Every dog has certain needs, drives and desires. When one first acquires a dog, the animal exhibits a great deal of trial and error behavior to determine what will “work” to get fulfillment. Therefore, any touch, spoken word, food, toys, letting the dog out/in, etc. can serve as “Positive Reinforcement” because it reinforces (or strengthens) what the dog was doing at the time. In other words, whatever behavior is occurring the moment the dog receives something it likes, is the behavior which is more likely to occur again.
Many pet owners avoid training because they think it is an unpleasant process in which they will be forced to jerk and yell at their dog in order to control him. However, controlling your dog’s behavior can be as simple as just using better timing for the same things you are doing now with your pet.
For example, if your dog nudges you and you pet him, you are rewarding nudging. However, if you ignored him until he sat and then petted him, you would be teaching your dog that sitting “pays”. With impeccable, consistent timing, your dog would, in a surprisingly short time, begin to think that sitting is his command for you to pet him (he was commanding you with the nudging).
This approach would: 1) be very simple to do; 2) Take no extra time; 3) Be a very pleasant way to modify the dog’s behavior; 4) Work quicker than you think.
If you could “interview” a dog in an obedience class and ask “What are you doing here?”, the dog would probably say, “I’m training my owner to give me treats! I just have to figure out the commands which will work. Currently, quietly laying down seems to be my best bet.”
If you give your dog a cookie when he whines, I’ll bet that he whines quite a bit. Suppose you decide that you are only going to give him a cookie when he lays down. Carry cookies in your pocket and point to the floor. If he doesn’t lay down, ignore him. If he does, as soon as his elbows hit the deck, slip a cookie in his mouth and pleasantly say “Down! Good!” If you are consistent, your dog will be terrific at lying down in no time!
To “shape” more complex behaviors, you would at first reward a very rough approximation of the desired behavior and, as the dog gets better, slowly raise your standards. For example, if you want to teach “High Five” (a very high paw raise), you would kneel by your sitting dog with a treat hidden in your hand, held still in front of his nose. Watch carefully as he tries to figure out what command he must give you to make you give the treat. The second he lifts one paw (even a little) slip the treat in his mouth, while saying “High Five!” Remember: you have to be quick! As he gets the idea that a paw raise works”, you can selectively reward higher and higher attempts.
If you pay closer attention to timing and give the dog what he wants only when he does what you want, you will have a nicer dog. Whether you realize it or not, you have already been “shaping” the dog’s behavior, only you may have been inadvertently rewarding the wrong things. Remember: WHAT YOU WILL REWARD YOU WILL GET!