Is Dog Training Using Positive Reinforcement Best?

It was only 10-15 years ago when virtually all dog training was accomplished through the use of force and hard corrections. Having trained dogs for almost 25 years I know those days well; I was quite skilled at giving “heavy” corrections with choke chains and attained several field train wins with my dogs using those methods. And as a obsessed dog trainer seeking perfection, I was convinced that a little pain in the name of training was acceptable and necessary to create well behaved dogs who would have lifelong happy homes.

In fact, when I was training military IED and Protection dogs and watching my peers training these type of dogs, I was so sure that using physical corrections in training was the only way to go, I was convinced that giving my dogs treats would ruin my dog!

It was several more years before I joined the “click” and moved over to the positive side of dog training, thanks in large part to my wonderful Golden Retriever Toby, who gently showed me the error of my ways one day by hiding under the kitchen table when I brought out his dog training equipment. His quiet composure made me realise, finally, the damage I was doing to our relationship with tools and techniques that relied on the application of pain and intimidation to force him to comply. I threw away the choke chains and began my journey toward a more positive perspective on dog training.

Dogs who are trained without aversive or painful consequences for the “wrong” behaviour, and who are appropriately reinforced for the “right” behaviour, tend to become intensely and joyfully engaged in the learning process.

What Makes Positive Training So Different?

Today, in many areas of the United Kingdom a dog is at least as likely to be enrolled in a class with a trainer who uses positive methods as one who still employs old-fashioned choke chain or dare I say prong-collar techniques. As more dog owners and dog trainers see the light, clickers, treat bags, and positive reinforcement replace chokers and prong collars and the dominance theory.

Many trainers who still fall back on these “tools” usually at least start with dog-friendlier methods, resorting to force and intimidation only when positive training seems not to work for them (and this can happen) However there is a kinder, gentler method that still gets results.

Trainers, dog behaviourists, and dog owners now realise there is more than just a philosophical difference, or a conflict between an ethic that says we should be nice to animals versus a more utilitarian approach to training. While both methods can produce well-trained dogs, the end result is also significantly different. With positive dog training, the goal is to develop a dog who thinks and works cooperatively with his owner as part of a team, rather than a dog who simply obeys commands.

Positive trainers report that dogs trained effectively with “heavy hand” correction techniques and choke chains etc are almost universally reluctant to offer behaviours and are less good at problem-solving. Fearing the “corrections” that result when they make mistakes, they seem to learn that the safest course is to do nothing unless and until they’re told to do something.

In contrast, dogs who have been effectively trained with positive methods tend to be masters at offering behaviours. Give them a new training challenge and they almost immediately set about trying to resolve the challenge. In fact, one of the criticisms often voiced by trainers who don’t understand or accept the positive training methods is that our dogs are too busy always “throwing” behaviours rather than sitting still albeit it be in fear.

Another criticism of positive training is that the dogs are spoiled by having too many treats and out of control because, while the dogs are highly reinforced for doing the correct thing, no one ever tells them what not to do. “Dogs,” the critics say, “must know there are consequences for inappropriate behaviours.”

I don’t disagree with this statement. Positive does not mean permissive. I just have different idea about the necessary nature of the negative consequence. When one is needed, positive trainers are most likely to use “negative punishment” (taking away a good thing), rather than “positive punishment” (the application of a bad thing).

The benefits of positive reinforcement! Since all living things repeat behaviours that are rewarding, and those behaviours that aren’t rewarded extinguish (go away), the combination of negative punishment and management creates a well-trained dog at least as easily as harsh or painful corrections and without the very real potential for relationship damage that is created by the use of physical punishment.

One of the most significant reasons for not using physical punishment or force with dogs is the potential for eliciting or exacerbating aggressive behaviours from them. The relationship between dog and owner can be significantly damaged as the dog learns to fear or resent the angry, unpredictable responses of his human.

Moving to Positive Training Methods

Nowadays trainers are entering the profession having learnt their methods without an early foundation of harsh training. This is a good thing! However, there are enough old-fashioned trainers around that positive trainers still find themselves working with a fair number of “crossover dogs” those who are convinced that they must not dare offer a behaviour for fear of punishment.

Many dogs who were compulsion-trained never lose their anxiety about “doing the wrong thing” when they’re unsure of what the “right” thing is.

It takes time to rebuild the trust of a dog who has learned to stay safe by waiting for explicit instructions before proceeding. It’s well worth the effort. The most rewarding and exciting part of dog training for me is watching the awareness on a dog’s face that he controls the consequences of his behaviour, and that he can elicit good things from his dog trainer by offering certain behaviours. I never experienced that “15 years ago.” I used to take “sit” for granted, because if the dog didn’t sit when told, I made him do it.

Today, I never get over the thrill of that moment when the dog understands, for the first time, that he can make the clicker “Click!” (and receive a treat) simply by choosing to sit. It keeps training stimulating and exciting.

Still Not Quite Convinced That Positive Works?

So why, given all the available scientific and anecdotal evidence about the success of positive training, do some dog trainers and owners cling stubbornly to the old ways? Resistance to change? Fear of the unknown?

It saddens me that so many in the U.K. are still so far away from the positive end of the dog-training methods. The celebrity status of Cesar Millan is evidence that dog owners and trainers are more than willing to buy into the coercion-and-intimidation approach to training, and that the use of force is part of our culture.

Methods used 15 years+ a go can work. Decades of well-behaved dogs and the owners who owned and worked them attest to that.

So why should old fashioned dog trainers bother to cross over to the positive side? The short answer is that positive dog training works, it’s stimulating and fun, and it does not have the potential to cause stress and physical injury to our dogs through the application of force, pain, and intimidation. It takes the blame away from the dog and puts the responsibility for success on the dog trainer’s shoulders.

In the old days, if a dog didn’t respond well to coercion we claimed there was something wrong with the dog, and continued to increase the level of force until he finally submitted. If he didn’t submit he was often labelled useless and replaced for a more compliant model. With the positive paradigm, it’s our role as the supposedly more intelligent species to understand our dogs and find a way that works for them rather than forcing them into a one-size-fits-all mould.

The longer answer is that it encourages an entire cultural mindset to move away from aggression and force as a way to achieve goals. The majority of dog owners and dog trainers who have fun (and success) using positive methods with their dogs come to realise that it works. They feel better about training and find themselves less likely to get angry with their dogs, understanding that behaviour is simply behaviour, not some maliciously deliberate attempt on the dog’s part to challenge their authority.

Positive trainers are more likely to seek new solutions rather than falling back on force and pain, or worse, blaming and possibly discarding the dog for not adapting to our rigid concept of training. Indeed, in the last two decades, during which time positive training has gained a huge following, we’ve made even more advances in our training creativity and our understanding of behaviour, canine and otherwise, and have even more positive options, tools, and techniques.