Should You Train Your Dog Using Only Positive Training Methods?
By Luzelle Cockburn
Positive only training has gained a lot of popularity over the last few years. But then other trainers swear by using corrections in their training and there is another group that falls somewhere in the middle. Which one is right?
There are so many options and not only that but dog trainers themselves cannot even agree! So how will you, as a dog owner who really loves their dog, know what is fair? What is kind? And also what works?
Don’t worry, this article is going to demystify dog training and the use of rewards and punishment for you.
But before we start, let me explain why training your dog is important. Why should you even train your dog? Well for me it’s always to help you, the owner, have a dog that you can enjoy more so that your dog can have a better life! I want you to be able to enjoy your dog more!
Should you train your dog positive only?
Let’s see… there are a few things to know before anyone can answer this: firstly, you can’t reason with dogs. You can’t explain that chasing cars will get them killed or the cat they want to chase is someone’s beloved pet.
Sometimes dogs want to do things that could get them killed or hurt people or animals. So how can you teach them that this is unacceptable? While still being kind and fair and considerate?
What is Positive Training?
What is positive training? Positive training is teaching a dog what to do by giving them something more valuable than what the dog is interested in doing instead. The consequences in positive only training is to remove the reward as a consequence. This is an explanation in very simple terms. And please don’t misunderstand me, I love positive training!
Positive trainers will usually only use a few tools to help owners with their dog’s behaviour: a head halter. Most dogs hate a halti, unless you do work to get your dog used to the tool. You can also damage your dog’s neck if there is a sudden jolt on the leash. Another tool positive training recommends is a front clip harness. My problem with this tool is that it restricts the dog’s shoulders and the dog does not have freedom of movement. This of course could also have longer term negative effects on the dog’s structure.
Of course the other tools available are collars and leads, but the only use for these tools is blocking the dog from making bad choices. The collar and lead does nothing to influence behaviour.
These tools are likely required for the life of the dog and is not usually temporary.
Let’s Try to Explain it in Human Terms
You want chocolate, but I want you to have salad instead. Would offering you 10c be enough to convince you to have salad? Not likely. How about $2? Still, I’m sure you’d rather have the chocolate. What about $50 (now in this scenario you can’t buy the chocolate with the $50, you can either have the chocolate or the salad, not both). You might start to think about it. For $100 you might definitely eat the salad.
But what if the chocolate could kill you if you ate it? And offering you $100 every time you want chocolate is not going to work for me. For one, I can’t afford to give you $100 every time you want chocolate. And not only that, your desire for chocolate might never go away because $100 isn’t good enough. What then?
What if instead of chocolate it was chasing the neighbour’s sheep, killing cats or chasing after cars. Even nuisance barking can mean that dogs are put to sleep. What if instead of chocolate it was pulling on leash and dragging you across a dangerous highway to attack another dog. Really the examples of “chocolate” are endless.
What if I Couldn’t Pay You Enough and The Chocolate Could Kill You?
What if you received a mild static shock every time you went to reach for the chocolate? That might work for some, or not (it’d probably work for my sister, she’s got a very low pain tolerance, that means she gets hurt easier).
What if you had to put your fingers on a mouse trap? Would the pain from the mousetrap be enough to put you off chocolate? Maybe. Probably more likely. And even when the mousetrap is gone, you’d still think of the pain and go, um, that chocolate isn’t worth it. Let’s eat the salad instead.
Or what about you had to get past a huge spider to get the chocolate? For some people this wouldn’t matter, but for others, the chocolate being on the other side of that spider might just be too much. Now here you might really start to think twice. And not only that, but the desire of chocolate might disappear altogether.
Let me explain it this way. I LOVE KFC! But unfortunately I don’t feel very well afterwards. Feeling sick afterwards is enough to put me off having KFC. So negative feelings trumps the amazing taste. I’m sure you have similar feelings about various things where a negative experience isn’t enough to make the reward worth while.
“Let me explain it this way. I LOVE KFC! But unfortunately I don’t feel very well afterwards. Feeling sick afterwards is enough to put me off having KFC.”
If You Could Only Use Rewards, How Would You Help These dogs?
Every single dog in these examples are real dogs that I know very well. I don’t use their names to protect them and their owners, because since these things happened, their owners have been able to help these dogs. And not one of these dogs were helped with positive only training.
Dog 1: This dog had a wicked sense of humour, well, he was just really an arrogant dog and his poor owner had to put up with randomly bitten from behind. He’d push his owner into the river and then stand on her. An he just loved confrontation, and took great pleasure in shoving his nose really hard into men’s crotches so he’d get a reaction. Yup, he LOVED confrontation. To protect this dog from making bad decisions, he is managed on an electronic collar on a really low level. He wears it even if it’s not used, just in case.
Dog 2: This dog had already been to a positive-only dog trainer, and had made some improvement. Unfortunately the dog would not listen if no treats were on offer. Not only that, but he was starting to show aggression when he didn’t get his way and he was bouncing all over visitors. Still a lot of positive training was used, however a few negative consequences quickly made this dog realise that he’d rather be a nice dog.
Dog 3: This dog would aggressively chase other dogs away. This meant that she couldn’t be allowed off leash. This behaviour was also not only embarrassing for her owners but this dog could do damage to other dogs and make them dog aggressive. One negative consequence applied after she chased another dog was enough to stop the behaviour and her owners are reporting that they are so much happier with their dog and can enjoy her more! So one negative experience for a life time of freedom… I think that’s a great trade off.
Dog 4: Pulled over her handler and broke her handler’s collar bone just to attack another dog. The handler has tried many positive training methods with this dog and the dog is now wearing a muzzle and prong collar for the owner’s safety as well as the safety of other dogs. This dog can now enjoy going on walks with her family which she LOVES, and while these tools need to stay on this dog for life it does mean that she can enjoy outings otherwise she’d have to be left at home or even be put to sleep. For many dogs, the idea is to get them off the tools as quickly as possible but this dog was attacked by other dogs about 4 times and now thinks she should attack first.
Dog 5: This dog was trained with positive only methods and would only listen if it suited her. In fact this dog became an entitled brat and would attack the other dog in the household. Once the owner started using corrections the dog responded, however her early allowances meant that the other dog could no longer enjoy her life. The only way to manage Dog number 5 was to keep her in an outside run. It was decided that that is is not the life of a beloved pet, so this dog is now doing very well serving in the military.
So how would you help these 5 dogs using only positive methods? Not one of the dogs are fearful. I really can go on and on with examples. However, my goal isn’t to say that positive only is ineffective. It is to present the dogs for whom positive only is never going to work and help you understand why.
Positive training methods do have their place and can be very effective with the right dog and in the right situation. The goal with using negative consequences is ALWAYS to get the dog to the point where these are not needed. The goal is always that the dog should enjoy more freedom and have a happier life!
Does Positive Only Training Work?
I use a lot of positive training. I use a lot of rewards in my training. With some dogs it’s very effective and with others it’s effective to a point.
Like for example, Ivy’s owner tried to get Ivy to focus on him while he walked past Pukeko’s using corrections. This did not help Ivy. When the suggestion was made to add treats into the mix, Ivy made much better progress. So this is one example where treats were more effective. So, if you can’t read your dog well, always try treats first (and don’t use their kibble, use chicken, but I’ll write another article on that later).
When I’m training dogs, I’m also considering the skill of the handler and how quickly they need help and what the situation is. Is the dog’s behaviour potentially going to cause an injury? Could the dog’s behaviour result in people, dogs or other animals getting hurt?
Often I can get faster results using consequences. Both positive and negative for behaviour. Where the owner is being dragged across a 3 lane highway it is not safe for the dog or the owner, so I’ll opt for the kindest yet most effective option that the dog needs this could be chicken to reward the dog or it could include a prong collar in some instances (of course owners do get full training on how to use these tools and the aim is always to get the dog off the tool as quickly as possible).
What are consequences?
A positive consequence (otherwise known as a reward) is using anything a dog likes to reward them for good choices. This could be a pat, treat, cuddle, being picked up. It could be a blade of grass being thrown in the air. It could be a game of chase, a toy such as a tug toy or a ball. It could even be a swim, play with another dog or allowing the dog to sniff, you could even use digging as a reward!
A negative consequence (otherwise known as punishment) is using anything a dog dislikes to punish them for inappropriate or dangerous choices. This could include a leash correction, a stim with an electronic collar. As a negative consequence I have picked dogs up (my GSD, Kaz hates being picked up, and that did wonders for her nuisance barking). I have also put a halti or head collar on dogs as a negative consequence and I have given dogs time out.
But as I said before and I want to really make sure you understand, the goal with any training tool and negative experience is to get the dog off the tool as quickly as possible (if possible). The end goal is always to help the owner have a dog that they can enjoy more so that the dog can have a better life!
The key when choosing a consequence is knowing your dog’s why so you can choose the right outcome for the dog you’re working with. Here’s a link to my blog post: What’s Your Dog’s Why!
Does Punishment Make Dogs Aggressive?
I have heard of a couple of breeds where this can happen. Some Dutch Shepherds and some Standard Poodles will retaliate when they are corrected. However I have to say, I have never seen a dog become aggressive when corrected. And both of these things I’ve heard from other trainers. To be honest, I’ve never seen it. Or maybe I just don’t consider a dog mouthing me as being aggressive when others do.
Usually I’ve had to manage the already aggressive dog with corrections for the safety of themselves and others. I have found the most common reasons for aggression is mismanagement as puppies and negative experiences as well as owners allowing bad behaviour to continue (and this has never been on purpose!).
What Do You Need To Consider?
Before deciding on the best course of action, it is wise to remember that dogs are dogs. Dogs do not agree to a human set of ethics. In fact there have been a few recent cases where dogs have killed an mauled their own owners. However more regularly dogs kill other animals, including other family pets like other family dogs, cats, sheep, etc.
Not every dog needs negative consequences and up to this point not every dog can be effectively rehabilitated by using positive only training. And when it comes to teaching a dog to come when called, I consider it unrealistic to spend a full year teaching this skill because you will only use positive methods – the dog can get killed in that time.
But, your dog is your responsiblity and you need to make the best decision for your dog that you possibly can. If you want to try positive only, I do encourage you to do so! In fact, that’s how I started. And, positive training has done a lot for the welfare of dogs! So, especially if you cannot read your dog well yet, I would encourage you down this path.
What is the Fall-Out of not using consequences in training?
OK, so let’s look at if from a different point of view. The best working dogs have a measure of prey drive. They are also more selfish. Another thing that makes a dog a good working dog is that they will tolerate discomfort to get what they want.
These attributes are not good when it comes to pet dogs. We don’t need these things in pets. We want our pets to be bidible, not question us and be content lying by our feet. You really don’t want your pet running through an electric fence to catch the rat on the other side.
So, if you want to use force free, pain free, intimidation free positive only dog training, we need to lower the standard of our dogs. That means that no working dogs will be allowed to be bred. What does that mean? That means that no more bomb detection dogs, police dogs, herding dogs will be available. And guess what… that falls in line with what Animal Rights activists want… Is there a bigger agenda at play?
Punishment, consequences and discomfort is sometimes needed in training for the safety of the dog, other animals and humans. Not because we want to do it, but because dogs are bred to work. I want my dogs to understand how pressure works, how to comply to pressure, because the world isn’t a nice place. Bad things will happen to them. They need the skills to cope.
And I like my arrogant, determined working dogs with a high pain tolerance and an aggressive streak. If you want pet dogs, for pete’s sake stear clear of hunting bred Labradors, working Border Collies, Working German Shepherds, Terriers and Malinois!
The fall out of using no fear, intimidation and pain is dogs who can’t handle the outside world. It’s dogs who can’t work. It’s dogs who don’t have the stamina, desire or resilience needed to become a working dog. And the fallout is more dogs being put to sleep because dog owners and dog trainers cannot live with good dogs who don’t want cookies.
OK so, Let’s Summarise
Positive only training is where you teach a dog a skill and use things the dog likes to reward them for good choices. If the dog chooses not to do the behaviour, they just do not get the reward. This way of training is really good for teaching skills and tricks. But with some dogs you can find that there are problems when they want the thing you don’t want them to have MORE than your reward is worth to them.
And where this is a huge problems is where the dog wants to chase cars, or sheep or cats. Or even where a dog is aggressive around other dogs or people. This is not acceptable behaviour, and while with some dogs a more positive approach is necessary, other dogs need stronger negative consequences to put them off the idea altogether. Your dog should learn to be respectful of other beings so they can enjoy a happier, more fulfilled life.
If your dog’s behaviour is worrying you or you do not know how to deal with the behaviour your dog is showing, please seek out an experienced dog trainer to help you.
Do you agree with this article, or not? Let us know in the comments below!
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