This post may be somewhat polarising but I feel I must write down these thoughts as they are close to my heart.
In my opinion, there is a malicious entity pervading the dog training world. This is not a physical thing but instead, an idea; an idea which has proven surprisingly hard to quash.
It is the simple idea that ALL dogs, of all shapes, breeds and ages and in ALL situations, should be trained with nothing other than rewards and positive treats. In other words, completely avoiding the use of ‘aversives’ i.e. punishing bad behaviour.
As a trainer, it’s akin to only performing 50% of your job. There are two things to pursue when it comes to effective dog training:
- 1) Rewarding good behaviours
- 2) Punishing bad behaviours
Point 2 is critical to long-term behavioural improvement and has been shown repeatedly to instil better behavioural modifications than just applying point 1.
Training which only uses Point 1 goes by a number of names in the dog training world usually incorporating the world positive such as ‘Pure Postitive’ or ‘Postitive/Reward-Only’ training.
This type of training is a disservice to your dog and I will refer to this training method as Reward-Only (RO) from now on.
*Reward Only (RO) Training can be defined as training which involves only the R+ (reward) and not the P- (punishment) aspects of learning.
Of course, reward based traiing has its place – an impoirtant place. It forms a full half of any solid dog training method. The issue I have is people who claim reward is the ONLY requirement for effective training or to deal with behavioural problems.
The reward-only philosophy is that any type of consequence other than simply removing the reward, is cruel, inhumane, and barbaric.
Here is an apt quote from Roger Hild (experienced trainer) explaining the limitations of a reward-only training approach:
‘Contrary to their claims, a reward-only (my edit to terminology) training approach is not as effective and takes considerably longer to reach any level of reliability even close to what a balanced approach can produce. In some instances, reliability cannot be realized using a positive only approach and some dogs will not be trainable at all until appropriate corrections are included.’
Rewards are used primarily to create NEW behaviour and offer little to no assistance in communicating to a dog that a certain behaviour is unacceptable. Removing bad behaviour is a much greater task using reward-only techniques thus a combinations reward/punishment approach allows to trainer to create new ‘good’ behaviours and remove old ‘bad’ behaviours much more effectively.
Shockingly, thousands of dogs are killed in this country every year because of behaviours that are deemed ‘unacceptable’.
The vocal, and in my opinion, misguided proponents of reward-only training, have made such a noise that the majority of shelters and rescues have adopted a reward-only training philosophy within their organizations; dooming their dogs.
Why have they done this? Well probably a few reasons.
- 1) It sounds great to be able to say that you only reward dogs, and never punish with aversives.
- 2) The reward-only proponents have created such a buzz, and are so good at promoting their philosophy that they have many people believing that anything can be accomplished with reward based techniques and that corrections are always bad and will ruin your dog forever.
Many well-meaning dog owners, shelter owners and staff and veterinarians have been sucked in to the reward-only myth, believing that, armed with cookies and rainbows they can transform their aggressive, unruly canine into a well-mannered pet.
It. Doesn’t. Work.
It’s an easy argument to sell as a trainer. Rewarding dogs is fun, and correcting is not. When dog owners are told by a professional trainer that they never have to correct their dog again, they are all ears and keen to subscribe to this idea of reward-only methods.
However, most dogs with serious behavioural issues will not be helped with this approach and is unfair to the owners and of course the dog, to suggest otherwise.
The tragic reality is that when the reward-only approach fails, the only other option is euthanasia. Of course, for any trainer worth their salt there is another option – BALANCED TRAINING (using the 4 quadrant method) that uses both reward and punishment. – John Van Olden
I am a member of many online dog forums, and the stories and accounts on them are truly frightening. I came across one woman who had a young dog that was causing her some trouble. Even though she was using reward-only techniques that supposedly can fix any problem, she was continuing to struggle with her dog. Several people on the forum advised her that she should try a prong collar to correct her dog’s behaviour:
“No way,” she said, “I’d sooner put him to sleep than do that.”
What sort of response is that from a so-called owner? I’d rather kill my dog than make them briefly uncomfortable. What ended up happening to that naughty pup? You guessed it – euthanized.
A client brought me a foster dog that had been showing some fear aggression and no one had been successful in making any progress in the months that he had been with the rescue.
The rescue staff had already made it very clear that this dog was “running out of time’’ – essentially code for ‘will be put down if nothing else can be done’. I boast a high success rate when it comes to rehabilitating aggressive dogs and multiple staff had suggested I take a look at the dog. There was much resistance from the higher ups due to the fact that I stand by a balanced training method. In a nutshell, I apply both REWARD and CONSEQUENCE in my training methods. So imagine then, that a shelter dedicated to dogs would rather see a dog killed than trained to better behaviour by me. What a bizarre world we live in. This dog and manyother hundreds of aggressive dogs have ultimately benefited hugely from my balanced training methods where reward-only methods simply fail to work. There’s nothing more to it. Some methods work, others do not; if you care about the wellbeing of your do, employ the method that does.
– Over half of these dogs have histories of aggressive behaviour to people and other dogs. By enforcing clear rules and leadership, every single one can be and play together peacefully. That’s the power of balanced training.
Despite the demonstrable success of balanced training methods, myself and thousands of other trainers have had to deal with name calling, accusations, slander and defamation by the reward-only crowd. Perhaps a sign of desperation from people who fear they will lose their grip?
Talk to any reward-only trainer, they will never admit their folly. Why would they?
Even in the situations were a reward-only only approach can work, it ususally takes a very long time to produce meaningful results and when you are stretched for budget and space, TIME is something more shelters cannot spare.
This is the unfortunate but AVOIDABLE reality for thousands of dogs in the UK.
I am tired of this issue being swept under the rug and I am tired of clients coming to me in tears after being told by positive dog trainers that their beloved pet could never be helped when in fact they could! And quickly to boot. Worst of all, I’m sick of the needless death of canines countrywide.
To conclude and for clarities sake, I am not against positive, reward-based dog training. It is one side of the training coin that I use every single day as a trainer. My gripe is with ONLY using reward-based training at the expense of everything else. It has to stop, it doesn’t work. As owners and trainers we all need to take a deep breath and wake up to the need for balance in training. Lives are at stake and we need to take a stand.