Life is full of choices. One of those choices is how we treat and train our canine companions.
The difficulty is, with so many training techniques and methodologies, all touted to be the ‘right’ one, how does an owner choose? To further complicate the choice, there are many misconceptions about the different types of training. I will offer you some things to consider so you can choose an approach that you and your dog can both be happy with.
Three Training Approaches
Training approaches fall into three basic categories:
- Reward-Based Dog Training (a.k.a. Positive Reinforcement Training, “Positive Training” and “Force-free” Training) – This approach uses things a dog likes and enjoys to reward behavior we like and want to see more of. It focuses on motivating the dog and emphasizes a fun, cooperative relationship between dog and owner.
- Punishment-Based Dog Training (a.k.a.”Traditional” training) – This method uses aversives (things the dog finds unpleasant and doesn’t want to experience) to stop behavior we don’t want.
- “Balanced” Dog Training – This approach uses a combination of positive reinforcement as well as punishment to change behavior. While it might seem that this would be the best option, read on to find out why that is not the case.
Reward-Based Training (Positive, Force-Free Training)
I’ll state up front that I am a proud reward-based trainer. We also call ourselves “positive” trainers and “force-free” trainers (meaning that we don’t use any force or coercion to “make” dogs do something). We use training methods that the dogs enjoy, that they find pleasant and that motivates them to behave in the ways that we want them to behave. Does that sound “permissive” to you? It’s not at all. Read on to learn more.
Training Should Be About Changing Behavior AND Having Fun With Your Dog!
A reward-based training approach focuses on:
- What we want the dog to do
- Motivating the dog to choose to behave
- Both dog and owner having FUN during training
- Teaching new skills and behaviors to replace the behaviors we want to eliminate
- Encouraging the dog to think for himself! (YES! Dogs can do this and it’s OK!)
- Reducing stress for the dog
- Setting the dog (and ourselves) up for success
- Using things the dog likes—food, toys, touch, praise, play, and activities—to reward good behavior
- Using as little punishment and as few aversives as possible and, if used at all, only MILD punishment is used. (Examples of mild punishment would be removing attention from the dog, a brief time-out, taking a toy away, etc.)
- Avoiding the use of any tools or methods that cause the dog discomfort, pain, worry, or fear to change behavior.
Misconceptions About Reward-based Training
One of the biggest misconceptions is that reward-based training is too “permissive” and that dogs should be “made” to behave. In the positive reinforcement world we have a saying “Positive does not mean permissive!” After all, no one wants an unruly dog! Our dogs are still expected to behave in appropriate and acceptable ways. We just choose to train that behavior in what we believe to be a kind, fair and more effective approach than other methods.
Another misconception is that the dog will learn to only work for food so you must continue using food forever. This is simply not true. Anything your dog likes can be used as a reward for behavior: a favorite toy, a game of fetch, a game of tug, a walk, petting, belly rubs, etc. The key is that it must be important to your dog. Food rewards tend to be the most powerful and effective reward for teaching a NEW skill or behavior so food is a go-to for most trainers, with most dogs, for most behaviors, initially. The goal is to move towards more natural, life rewards and activities once the behavior is well established. I am personally very generous with food rewards throughout training because my dogs love to eat and they have to eat every day anyway! Why not use that to my advantage?! Ultimately, however, if reward-based training is done properly, the dog will offer a learned behavior whether or not you have food.
Reward-Based Training is Widely Used in Zoos Today
Many believe that reward-based training just doesn’t work. That would be news to many scientists throughout history! Positive reinforcement (i.e. reward-based training) originated out of behavioral science, specifically, the study of Learning Theory. (Remember Psych 101?) Positive reinforcement was identified by scientist BF Skinner and many others as a primary and effective mechanism for behavior change in animals of all species. In fact, it is used widely today in zoos to get wild animals to permit veterinary care and other safe handling. (Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!)
That brings me to another misconception. Many opponents of positive reinforcement will say it does work, but only on certain types of dogs and certainly not on large breed, “stubborn” or aggressive dogs who need a “strong leader.” Let me reiterate: Reward-based training is used widely today with zoo animals to get them to safely allow veterinary care and handling. That fact should easily put this misconception to rest. Check out the fascinating Youtube video above showing how it’s done at the North Carolina zoo! There are additional links to articles about zoos using positive reinforcement training in the resource list at the end of this post.
It’s Not Rocket Science, BUT…
While using rewards to train your dog is certainly not rocket science, it is important to learn the correct and most effective ways to use reward-based training. The claims made by some that positive reinforcement doesn’t work, or even creates further problems, results from failure to use it properly. Taking a class or two with a reward-based trainer will give you the basic knowledge and skills to train your dog successfully. I’ll include some amazing resources at the end of this post to help you learn more about using this approach in your training.
Doing What It Takes To Have An Obedient Dog
Dog training has been around for decades and the more traditional style of using punishment in training is still used widely today. A “traditional” training approach focuses on:
- Stopping unwanted behavior using punishment and aversives (things the dog doesn’t like and tries to avoid)
- Having an “obedient” dog who does what is expected
- Enforcing compliance from the dog. If the dog doesn’t respond appropriately, the level of punishment is increased and/or force and physical manipulation are used to ensure that he does. (Example: jerking sharply upwards on the leash/collar to stop the dog from pulling or to force a sit.)
- Often relies on the use of choke collars, prong collars and electronic shock collars to control and correct behavior. (Just consider the names of those training devices.)
- Often involves the belief that one must be the “pack leader” and be “dominant” over their dog.
Punishment-based Training and Its Misconceptions
Punishment-based training methods can, and often do, work. Many reward-based trainers don’t like to admit that but the fact is that dogs trained this way are often quite well behaved. If they aren’t, then the owner/trainer has failed to use punishment properly or with enough intensity to make an impact. One of the attractions for many owners is they want immediate results, and punishment often delivers that. It’s important, however, to consider…at what cost to the dog.
Punishment-based trainers often promote their methods by saying they don’t hurt the dog, even using the word “gentle.” I have talked to many owners who have been convinced. After all, when a professional assures them of these things, it’s hard to think otherwise. I’ve seen marketing statements saying these methods “create happy dogs.” Yet, if you really think about it, common sense tells us otherwise. Again, I mention the names of the training collars often used: “choke,” “prong,” “shock.” HOW can a dog be “happy” with its collar being jerked and prongs putting pressure into its neck? And what dog is “happy” when he is getting shocked? Folks, those tools aren’t made to be pleasant. They are specifically made to be UNPLEASANT so that the dog wants to avoid the experience. Otherwise, this method wouldn’t work right? And yes, they hurt. They can also do both physical and psychological harm to your dog. Here’s an informative article from Companion Animal Psychology that examines two studies on the use of shock collars and the harm they cause. And for more on the harm done by prong collars, here is the position statement on the use of prong and choke collars by the The Pet Professional Guild, an international organization of pet professionals and here’s Q&A page on prong collars from the San Francisco SPCA.
One of the things I mentioned earlier is that those opposed to reward-based training claim if you use rewards, you must always have treats on you for the dog to behave. (I hope I convinced you otherwise.) Really, the same can be said about the tools used for punishment-based training. When a dog is trained with a choke or prong collar, he usually continues to wear that collar ongoing. I also see dogs wearing shock collars in public. In fact, my rescue group routinely does fundraisers involving the public and I’ve even had dogs come to our dog wash and Santa photo events wearing their shock collars!
Probably the most prevalent misconceptions surround the concepts of “dominance” and the need to be “pack leader.” These concepts are so popular that I hear them in everyday conversations with dog owners. I have even heard children touting how they need to be the “pack leader” over their dogs because they have watched a certain television celebrity. Training using dominance theory can use anything from mild forms of intimidation (still intimidation) up to more barbaric actions like “hanging” dogs in the air by their leashes and “helicoptering” (swinging them around by their leash). You may ask yourself how anyone could do these things to a dog—and how an owner could allow it. Sadly, many well-meaning and loving owners have allowed their dogs to be mistreated in the name of “training.” Some have even participated because they were told they should. Sometimes it happens in private and the owners don’t even know. Cesar Millan is one of the most well-known proponents of dominance theory. His methods are also some of the most controversial in the dog training industry. This article from Psychology Today by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D, titled “Did Cesar Millan Have to Hang the Husky” highlights the concerns about Cesar Millan’s methods. The resource list contains a follow-up article on the trauma to the husky and also several other articles related to the pitfalls of punishment and the dominance controversy.
The reality is that “dominance” is not what most people think it is. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), an organization of veterinarians with advanced knowledge of animal behavior, defines dominance and describes their firm position against training methods that use dominance theory. They say “AVSAB is concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems.” They further state “The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it” and “Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counter conditioning.” (That’s a mouthful right? But each of those 5 terms are important when seeking a qualified, reward-based and force-free trainer.) I’ll put a link to the AVSAB’s Position Statement on Dominance Theory, in its entirety, in the resource section at the end.
In short, dominance has nothing to do with the general, everyday behavior of our dogs OR of our relationship with them! We don’t need to be physical with our dogs, have harsh expectations of them or be the “pack leader.” We just need to have fair and reasonable expectations and teach them what we want them to do.
Is “Balanced” Training Really What It Appears To Be?
Some trainers are now using what they refer to as “balanced” training. This approach combines using punishment for unwanted behavior with the use of (some) rewards for good behavior. It sounds good right? So why isn’t a “balanced” approach the best approach?
Well first, trainers who use this approach still tend to be more heavily focused on the punishment end of training. Many tend to use rewards sparingly and for very limited periods of time and often oppose the use of food rewards altogether. Second, it can be quite confusing to the dog and potentially cause some trust issues. How do I know this?
Time for A Little Classroom Experiment
I once did a little experiment with the humans in one of my dog training classes and I found the results very telling (though not surprising):
I had 3 separate volunteers play the role of the dog in each of the 3 training approach scenarios: Positive reinforcement only (use of verbal praise), traditional, punishment-focused training (use of harsh verbal scolding), and balanced training (a combination of the two). In each case, as the volunteer set about their behavioral task, they received the appropriate response from me, the trainer, according to the approach used. So, for example, as the volunteer in the positive training scenario behaved correctly, she got lavishly praised. If she made errors in task completion, there was no response from me at all. She quickly figured out that she needed to change her behavior until my praise resumed. It took her the least amount of time to complete the task and she gave the most positive report from her experience of any of the volunteers. (She smiled broadly and said it was fun!)
The volunteer in the traditional training scenario got sharply told “NO!” and sometimes “What are you doing?!!?” and “What’s wrong with you??!!” whenever he made errors in the task. He got no responses from me when he achieved successes in the task. He quickly learned what NOT to do, but he often just stood there and looked confused, uncertain (and even worried) of what to do next. (We often see this “shut down” behavior in dogs trained with traditional methods.) Following his experience this volunteer reported frustration and a desire to give up and quit during the experiment.
Lastly, the volunteer with the “balanced” training got some of both responses. She learned when she was performing correctly and incorrectly, but she also reported a very negative emotional experience. Specifically, she reported “never knowing” what type of response she would get and not being able to “trust” me as the trainer. The lack of consistency and the uncertainty about what type of interaction we would have had a significant impact on her.
While this was just a small, anecdotal experiment, it does give us information into what these three human subjects experienced. Their reports of feeling confused, frustrated and unable to trust lend insight to what dogs might experience as well.
So What’s A Dog Owner To Do?
I am often asked why I use a reward-based training approach. My answer is simple: I want any relationship I have, be that with people or with animals, to be filled with fun, love, compassion, and mutual respect. Those four words bear repeating: fun, love, compassion, and mutual respect. That would be a hard goal to obtain with my dogs if I trained using punishment and aversives. Scolding them, jerking the leash, using a choke, prong or shock collar (seriously, again—just consider the names of those collars!) or otherwise trying to “dominate” my dogs isn’t the way I want to treat my companions.
What’s more, those methods just aren’t necessary. Reward-based training is highly effective. Everyone, dogs included, learn faster and work harder when you engage them in a cooperative relationship, make learning fun, and you acknowledge and reward the behavior you want. I can have a well-behaved dog—and a lot of fun with him—using a reward-based training approach. That’s the choice I make. Now…. how about you?
I will be following up this post with one on how to find a qualified reward-based trainer. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that marketing practices can be deceptive. That doesn’t just go for the weight loss products and cleaning supplies you see on television. It goes for the dog training industry as well. Buzz words are often used. Terms and phrases that sound inviting but are particularly vague are used. So, be sure to check back to learn what to look for and what to avoid if you choose a reward-based approach with your dog.
The Use of Positive Reinforcement Training
The Truth About Positive Reinforcement
By: Lore I. Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB
Reward-Based Training in Zoos
Learn How to Use Reward-Based Training with Your Dog
The Power of Positive Dog Training
by Pat Miller
Click For Joy by Melissa Alexander
World-renowned trainer, Karen Pryor’s, website containing a multitude of resources for reward-based training.
Youtube videos by Emily Larlham (Kikopup) and Donna Hill. If there is anything specific you want to teach your dog you can do a search and chances are one of them has a video on it. For example: “leave food alone Kikopup”.
The Use of Punishment and “Dominance” In Training
(Position Statement on Punishment by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior)
(Position Statement on Dominance Theory by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior)
The myriad effects of punishment-based training
http://drsophiayin.com/philosophy/dominance (Vet Behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin on dominance)
“The end for shock collars?” Informative blog post by Zazie Todd that examines some recent studies on the use of shock collars.
Position Statement on the Use of Choke and Prong Collars by the international Pet Professional Guild.
“Shock Collars – The Shocking Truth” from the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.
“Why electric shock is not behavior modification” – Editorial from Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2007) 2, 1-4.
The Controversy of Cesar Millan
by Marc Beckoff, Psychology Today
Follow-up to above article
Dog training professional Mikkel Becker and veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker share their thoughts on a recent incident involving television dog trainer Cesar Millan.
Critics question training techniques of t.v. trainer Cesar Milan
“Balanced” Training Explained
Zazie Todd, PhD, graduate of the Jean Donaldson’s Academy of Professional Dog Trainers, discusses “balanced” training
Laurie Luck, on faculty at Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior, takes a look at “balanced” training
Another critical look at “balanced” training from Minette L. Boyd, CPDT
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