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Whether you’re a first-time dog owner or living with your tenth dog, training is an essential part of responsible dog ownership. It ensures your dog has good manners, helps them fit into human society, and builds your bond. But becoming a good dog trainer is both an art and a science. And like any other science, dog training is full of terminology and technical jargon. To help you feel confident and comfortable as you train your dog, take some time to become familiar with the lingo.

Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is the process of methodically changing a dog’s behavior in response to a given stimulus. Some popular behavior modification techniques include desensitization and counterconditioning, which involve gradually getting a dog used to something that causes distress and changing their emotional response from negative to positive.


One way to teach your dog to perform a behavior on cue is to capture the behavior. That means to mark and reward your dog as they do the behavior on their own. For example, if you want to teach your dog to yawn, mark and reward them when they yawn naturally. With enough repetition, your dog will learn to associate the yawning with the reward, and you’re on your way to putting it on cue.

Mixed breed sitting giving a high five in the park.
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Classical Conditioning

If you’ve ever heard of Pavlov and his dogs, you’re already familiar with classical conditioning. This is when an animal learns an association between two events. For example, your dog might drool when they hear their kibble bag open because they have learned the crinkling sound comes right before dinnertime. They react to the first event in anticipation of the second.


Cues are signals given to a dog to tell them when you want a specific behavior. Traditionally called commands, cues can be spoken words or gestures. For example, to cue your dog to sit, you might use the word “sit” or perform a hand signal. Cues can even be environmental, like a dog who’s been trained to sit whenever they come to a sidewalk curb. When a dog reliably and predictably performs a requested behavior on cue, regardless of the environmental conditions, then that behavior is considered to be under stimulus control.

Distance, Duration, and Distraction

Known as the three D’s of dog training, distance, duration, and distraction all impact a dog’s ability to perform a behavior. This is because dogs don’t generalize well. If they know to lie down beside you, they won’t automatically know to lie down across the room. As each D increases, for example, if you move farther away or the noise in the room gets louder, it becomes more challenging for your dog to perform successfully. It’s important to train each D separately before combining all three, which is known as proofing the behavior.

Yorkshire Terrier laying down indoors.
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When a behavior is no longer reinforced, the frequency of that behavior will gradually decrease in a process known as extinction. For example, if your dog begs at the table, and you stop feeding them in response, they’ll eventually stop doing it. But be aware of extinction bursts. This is when the behavior becomes stronger before it fades away. Because the behavior was reinforced in the past, the dog initially gets more insistent in trying to obtain their expected reward. Ride out the burst, or you’ll have only served to intensify the behavior you were trying to eliminate in the first place.


Sometimes you really want to impress upon your dog that they have done a great job. In that case, some trainers recommend “jackpotting.” Named after slot machine jackpots, a training jackpot involves giving the dog an unexpected, extra-valuable reward, such as a high-value treat or multiple treats, for a particularly good effort.


Another way to teach your dog to perform a behavior on cue is luring. That’s where you use a reward the dog is willing to follow to lure them into the desired position or action. For example, you can teach your dog to spin by holding a treat to their nose and then moving that treat in a circle. Once the dog has performed the behavior, the lure is given as the reward. However, it’s important to fade the lure as quickly as possible, so your dog will respond to the cue alone rather than only responding when there’s food in your hand.

Marker and Clicker

A marker is a way of marking the exact moment the dog did something right. It’s a signal that tells your dog that a positive behavior they were performing when they detected the signal will result in a reward. Use your marker, whether it’s a sound, word, or otherwise, when your dog does something right to signal to them that you recognize the behavior. Then, you can pull out a treat or toss a toy to reinforce them. A clicker is a type of marker. It’s a small plastic box with a metal tongue inside that makes a clicking noise when pressed. But any sound or word can serve as a marker. Common marker words include “yes,” “good,” and “nice.” You can also use a flashing light or vibration as a marker.

German Wirehaired Pointer being trained with a clicker.
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Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, your dog learns to associate their actions with consequences. For example, if your dog greets you by jumping on you, you might ignore them. On the other hand, if they greet you by sitting politely, you might pet and praise them. Your dog’s perception of those consequences will determine if the frequency of the behavior increases or decreases going forward.


You should avoid using positive punishment as it has many negative effects for the dog, such as fear, anxiety, and increased problem behavior. The four quadrants of operant conditioning vary whether you add (positive) or remove (negative) a consequence and whether you increase (reinforce) or decrease (punish) the frequency of a behavior. Negative punishment involves taking away something your dog likes, such as withholding your attention when they jump. Positive punishment is adding something aversive your dog dislikes, such as swatting them with a newspaper when they pee in the house. If done correctly, both may lead to a decrease in the behavior’s occurrence, but is not recommended.


The other two quadrants of operant conditioning are reinforcement, an increase in the frequency of a given behavior. In negative reinforcement, you remove something that the dog finds aversive. For example, pulling back on your dog’s leash when they’re . If you stop the pressure as soon as your dog stops pulling, they’ll be more likely to walk with a loose leash in the future. In positive reinforcement, you add something that your dog finds valuable to increase the likelihood they’ll repeat that behavior in the future. This is the quadrant you want to focus on. Think about it. Would you rather be nagged into doing chores or given a dinner out as a reward?

Primary and Secondary Reinforcers

Siberian Husky gently taking a treat from a hand.
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Reinforcers are things that reward a behavior and cause its frequency to increase. A primary reinforcer is something the animal naturally desires, such as food or water. You don’t need to teach them that it’s good. Treats are an example of a primary reinforcer. Secondary reinforcers are those things that become rewarding because the dog has learned to associate them with primary reinforcers. For example, if you always praise your dog before you give a treat, in time your dog will work to get the praise itself.


Reward is another word for reinforcer. It’s anything your dog is willing to work for and finds valuable that will increase the probability of a behavior occurring again in the future. But remember that rewards are defined by your dog and are context-dependent. You might think a pat on the head is a great calorie-free reward, but if your dog doesn’t enjoy it, you’ll be punishing the behavior rather than reinforcing it.


A final way to train your dog to perform a behavior on cue is known as shaping. This is where you break down a behavior into tiny steps and reinforce the dog at each step as you build toward the final, full behavior. For example, you might teach your dog to spin by first rewarding a look over their shoulder, then moving one paw, then taking a step to the side, and so on until they’re turning in a complete circle.

Weimaraner laying down on command for a treat at home.
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Teaching your dog to target means having them touch a specific object with a part of their body. It might be touching your palm with their nose or a plastic yogurt lid with a paw. It allows you to easily guide your dog’s movements, which can be particularly useful for trick training or dog sports, like agility. It also has applications in behavior modification because you can help your dog approach scary stimuli or redirect their focus away from triggers.