What’s the best way to train a dog? Is it okay to resort to punishment, or should you use only positive, reward-based techniques? These differing opinions have caused a definite split in the training world. But as the debate between punitive and positive training methods rages on, science is revolutionizing our understanding of dog behaviour, and tipping the scales towards the more positive approach.
Why force makes things worse
Behaviour is closely linked to and influenced by emotions. Punishing a dog for an unwanted behaviour or for not obeying a command – without understanding why the behaviour is happening in the first place, and the emotional effect it is having on the dog – only serves to make the behaviour worse.
Punishments such as leash jerks and collar corrections, “alpha rolls” (when a dog is forcibly put on his back or side and held down until he submits), hitting, hanging by the collar, or using electric shock or spray collars might be effective in suppressing negative behaviour in the moment, but they do little to tackle the cause of the unwanted behaviour – and have the potential to make the dog act a lot worse in the future.
Owners who use these techniques are at greater risk of being bitten by or having their dog bite someone else, because punishment destroys the human/animal bond and causes pain, fear, mistrust, agitation and increasing anger. behaviour; establishing rituals; training incompatible behaviours that negate bad behaviour; and lessening a dog’s anger and frustration while enabling him to feel good inside. Behaviour is influenced without force, so that the dog’s trust in his owner will not be violated as a result of threatening treatment.
When I began training, pack theory and compulsion training was still a widely used philosophy. Now, even these theories are being discredited by the very people who made them mainstream. Though compulsion trainers would argue that their methods yield great results, I know that if a dog was given the choice, he would choose the kinder approach.
Forget the “alpha” approach
For too long, the public has been fed false information about their dogs’ perception of the world, and their intent as a domestic species. Dogs are not on a quest for world domination. They are not socialized wolves constantly striving to be “top dog” over humans, nor are they hard-wired to try and control every situation they are in.
Contrary to what traditional training ideologies and much modern media would have us believe, most canine behaviour problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the “alpha” over their owners. Therefore, teaching dogs “who’s boss” by forcing them into “calm submission” is precisely the opposite of what they really need in order to learn effectively and behave themselves.
True, some dogs might be controlling, but that is because they have not been taught how to cope and live successfully in the human world. If we don’t like something a dog does, then it is up to us to teach him the right thing rather than punish him for doing something wrong. Resisting the urge to project human insecurities onto how we believe our dogs think and feel, is a prerequisite to understanding and building truly balanced and healthy relationships with them.
Reward good behaviour
The use of positive reinforcement training methods has been universally endorsed by the behavioural scientific community as the most effective, long-lasting, humane and safest method of dog training.
Basically, positive reinforcement means that if you reward a behaviour you like, there’s a better chance that behaviour will be repeated. When paired with “negative punishment” (the temporary removal or withholding of something the dog wants, like food, attention, toys or human contact) or a vocal interrupter to redirect negative behaviour to a wanted behaviour, and guide the dog to make the right choices, these methods, combined with an awareness that most dogs are not trying to be dominant, are what I call positive training. Positive training techniques are centered on working the dog’s brain; being non confrontational; rewarding positive behaviour.
The use of food as a reward in training is not bribery – food has a powerful effect on brain chemistry, which encourages dogs to learn and helps them overcome fear and anxiety (the root cause of most aggression). So ignore those who claim that using food is bad — they simply do not understand its power. Positive training isn’t all about using treats, however. I encourage people to use whatever rewards motivate their dogs – it could be praise, play,
toys or life rewards like going for a walk or getting a belly rub.
Effective for anxiety and aggression
Positive training doesn’t only work on small dogs with minor obedience issues – it is also by far the most effective way to treat severe anxiety and “red zone” aggression cases. On my TV show It’s Me or the Dog as well as in private practice, I regularly work with big, powerful dogs suffering from aggression issues. But instead of fighting aggression with aggression (a game-plan that usually results in someone getting bitten), I change the way a dog feels for the rest of his life by using force-free methods.
In order to effectively manage aggression and anxiety-based issues, you must first understand why the dog is doing what he is doing, then work to address the root cause of the problem, not just suppress the symptoms with punishment. Too often, dominance
and punitive trainers misdiagnose the real cause for a dog’s behaviour, meaning they apply forceful treatment protocols that are ineffective at best and very dangerous at worst. These methods often appear to “work” because they do stop the dog’s behaviour at that moment…but this success is usually short-lived because his instincts and reactions are merely being temporarily suppressed, not truly changed. Like a human undergoing psychological treatment, there are no shortcuts to changing how an individual thinks and feels, and it takes time to achieve true success. That’s not to say positive training is always slow. Indeed, people are routinely amazed at how quickly positive teaching transforms canine behaviour!
The world’s top scientists and behaviourists, as well as the most respected veterinary institutions, are now warning people against using compulsion training and are encouraging owners and trainers to use positive reinforcement methods instead. People often ask me if there’s more than one way to train dogs, and I always say “of course there is!” But ask yourself what kind of person you want to be, and what kind of relationship you want with your dog.
Punishment does work for a while – if you poke, yank, shock, kick or hit me, I’ll probably stop what I’m doing, but I won’t like you very much, and if you do it enough, I may well fight back and bite you. I want my dogs to follow me because they want to, not because they’re scared of what will happen to them if they don’t. There’s no place in the healthy, balanced dog/human dynamic for macho, intimidating behaviour. So be sure to use positive training methods to create and foster a relationship with your dog based on mutual trust, respect and love rather than pain, fear and intimidation!
People aren’t “pack leaders”
Traditional (old school) trainers often argue that positive training shows weakness and a lack of leadership. The truth is, the most respected and successful leaders are able to create change without the use of force.
Positive is not the same as permissive. Of course I believe in effective leadership, but dogs know we’re not dogs, so it’s silly for us to try and act like them by calling ourselves “pack leaders”. In fact, the very scientists responsible for defining so-called “pack theory” have since renounced their own findings and clarified that there is a huge difference between the behavioural tendencies of wolves and dogs.
Remember, dogs and humans are very different species, and we should no more try to act like a dog than we should treat dogs like humans (a situation that happens all too frequently and leads to all kinds of problems).