Recently, there has been much debate on social media on different methods of dog training and behavior modification. There have been several trainers and behavior consultants going back and forth with each other on the best tools, techniques, and methods to train dogs. Also being debated is the impacts of those things on the dogs.
I will save you all the details, but in a nutshell, there are certain tools and techniques that one camp has said are fine to use because they are not aversive to the dog.
The other camp says these tools/techniques are aversive and undesirable and should not be used with dogs.
Note: When referring to aversives, it is from the perspective of the learner, in this case, your dog. The most common aversive tools (although as I mentioned, not everyone feels these things are aversive) are e-collars, choke collars and prong collars. Other aversives may be spray bottles, loud shaker cans, leash pops, or even a stern word.
I have been reluctant to insert myself into the debate. For one, I strive to provide value and knowledge to my community. You, my friend, are not here to listen to me pipe off on outdated, aversive training methods (although, I could easily get on a soapbox). And calling out other trainers that I disagree with is just not how I want to show up in the world.
But you should know how I train, teach, and work with dogs. If you are considering working with me, you should know about the methods I use and why I do so.
Dog trainers typically get labeled as “positive reinforcement trainers” (no punishment/aversives used) or “balanced trainers” meaning they use both reinforcement and punishment.
As you probably guessed, I’m with the camp that refrains from using aversive tools/techniques and science backs me up.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior as well as about two dozen organizations worldwide have released position statements on this topic. The consensus is there is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification.
Studying behavior science and learning is not a new concept. In the early 1900s, it was determined that desirable consequences of behavior will yield to that behavior being repeated:
“Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation”Thorndike’s Law of Effect
Some years later, B.F. Skinner expanded upon that law with operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is where the term “positive reinforcement” (R+ for shorthand) comes from: something is added (+) with the hope of increasing the likelihood the behavior will occur again (reinforcement).
Now, the science aspect is fascinating to me! I could go deep into the science of behavior and learning (and if you want me to, comment on this post!) I believe it is important to be using methods that are based in science meaning they have been tested, documented, and peer-reviewed.
I teach the way I do because it is how I want to learn. It is how I best learn.
To me, the label “positive reinforcement” seems too narrow. Let me explain with a human analogy. (Y’all know I love my analogies!)
Some of you probably know that I had a previous 15-year IT career in corporate America. And then one day, at the peak of burnout, I quit without a plan. (Spoiler alert: it worked alright 😉)
When I was new in my dog training career and learning about behavioral science, I often joked that I might still be in corporate IT if some of my past managers had been more well-versed in positive reinforcement!
But now I understand that it goes deeper than just using positive reinforcement.
I mean, I was certainly being reinforced (paid a salary) for my behavior (coming to work and doing my job).
But I was still absolutely miserable and burned out. (I’m sure some of you can relate to this).
❌ I had zero say in what team and projects I was assigned to. I was hired into one position. But then volun-told I was moving to another team working on an entirely different project.
❌ The environment was not ideal and therefore many of my basic needs were not being met. I prefer to work in a quiet cave and the constant noise of the open-office space is a setting I will never be productive and comfortable in.
❌ My boss only seemed to talk to me when I did something he did not like. It seemed after every meeting where he was present, he would correct me in the meeting and/or afterward send me an email about what I did wrong. Alternatively, it would be radio silence from him.
❌ At one point, my boss and another manager were discussing a peer of mine in front of me. Like me, she was in a new role with more responsibility. The managers’ strategy for her was “sink or swim.” They were not going to help her, support her, or guide her. But rather, left her to figure it out on her own.
I felt constantly overwhelmed, overstimulated, and frustrated.
But hey, I was being rewarded (paid) so I should be fine, right?
Positive reinforcement is great for training new skills, but you need more to effectively teach your dog, help them overcome fearful, anxious behavior, and truly thrive.
So yes, I use positive reinforcement. But I also encourage and coach guardians to:
✅ Interpret what their dog is telling them by reading body language.
✅ Meet their dog’s needs in healthy, appropriate ways.
✅ Adjust the environment so the dog can be more comfortable and therefore more successful.
✅ Foster a safe environment for their dog and remember that being safe and feeling safe are two different things.
✅ Give their dog agency – a choice in what happens to them.
✅ Celebrate wins and progress along the way!
How do you train and teach your dog? Why do you use the tools and techniques you do? Tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading, friend.
Until next time,
–American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: Humane Dog Training Position Statement
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