Positive training, short for positive reinforcement based dog training, relies on the use of rewards to motivate dogs to learn cues and tricks and to stop unwanted behaviours.
The use of pain, fear and intimidation is never necessary to teach a dog. With an intimate understanding of how dogs think, positive trainers can use the addition or removal of rewards to teach a dog almost anything.
Some trainers and dog owners, however, do not truly understand why we choose to rely on rewards, rather than punishments, to communicate with dogs. You may have seen these myths circulated by those who are misinformed.
We’re always happy to clear up misconceptions. We aim to help you experience the unmatched joy of using rewards to train your dog. Here are the biggest myths about positive training, debunked:
Myth #1: Positive trainers let dogs do whatever they want.
Though positive trainers do not rely on punishment, we can actually be some of the strictest dog owners in terms of setting boundaries and keeping high expectations for our own dogs and our clients’ dogs. We use consistency, clear communication and rewards to get our dogs to behave.
We make sure to set boundaries that are purposeful, rather than creating meaningless rules as a power trip. For example, we may teach our dogs to stay engaged during a walk and expect them to stay close to us, even if a rabbit dashes across their path. But we’ll also give our dogs opportunities to sniff freely as a form of mental enrichment.
Myth #2: Positive training is complicated and takes a long time.
In comparison to “quick-fix” training methods, positive training seems to take a long time. However, those flashy, magic bullet trainers depend heavily on the use of aversives to stop unwanted behaviours, which results in instant, yet superficial results.
For example, using a shock collar to zap a dog when it sees a cat may prevent the dog from chasing the cat while wearing the collar, but the dog’s underlying drive to chase the cat will not have been removed. Eventually, the dog’s urge to chase will overpower their fear of the collar, or they may simply choose to chase the cat as soon as the shock collar is removed.
To create lasting behavioural changes, we use games and rewards to actually change the way your dog feels and reacts. We show them that listening to cues is more rewarding than giving in to their urges, and that they do not need to fear whatever is making them react. This is the only way to get your dog to make the correct choices with their own free will – it’s not possible to do that with forceful training methods.
Myth #3: Positive trainers have a limited range of tools in their toolbox.
This is probably the strangest myth of all – yet one we hear a lot. Some people feel that using treats and aversive methods is a “balanced” way to train, those who rely on positive reinforcement are only using one tool – treats.
Of course, this is not true. Positive trainers have a wide range of tools – from treats to toys, clickers, target sticks, haltis, front-clip harnesses, puzzles and barriers, and an even wider range of intangible tools like games, techniques and concepts. We always find creative, unique solutions without the need to resort to causing pain or fear.
Myth #4: Positive trainers would rather see dogs get euthanized than rehabilitated with aversive tools.
The worst myth of all – some people suggest that positive trainers are so adamant about avoiding aversives that they would rather let dogs die than use painful tools. The reason we refuse to use aversives is not because we want to be kind to animals (though that’s a huge perk) – it’s because we know that aversives do not actually work.
It’s not safe or effective to use punishments with dogs who have shown signs of aggression. In fact, we know that confrontational dog training is known to escalate, and in some cases, even cause aggressive behaviours.
Positive training is used to rehabilitate even severely aggressive dogs. Once a dog bites someone, however, they usually cannot be trusted in the same ways that we would trust a typical dog. With a combination of ongoing rehabilitation, management, and possibly rehoming the dog to an experienced owner, an aggressive dog can live a full, happy life.
If it seems that a dog cannot be rehabilitated through positive training, we do not recommend switching to aversives just for the sake of trying everything. This is because using aversives creates an even more dangerous dog.
When dogs are fearful, their signals normally escalate in a healthy, expressive way. It’s okay for dogs to growl when they’re scared or uncomfortable. It tells us to give space, or that we have stepped too far ahead in our training process. Aversives suppress a dog’s ability to express these emotions until they’re bottled up. This creates a dog that looks outwardly calm, but their fear of the situation can overpower their fear of getting punished – making a dog seem to attack “without warning.”
Aggression can sometimes be caused by factors that we cannot control. Genetics, past trauma, even a brain tumor or other neurological issue can cause a dog to be completely unmanageable. When we have to choose between endangering people and other animals, and having a dangerous dog euthanized, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that not every aggressive dog can be rescued.
These situations are extremely rare. Most dogs excel with positive training.
Myth #5: Positive training is just a fad.
Before dogs were dogs, our ancestors lured feral canines to their campsites with scraps of meat. In return, early dogs helped detect prey, ward off strangers from neighboring tribes, and may have even protected their favorite humans from large predators like bears. No leashes needed – early dogs naturally wanted to stay close to the warm fire, tasty leftovers and friendly humans.
The idea of dominating a dog and using force to “put it in its place” did not emerge until after the 1930s and 40s, with the emergence of Swiss animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel’s controversial studies on captive wolves.
In Schenkel’s studies, he observed wolves fighting over resources. There seemed to be dominant wolves that would constantly attack weaker wolves over food. Through the next few decades, dog trainers emulated those tough dominant wolves, using alpha rolls to physically force domesticated dogs into submission. Using treats was greatly discouraged.
The problem with Schenkels’ studies? He only observed captive wolves that were forced to live together in close quarters. It was like something straight out of a reality show.
It wasn’t until the 2000s, when researcher David Mech studied a pack of wild wolves, that people realized how inaccurate those early studies were. A real wolf pack is made up of a family unit – a mother, father and puppies. In a real, wild wolf pack, no violence is needed to keep pack members in line. The older family members hunt and provide food for their puppies. The pups learn from example and through playtime.
All this time, trainers of non-canine species, particularly large animals like dolphins, had to rely solely on positive reinforcement. When your student weighs thousands of pounds, you can’t use force or fear to control them.
By the 1980s, Karen Pryor, the biggest proponent of modern dog training as we know it, learned about food rewards and cues from training dolphins. She used hand signals and a whistle to communicate with dolphins and teach them tricks. With the same methods, she found an effective way to teach dogs.
The takeaway: using physical force is actually a fad in dog training, and it’s long outdated. It’s about time we go back to our roots.
See The Power Of Positive In Action
At Healthy Houndz, we raise dogs to have a lifelong love of learning. Every session begins and ends with a waggy tail. Ready to see the change in your dog?
Contact Healthy Houndz for positive dog training in North York and Toronto.