big reason reinforcement is more often effective than punishment.

A quick tip for fear-free housetraining where incorporating punishment and reinforcement works even better is when you catch little Spot in the act of peeing or pooping where he shouldn’t. Approach him (don’t scare him!), and get his attention with a cue like a grunt or gentle ‘hey’ so he stops what he is doing. That is the punishment part. Timing and intensity are paramount here because you want to act during the behaviour and make it clear that you are displeased with his actions at that location without instilling fear. That’s when you can pick him up, take him outside and let him finish, giving him lots of praise or a treat for using the outdoor facilities. Make it fun because that’s the reward part. You’ll be amazed at how quickly he learns the right and wrong places to relieve himself.

Types of Reinforcement.

There are two major types of reinforcement. The first is continuous reinforcement, where you reward your pet every time they do something you ask. The fastest way to teach your puppy or kitten is by using continuous reinforcement; however, once you stop doling out rewards, the behaviour might stop. To maintain the behaviour, you will need to employ the second type of reinforcement, intermittent or partial reinforcement. Once you’ve taught your pet the behaviour using continuous reinforcement, you will need to move to a partial or intermittent reinforcement schedule. You should do that as soon as possible because continuous reinforcement can’t maintain the frequency or quality of behaviour.

There are different kinds of partial or intermittent reinforcement schedules, but the one that works best is the variable schedule. Because using a variable schedule makes the rewards unpredictable, it helps maintain motivation levels and makes it easy to phase out food rewards eventually.

There are two types of variable schedules. The first is variable interval schedule, and the second is variable ratio schedule. Variable interval schedule is where you reward your pet for performing a behaviour after a random amount of time has passed. This method involves rewarding your dog intermittently for staying or being calm or quiet and then increasing the time between rewards. You can use this type of schedule for time or duration-dependent behaviours like teaching your dog to stay, heal, or wait, or for problems like separation anxiety or noisy dogs.

A variable ratio schedule is where you reward your dog or cat for performing a behaviour a random number of times rather than after a certain duration. This type of schedule helps maintain high frequencies of the target behaviour for fewer and fewer rewards and makes it easier to phase out food rewards. Your pet will get used to performing the behaviour many times without a reward, but will continue doing it in anticipation of a possible payoff—very similar to when you’re pumping coins into a slot machine. You keep dropping coins without a payoff because the next might be ‘winner-winner, chicken dinner!’

Variable ratio schedules work even better if you vary the rewards. One time you might give them a treat, another time just praise, and another time you may choose to give them nothing. You can then begin to alter the quality of the behaviour by rewarding above-average responses with high-value rewards and the mediocre responses with ‘good job’ or with nothing.

Training should be fun and rewarding for both you and your pet. The more engaged you are in the process, the faster your pet will learn and the happier you both will be. After all, our pets deserve our best.

If you liked this blog, you’ll love the podcast. Check it out for a more detailed explanation of this topic and some interesting anecdotes.


Dr. Mike

Veterinarian and Pet Wellness Advocate
Fear-Free Certified Elite Level practitioner.
His mission is to encourage pet owners to welcome the responsibility of providing their pets with the very best care possible.