Everyone wants positive training, right? Why wouldn’t you? Negative training doesn’t sound like a good idea. Or “force-based training”? Or “pain-based training”? Or my favorite “outdated dominance-based theories.” And the list goes on and on.
Dog owners today are being brain-washed by organizations like PETA, the ASPCA or the Humane Society of America that all dog training must be positive and anything else is outdated, not science-based and doesn’t work. And this horrible Cesar Millan guy, oh my god…
Here is the problem. When well-intentioned people and organizations, who lack the most basic understanding of dog training, share their views, they are doing so from a perspective of ignorance. They are often uneducated on the facts and just go with their opinions and emotions. That may feel good but doesn’t help dogs and owners having a harmonious relationship.
Within the background of this minefield, I want to share some facts, I believe every dog owner should understand. I will keep it as light as possible, although to illustrate my points, I must be a little bit “sciencey” … and I mean actual science.
What Being Positive Means
First, in dog training, the term “positive” is thrown around like there is no tomorrow and it makes sense to most people. When we say something is positive, we usually mean it’s good and we call something negative when we consider it bad. But how does an electrician view positive and negative? They are just different wires. You need both to get the light turned on. The negative wire is not the bad guy. It’s part of the equation. Relax! I am not going to compare dog training to electrical wiring. The point I want to illustrate is this: words have meaning based on context.
In dog training, many terms come from a scientific model called Operand Conditioning aka The Quadrant. This model is used in human and canine behavioral work and was developed by a scientist by the name of Burrhus Frederic Skinner; usually referred to as B.F.Skinner. He used four words: positive, negative, reinforcement and punishment. The first two words are paired with the second two words, to describe cause-and-effect relationships. A cause-and-effect example would be: you make that big sale (cause) and get a bonus (effect). In his model, B.F. Skinner created the following groupings of these words.
Here is the thing though, all of these are scientific terms, and none of them mean, what you may assume they mean, from every-day language.
In this model “positive” refers to adding something while “negative” means subtracting something. These are operands, hence the name of the model: Operand Conditioning. These don’t mean good and bad.
Reinforcement refers to making a behavior more likely to occur in the future. In our example, the bonus should be reinforcement for more big sales and the hard work to make them happen.
Punishment refers to making a behavior less likely to occur in the future. If, for example, you were to become lazy at work and get fired (punishment), you will probably not be lazy in your next job, to avoid that from happening again.
Transitioning this to dogs, here are a few examples to illustrate:
You ask your dog to sit, he does it, you give him a treat. You are adding something (treat) to increase the likelihood with future command compliance (reinforcement) with “sit”. This is Positive Reinforcement.
So far this was probably easy enough, but now it gets interesting. Next, we use all the other words and you will see, they don’t describe evil things either. They are all part of learning and they are all necessary.
Let’s say you ask your dog to sit again and now he doesn’t. Are you still going to feed him the treat? Of course not, that would be silly. You may try again, but you are not rewarding him for not listening. So, what did you do by withholding the treat? You took the treat away (negative) to reduce the likelihood of non-compliance with “sit” in the future (punishment), so he can earn a cookie again. That is Negative Punishment. Was that mean? No. Was that cruel? No. Interesting what these words really mean in their context, isn’t it?
Next one, let’s say your dog doesn’t like other dogs and you want him to look at you when another dog shows up instead of barking his head off. We could set up a training scenario, where we control the other dog (through another person) and every time your dog looks at you (reinforcement) we have that other dog leave the area (negative). In this example, removing the other dog is the reward for looking at you. Once your dog gets the idea that looking at you makes that other dog go away, he will look at you more readily and easily. That is Negative Reinforcement. Oh, your tortured and beaten dog. We are such monsters. Or maybe that wasn’t evil either. What do you think?
One more. Let’s assume your dogs LOVES playing tug of war with you but he also likes squirrels. If he loves the game with you enough, you could produce the tug toy each time you see a squirrel in the environment and have a great play session. By producing the toy (positive) we are making squirrel chasing less likely to occur in the future (punishment). That is an example of Positive Punishment. Surprised? Probably, but I want to be fair. Slapping a prong collar on your dog and popping him whenever he sees a squirrel is also positive punishment. What most people consider a physical correction, is positive punishment.
I hope these examples highlight that terms like negative and punishment mean something very different in dog training than you were made to believe by well-meaning ignoramuses.
The most important thing to understand about positive training is this: You can’t stop behaviors with positive reinforcements. You can only make an alternative behavior more desirable for a dog, so he will choose it over what you want him to stop doing. If wanting something to stop is all you want, positive punishment is all there is.
Dog Training Tools
I want to add a few words on dog training tools as this is obviously a related topic. Tools like prong collars or e-collars get vilified by animal rights groups as barbaric and painful. Just like said before, this is ignorance.
Obviously, you can hurt a dog with these tools, but that is not what they were designed for. There is one picture that has been floating around Facebook for years, with a dog having injuries all around his neck from a prong collar that got embedded. I assume it was on too tight for too long. That is of course horrible, but not common nor the norm—otherwise there would also be way more pictures like that and not just that same one.
If we judge tools—or anything, really—by the most inappropriate use, by the most unskilled people, we won’t have anything left. It may be a teaspoon to you, but I see a perfect eyeball carving tool … no more teaspoons! Clearly, that can’t be the standard. If you get to observe a skilled trainer work a dog on a prong collar or an e-collar, you see how much the dog enjoys the training, doesn’t suffer, is not being hurt and learns beautifully. Obviously, not all dogs need to be trained with these tools, but for some they are the best way to train them. It is never about inflicting pain, it is always about safety (for dog and owner) and speed of learning.
Please always judge tools only by appropriate use by skilled people, because we all need to keep teaspoons available to us. Judge training by how the dog looks like. Is he enjoying the training? Is he making progress? Does he like the trainer? The last one can, of course, take a few hours in the beginning but a skilled, patient trainer will make a dog come out of its shell.
On the other hand, if the dog is obedient but looks depressed, he was put under too much pressure during training. You can find plenty of examples on YouTube showcasing quick results that killed the dog’s spirit. Stand against that, I do. But please don’t vilify effective tools in the right hands, used with skill and compassion.
Picking a Dog Trainer
When picking a trainer for your dog, interview them. Below are some marketing labels you will encounter with dog trainers and here are my thoughts on those.
If a trainer calls themselves positive only (R+), they don’t understand the terminology of dog training. How likely will they be skilled in training your dog? Don’t get me wrong, there are some great trainers out there who market themselves as positive only, but they know their label is a marketing scheme and doesn’t describe their work based on dog training terminology. Ask questions.
If a trainer calls themselves balanced, find out what that means to them. There are too many correction-centric trainers who have adopted that label, but also large number of good trainers label themselves that way. You must drill deeper to get a coherent picture. Again, we have many amazing trainers, calling themselves “balanced”, just understand what that means for their work, before you hire them.
Generally, trainers who emphasize relationship building and/or a “positive first” approach are usually more enjoyable for you and your dog to work with and are some of the most skilled in the business. This includes many LIMA trainers, which stands for: Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive. NePoPo trainers is another label you will see: it stands for Negative–Positive–Positive and so is the label: Force-Free. But Force-Free is used by some very skilled e-collar trainers, as well as positive only trainers, so again, ask questions.
Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen and Community Canine certifications, author of the dog behavioral book: "If Your Dog Could Talk" and owner of the dog training company Happy Dog Training. Ralf works with clients in Southern California and can be contacted through his website at HappyDogTraining.info.