New Tricks – Reward Based Training For Your Pets

New Tricks

At Castle Vets, we only promote kind, fair, and positive reinforcement training methods and would urge you to steer clear of any training advice or indeed animal trainers or ‘behaviourists’ that use techniques that are based on you having to punish or dominate your pet in any way. The perfect relationship between a pet and its family is based on co-operation and kindness rather than the human dominance over the animal, which is central to out-dated traditional training methods and particularly in dogs, the ‘dominance theory’. (For info about dominance in dog training visit the APDT website).

Modern behavioural science shows us that the best way to train any animal is by reinforcing good behaviour with rewards and that rewarding good behaviour will increase the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated. Rewards such as food, toys, play or praise are all seen as positive reinforcement by our pets and can be given anytime your pet is offering a behaviour that you would like to see again, i.e. sitting when asked, lying down quietly in his or her bed or going to the toilet in the correct place. We often think of dog training when talking about Positive reinforcement or reward-based training, but these techniques can be applied to any animal and has proven to be successful for pet animals such as cats, rabbits, rodents, birds and horses, as well as livestock and captive wild animals in zoos, safari parks and marine parks.

Wild animals

Captive wild animals can also be trained using positive reinforcement

Training that is based on positive reinforcement will increase the trust between you and your pet and create a stronger bond, because if your pet feels good about you, he or she will be a happier, more confident and hopefully better behaved.

Forceful handling such as physical punishment and yelling at pets does not work. In addition, as far as dogs are concerned, any lead yanking, use of choke chains or prong collars, or making a dog submit by rolling it on its back (the Alpha Roll), have all been shown to not only be psychologically and physically damaging to the dog, but they also have potentially dangerous consequences for owners.

Why should you teach your pet new things?

As we know, basic training for dogs is a necessity, but training is great for all types of pets and can be lots of fun for you. As mentioned before, training using positive reinforcement can really strengthen the bond between you and your pet, it is also wonderful for mentally stimulating your pet and can be a great form of exercise. New tricks are a great way of showing off how clever your pet is to other people and also a brilliant way for children to be involved with pet care.

The list of tricks that can be taught is probably endless, but a few of our favourites for household pets are

  • SitHop to it Rabbit showjumping enjoys rise in popularity as a spectator sport 2
  • Lie Down
  • Come here
  • Roll over
  • Paw
  • High Five
  • Beg
  • Fetch
  • Take a bow

With patience and reward pet’s can learn to do all sorts of ‘tricks’ for their owners and there is certainly a wealth of ideas available on the internet.

How and when to use positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the fastest, easiest and best way to train your pet, and as mentioned above, it will increase the likelihood that a behaviour will be repeated. When you use positive reinforcement to train an animal, you are creating a positive relationship between the behaviour and its consequences. For example, when you teach a dog or a cat to ‘sit’ you give him a reward when he does it correctly – the treat is the positive reinforcement and because the dog or cat got the treat he will almost definitely repeat the behaviour in order to get another one.

Timing of Positive Reinforcement

The timing of the reward is very important. It needs to be as quick as possible because you need to make sure that you are rewarding only the behaviour that you want and not some other unintended behaviour; for example if you are trying to teach ‘sit’ and your pet is in the sitting position but is barking or meowing, you need to make sure you reward when he is quiet, otherwise he may interpret “sit” to mean sit down and make some noise!

You can use a Praise Word such as “good” or “bingo” when your pet gets it right or you can use a noise indicator such as a clicker. Information On Using Clickers


What Kinds Of Things Will My Pet See As Positive Reinforcement?

Rewards will differ from pet to pet; for some it may be a toy, a game or even some fuss, but for most it will be food. The key to successful training is to find a reward that really motivates your pet and makes him or her want to get some more.

Food Rewards

This will vary from pet to pet; for dogs and cats try human foods such as frankfurters, cheese, chicken, fish or you may even find some ready-made pet treats that they go mad for. With rodents and rabbits some yogurt drops or favourite fruits are often great motivators. You need to use something that your pet will find really irresistible.

If you are using food treats
  • Try to have your training sessions before meal-time so that your pet is hungry, and will therefore be more responsive.
  • Make sure food rewards are given in very small pieces, if your pet gets full up on them there is no motivation to try and get more!
  • When training adult pets using food, remember to cut back their normal diet accordingly to compensate for the extra calories.
Other types of reward

These rewards will very much depend on the type of pet and his or her personality. If you are using a toy for a reward, make sure that toy only comes out during a training session and at no other time and remember to make a huge deal about it; otherwise it won’t be seen as ‘special’.


Types of training methods

Capturing – For this method, you wait until your pet performs the behaviour naturally without any prompting or interference from you and then reward it the instant it happens. For example you could wait until your pet sits or lies down naturally and reward with your praise word or a click followed by a food, toy or game reward.

Luring – For this method you guide your pet into performing a behaviour by using a food lure (sometimes a toy or your hand will work). For example, if you were teaching your pet to ‘sit’ you could hold a treat above your pet’s nose, making him or her look up and hopefully drop onto his or her bottom into a sit position, at which point you say your praise word or give a click followed by a food, toy or game reward.

Shaping – This method is useful for more complicated behaviours because you can break a behaviour down into tiny, steps. Instead of waiting for the completed action, you reward each step toward the final behaviour. For example, if you were teaching your pet to ‘roll over’, you could start by rewarding them when the lie down, then again when they lie on their side, and again when they begin to raise their legs, and again when they are on their back etc. shaping and luring often go hand in hand.

Sylas learning to bow

Sylas learning to bow

How to teach a new trick (Using luring a ‘Sit’ as an example)
  1.  When first teaching a new trick pick somewhere quiet with no distractions
  2. Get your pet focused on you – usually this is as simple as getting your pet’s favourite treats out (or toy if that is what you are using)
  3. Use a treat to lure your pet into the position you would like it to be in. For a ‘sit’ you hold the treat just above your pet’s nose, and slowly move it back, this will encourage your pet to look up and place his or her bottom on the ground (if he or she jumps up you are holding it too high, if he or she takes a step backwards, you may be moving the treat too quickly).
  4. Once your pet’s bottom is on the floor say your praise word or use your clicker and give your pet their reward.
  5. Repeat the process a few more times. Once your pet gets the hang of what you are asking them to do they will be much quicker at offering the behaviour. Remember to reward your pet each time he or she gets it right.
  6. When your pet is sitting reliably (about 90% of the time) you can start introducing your ‘cue word’ which in this case will be ‘sit’ as soon as his or her bottom is on the floor. Your pet will soon start associating the word with the behaviour and the reward.
  7. Repeat this process a few more times, then try just giving the cue word (‘sit’) without using the lure; if your pet sits they have successfully associated the word with the behaviour, if not keep practicing.
  8. When your pet can reliably perform the behaviour on hearing the cue word, you can try asking for the behaviour in different locations and varying distractions (for dogs this will be out and about on walks).


Golden Rules of Training
  • Use rewards your pet really likes.
  • The reward must be given during the appropriate behaviour or within half a second of the behaviour you are rewarding.
  • Keep sessions short so your pet does not lose interest.
    Make it fun and positive and end on a high, when your pet has learned a signal.
  • Focus on one signal at a time and make the signal unique to the behaviour you are training.
  • Be patient and keep repeating and rewarding the behaviour you want your pet to do.
  • Ignore mistakes; it will take time for your pet to master the behaviour. Just give a reward the next time they get it right.
  • Everyone who has contact with your pet should praise the right behaviour, use the same cue words and signals and ignore mistakes. This avoids confusing your pet.
  • Never try to push or physically manipulate your pet into position. Training should be hands off!
  • Never use punishment! Shouting, rattle cans, choke chains and smacking will only cause anxiety, pain and fear. Pets that are punished learn very quickly that people can’t be trusted which can lead to a range of behavioural problems later in life.
Some places to look for information and ideas are;



Small furries & Rabbits


Training Classes and Courses for Dogs

There are many many people offering dog training classes and courses these days, but please be careful about who you choose to teach you and your dog. Do your research before booking; check reviews from other people and go along to a few classes without your dog, so that you can make sure you are happy with the style of teaching and how the dogs are handled in class.

We recommend that you try and find a local dog class with a trainer who is a registered member of The Association of Pet dog Trainers (APDT) in the UK. This is a voluntary organisation established to improve the welfare of dogs and the competence of dog owners through the promotion of training skills and techniques based on up to date, researched, methods that apply the principles of kindness fairness and effectiveness and are in keeping with modern learning theory. A list of all their trainers can be found on the APDT website. Of course we are not saying that those are the only good dog trainers out there, but you do need to look for trainers using kind, fair and effective methods. Another good idea is to ask your veterinary nurses where they take their own dogs and puppies for training classes!

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Is your pet a healthy weight?

145I4176_-2851_25Obesity is a growing problem in our pets with an estimated 1 in 3 dogs and 1 in 4 cats in the UK being overweight and suffering with associated health problems. Unfortunately our pets are not able to regulate their food intake and exercise themselves like wild animals do, because they have been domesticated and now rely on us to provide these things for them.  Obesity is an extremely serious welfare issue in our pets for the following reasons

  • It is a preventable problem that is caused by the owners
  • Obesity can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering
  • In some animals obesity can be extremely disabling
  • It can affect animals for long periods of their lives

Being overweight can also make it more likely that your pet could suffer from serious problems and conditions such as

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Breathing difficulties
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Arthritis, Joint Problems and Injuries
  • Skin Problems – caused by the inability to clean themselves properly
  • Anal Gland Problems
  • Cystitis
  • Incontinence (bitches)
  • Ulcers / pressure sores
  • Fly Strike (Maggot infestation) – a particular problem for rabbits who cannot clean themselves.
  • Irritability
  • Overweight and obese pets usually have shorter lives than fitter pets.
  • Overweight pets also tend to interact less with their families and are less energetic and playful.

Because overweight pets tend to lie around, it is often easy to overlook the early signs of illness, because owners often just brush off their lethargy and reluctance to exercise as ‘normal laziness’.


Being overweight can lead to serious health problems


Is your pet overweight?

It is often difficult for us to see that our own pets are overweight because weight gain in pets can be so gradual, that we don’t notice until someone points it out to us. The next time you stroke your pet run your hands over the back and chest area; in a normal healthy animal you should be able to feel bones without applying any pressure (you should not be able to see them) and your pet should also have a visible waist line. If you cannot feel your pet’s backbone and ribs without applying pressure then your pet may be overweight. You can also look at a body condition score chart to see what shape your pet should be.

Dog body condition score chart

Cat body condition score chart

Rabbit body condition score chart

BCS dog

 How do pets that hardly eat anything become overweight?

Like humans, pets become overweight when they consume more calories than the body can use or burn off during exercise. Some foods are very high in calories so it doesn’t take much to keep a pet overweight once it gets to that stage.

One of the main causes for extra calorie intake in our pets is that we often feed the amount of food advised on the pet food feeding guides, but forget to take into account all of the extra tit-bits and treats that we feed our pets during the day. Before you give your pet a treat have a think about the amount of calories it might contain. Did you know that some of the more popular pet chews, treats and dental aids on the market can make up approximately 1/3 or more of your pet’s daily calorie allowance when they are fed the recommended daily portion?


Think about the size of the treat and calories it may contain in comparison to your pets size


Other reasons for weight gain may be 

Manipulation – Our pets are also very good at manipulating us and many quickly learn that if they perform certain behaviours i.e. barking, meowing, head nudges and “the big- eyed look” they will get a treat or some more food in their bowl. Dogs can quickly learn who they are more likely to get food from and we know how hard it is to ignore the cat that sits by the food bowl and meows pitifully until someone gives in?

Scavenging – Some pets are scavengers, from stealing food from plates, kitchen counters or bin raiding to scavenging anything edible on their daily walks. Cats have also been known to visit several different houses and ask for or steal food.

Illnesses and Medications – Some illnesses can cause weight gain particularly if they slow down the metabolism or cause fluid to build up in various parts of the body.  Certain medications, such as steroids, can also contribute to weight gain.

What Castle Vets can do to help

Helping your pet lose weight will require a commitment to the weight loss and overall fitness of your pet from the whole family, but is well worth the effort and is easier than you think.

Our free Healthy Weight Clinic is managed by qualified and registered veterinary nurse Clare Espley, who has a special interest in companion animal nutrition.  After assessing your pet, Clare will  make a weight loss plan that is based on your pet’s lifestyle and individual requirements and advise you on the best way for you to help your pet lose his or her excess weight and keep it off.

Each pet is an individual and so each weight loss plan will be specially designed based on your pets own requirements. Some pets are able to lose weight on their current food, but for those that may need more help we may recommend that your pet is put on a special calorie controlled diet food to help him or her lose weight. The reason for this is because calorie-controlled veterinary diets are specially designed to help pets lose weight but still have a ‘full up’ feeling. Helping your pet to feel full up will usually prevent them begging and stealing other food.

Regular monitoring and weight checks are essential to ensure that your pet is losing weight at a safe rate and so that any adjustments to your pet’s diet can be made as necessary. During the Healthy Weight Clinic appointments your pet will be weighed and measured and any adjustments to your pet’s diet and exercise can be discussed. Most pets really enjoy coming in for these appointments (even the nervous ones).

To make an appointment for the Healthy Weight Clinic you can contact Castle Vets on 0118 9574488 or visit the Castle Vets website

weight management logo

What you can do to help

Weight loss is hard for anyone whether four legged or two legged, but losing weight can vastly improve your pet’s quality of life and can help your pet live much longer. It is really important that anyone who interacts with your pet understands that he or she is on a diet and must not be given extras; explain to everyone involved the benefits of keeping your pet fit and healthy and why they must cut out all of those extra food treats.

Make an appointment with a veterinary nurse who can check your pet’s weight and give you advice on how to keep your pet fit. Any weight loss should be gradual and your pet should be weighed regularly. Castle Vets Reading does not charge for these appointments.

Tips and tricks
  • Weigh out your pets daily food amount on a set of kitchen scales rather than guessing. Measuring feeding amounts by eye or by using a feeding cup or scoop is not very accurate at all and even a few extra biscuits every day soon adds up.
  • Cut out all of those unnecessary tit-bits or cut back on your pet’s main food.
  • Make sure you exercise your dog properly (even if it is raining) and remember that if your dog doesn’t get his or her walk, for whatever reason, then you should reduce the amount of food that you give for that day.
  • Cats will often refuse to go out if the weather is not good so try to encourage more activity through play and spending time with your cat to get him or her chasing toys and moving around.
  • Cats meow and dogs will bark or whine for lots of reasons – don’t be tempted to think that they are hungry every time they make a noise, because they may just be saying hello or asking for a fuss. Dogs, cats and small pets who enjoy company, will get pleasure from being groomed with a gentle brush or comb, especially if it’s on your lap in the evening.
  • Play with your pet and involve him or her in some sort of training to stimulate his mind, finishing up with plenty of praise. Even little training exercises will burn some calories.
  • If your dog enjoys a treat now and then try them with a piece of raw carrot or other vegetable. If you feed a dry diet, a few of those biscuits can be put aside to feed as rewards or tit-bits without adding extra daily calories.
  • If you are giving your pets treats on a regular basis make sure you reduce the amount of food in their daily meals accordingly.
  • Try spreading your pets food over several small meals throughout the day rather than 2 big meals morning and evening.
  • Rabbits and other small animals can also benefit from toys such as balls and tunnels, especially good if they are edible and made from natural fibre and grasses. There are a fantastic array of foods on the market that are wholesome and beneficial but also help you to feel you are giving your pet something special.
  • You can use scatter feeding to slow down your pets eating, make food last longer and make eating fun.
  • Try and find out who the ‘sneaky feeders’ are amongst your family and friends; many people give pets food without even realising they are doing it!


If you have any questions about overweight pets or would like more information, please contact Castle Vets Reading and we will be happy to help you.

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