Positive Dog Training – Are There Any Negatives?

Have you ever heard people discuss positive dog training and wondered what it actually was, how it could help you and your dog, and if it was really all that different to other methods? Alana Stevenson explains all.

I am a positive trainer. I am opposed to the dominance/submission approach to training that is so popular today. I work with fearful and reactive dogs, and implement behaviour modification to help people humanely and successfully resolve their dogs’ behavioural problems. I am frequently asked how to establish oneself as “alpha” over a dog, or to teach a client to be a “boss” over her dog. Instead of teaching people to “dominate” their dogs, I teach them to understand how their dogs learn, and how to reinforce and reward wanted behaviours.

What Is Positive Dog Training?

Positive training means rewarding your dog for performing a behaviour you desire. When your dog exhibits a behaviour you like, you show your dog that you appreciate that behaviour by rewarding your dog. A reward is anything your dog may enjoy. Food, throwing a tennis ball, playing tug, giving your dog a massage, praising your dog, giving your dog a kiss, and running with your dog are all examples of rewards.

Positive Dog Training - Are There Any Negatives?

By rewarding your dog for performing a behaviour, your dog will want to repeat the behaviour again. By repeating the behaviour, your dog will get very good at practicing it. He will then exhibit that behaviour regularly without you having to reinforce it so often.
So, How Is Positive Training Different From Being “Dominant” Over A Dog?

Positive training is very different from the methods used by those following a dominance/submission approach to training. When people try to be dominant over dogs, they often employ harmful techniques that can be quite confrontational. People often try to be a “boss” over their dogs by yanking and jerking them. Pinch, choke, and shock collars, as well as yanking on a dog’s leash, are all standard methods used by some following a dominance approach to training.

These types of collar can greatly damage the trachea and spine, as well as constrict a dog's air passages. In my opinion, the choke collar teaches nothing. It simply punishes. The "pinch" or “prong” collar pinches. It inhibits your dog's behaviour through pain and discomfort. This too does not teach your dog how to behave or what to do in a positive way. "Shock" collars are harmful because they are based on creating pain and instilling fear in an animal. Some people like to call them remote collars, e collars, or electronic collars. If I used an electric current to shock somebody into learning math, it wouldn't be very pleasant or productive — especially for the learner.

Likewise, shocking a dog to sit, or to come, or to stay by a person's side, is just as inappropriate. The above training collars are based on pain and punishments. The use of these collars intensifies fear and aggression, makes problem behaviours worse, damages the relationship between dogs and people, and makes anxious dogs more anxious. Animals do not learn well under stress. Yanking or jerking a dog’s neck or shocking a dog into “submission” will cause a dog to become fearful, shy or avoidant. This style of training is neither fun for the dog, nor person, and sets up a confrontation when there is no need for one.

Another problem with teaching dogs using a dominance/submissive approach is that all the methods and tools used are corrective or punitive. This implies that the dog will not succeed unless there are repeated corrections. This sets the dog up for failure from the beginning. Sadly, the dog is punished before he even knows what is expected of him.

Because the dog does not understand what the trainer or person is wanting, the dog does not initially perform the desired behaviour. The dog is then labeled as stubborn, stupid, or dominant by the trainer or owner. Rarely do positive, compassionate trainers label dogs or set them up for failure.

Problems Using The Word “Dominance.”

Few people have any idea of what dominance or being “alpha” really means. Even among researchers the word dominance needs to be clearly defined. The meaning of the word will vary depending upon whom you are speaking with or how an individual defines it.  “Dominance” is a label. It does not explain how a dog is behaving, what a dog is doing, or any triggers that may cause a dog to react. Nor does it explain precursors to a behaviour.

It does not reveal how a person may be reinforcing her dog’s behaviour or how that person may have created it. Therefore, “dominance” is not a useful term to help you to understand your dog, or your dog’s motives.

Saying "No" To A Dog Doesn’t Help

I often get asked by clients, “Why can’t I just say “No!”?” My answer is simple. The word No gives no instruction. The word in itself is meaningless unless it connotes disapproval through voice and mannerisms. Often people are late to intervene, making their "reprimands" useless. If a person comes across adversarial enough, a dog may defer temporarily by inhibiting his behaviour.

But until the dog is taught a new way of behaving — in other words, can be taught another behaviour to replace the unwanted one — the unwanted behaviour will continue. It is more effective to teach wanted behaviours early on, and to prevent and avoid creating behavioural problems, than it is to reprimand your dog for doing things you dislike.

Finding A Good Trainer

There aren’t any universal standards or credentials for dog trainers. Finding a trainer who uses positive methods should be a number one priority. Years of experience are not as important as the methods a trainer uses. Truly experienced, positive trainers rarely use the words “alpha” or “dominance” for reasons mentioned above. Likewise, humane trainers will not use choke, pinch, or shock collars. Be wary of “breed specific” trainers, such as those boasting to train Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers. There is a machismo quality to these breeds, and often these trainers are very heavy-handed.

A positive trainer can teach any breed. Positive teaching and training strategies are universal. Dogs don’t defy learning theory. Positive training works for all dogs. Good trainers will use food or other rewards, flat collars or harnesses, and will teach you to reward wanted behaviours and to ignore, manage, or redirect unwanted behaviours and turn them into desired ones.

Good Advice For All Dog Owners

Be kind to your dogs. Exercise your dogs. Appreciate your dogs and reward your dogs for good behaviours. Do not yell at your dogs or bully them. Set your dogs up for success and manage problems early on instead of creating problems, or trying to undo problems you may have created. Teach your dog humanely, and both you and your dog will benefit!

One comment

  1. Positive reinforcement cannot inhibit behavior. If you choose “positive” training you cannot stop anything. The common suggestion of “teach and alternate behavior” is senseless. Learning to ride a horse doesn’t erase your knowledge of riding a bike – no matter who much you are rewarded for riding horses. The first time you must go someplace and a horse is not available, you’ll use a bike if one is handy. Meaning, if you lure a dog away from jumping on people with treats, the original behavior is still there. By any logical analysis, a leash is “negative” training because it punishes the animal’s freedom. Do “positive” trainers use leashes? Yes. Why do “positive” trainers not admit that they use negative methods? Because then they can’t call themselves “positive.” The claim to be “positive” is a rhetorical tool that allows them to fool either themselves or those they wish to pursuade. In this case, only “dominance” forms of training as listed as an alternative to “positive” training. Why? Obedience training is readily available and has been for 100 years. All manner of working dogs are trained to dependable performance using a balance of positive and negative – intentionally incorrectly labeled “negative” or “punishment based” by positive trainers. This begs two questions. First, if using “negative” training is bad, why don’t Seeing Eye dogs or service dogs look terrified? If using “postive” training is so good, why don’t any working dog schools use it?

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