What is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement training is the modern, strongly researched approach to dog training. It emphasizes humane and safe techniques to encourage long term healthy behaviors in both dogs and their owners. By maintaining a relationship of trust and rewarding the behaviors you want to see in your dog – instead of making them afraid of you and stressed by their environment, you create a lasting bond with your canine friend that is constantly encouraging them to recreate desired behaviors and increase their drive for learning. Positive reinforcement training is the go-to approach from renowned behavioral experts such as Dr. Ian Dunbar, Dr. Jean Donaldson, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Pat Miller, and organizations such as The Pet Professional Guild.
What is Dominance Theory, and Why Doesn’t It Work?
Dominance Theory is a well-known, albeit outdated, approach to dog training. It often includes the use of force and punishing tools (including but not limited to prong or “choke” collars, electric collars and fences, and alpha rolling to assert “dominance”) to train dogs to fear undesired behaviors, while failing to teach them what positive behaviors we are wanting them to recreate in the first place. Instead of being viewed as their teacher and protector, you become the primary source of their pain and fear, and this can extend into their ability to trust other people and animals. By participating in negative-reinforcement or forceful approaches we are conditioning them to be intimidated by our presence and what might upset us, instead of showing them how clearly defined positive behaviors makes them (and you!) feel happy and safe. At its best, forceful training conditions the dog to fear their loved ones and discourage their desire to learn and train with you (after all, if learning something new from someone is extremely painful or stressful for you – why would you want to do it?), and at its worst has caused numerous injuries and death from the physical abuse and the consequences of unmanaged anxieties and learned helplessness.
Training Myths and FAQ
“If it gets results, then what does it matter?”
Dogs (and all pets) are meant to be our companions, and they rely solely on us for their care and support! They do not choose to be adopted into your home or to have been domesticated from hundreds of years ago, and so the responsibility lies with us to treat them right when we decide to care for them. Their lives are short and revolve mostly around waiting for us to get home from work and other responsibilities to interact with them – why would we want those interactions to be filled with fear and apprehension?
“Negative reinforcement has been around for a long time, and even has its own popular dog trainer supporting it! Surely it can’t be that bad?”
The main issue with these approaches is that by being forceful and thereby causing stress and pain, we are fostering a fearful relationship between the dog and people. These popular shows also fail to show whenever a dog or non-professional human sustains injuries or trauma from a forceful approach. A dog that does not trust people is unlikely to want or even know how to please them, and often has increased signs of aggression and destructive behaviors. Destruction through fear is especially a vicious cycle, as force and punishments will increase their stress and thereby increase their desire to “release” the stress through the destructive or anti-social behavior. Positive reinforcement shows the dog through firsthand experience that pleasing people is desirable for everyone involved and makes them feel safe. It also doesn’t pose the same physical or mental risks to the owner and their dog that forceful training does.
To put it simply: When trying to help someone through unnecessary fear or anxiety over a situation – if you increase their fear and stress, it’s unlikely to get them to move past it and react in a healthy way. It is more effective to show that they do not need to be afraid. The same holds true for dogs!
Aren’t dogs always striving to be the “alpha” and “dominate” me?
The truth is most undesired behaviors stem from the individual dog’s own insecurities and are manifested from to their desire to feel safe or humans misunderstanding of what is ‘normal’ dog behavior.The same researchers that initially proposed the very popular “Alpha Dog” myth later went on to retract their findings acknowledging their data was flawed. Dogs are hundreds of years removed from their wild ancestors, and in their domestication have changed and come to rely on us to both teach and care for them throughout their lives. We are always expanding our knowledge on their capacity to learn and interact with us. As Victoria Stillwell herself put it: “Positive is not the same as permissive.” Using a technique that is safer and has better immediate and long term results is simply moving forward with our understanding of our animal companions - Not allowing them to control or manipulate you.
The Benefits of Positive Reinforcement
- Promotes healthy socialization and trusting relationships with owners and family
- Increases drive for learning and helps prevent future behavior problems through healthy stimulation
- Positive reinforcement training is fun for everyone involved, and safe for families with children!
- It involves only humane techniques which keep you and your dog free of dangerous situations
- Positive reinforcement helps address the root cause of an undesired behavior by encouraging healthy reactions to stressful or unfamiliar situations.
“The animal training industry is completely unregulated and anyone can call themselves an animal behavior professional in spite of having no formal education or qualifications. So what can consumers do to protect themselves?” See the answers to this question in this article.
For those of you who are actively looking for a trainer, we highly suggest you use The Pet Professional Guild to begin your search.
Finally, for those who don’t have any major issues with their dog but would be interested in building a stronger relationship, we recommend starting your research on our training page here.
For Training Tip Thursday series check out our TTT album here.