I mentioned in a previous post that there’s much more to dog training than personal experience and opinions. Although lots of people like to give advice on dog training, they may not be qualified to do so. And that’s probably why I often hear things like, “Ask five dog trainers, and you’ll get five different answers,” – who are they asking, what are their qualifications? And things like, “Well, that’s your way of training, and this is my way of training,” even though opinions really don’t matter when we have actual scientific research…
A friend recently asked me about the profession of dog training, surprised to learn that the field is unregulated; dog trainers don’t all learn the same things or have the same credentials. There are NO requirements to become a dog trainer, despite the seemingly obvious threat to public safety that misinformation and poor practice poses… So here’s my response to my friend, and some explanation for you dog-lovers, dog owners, and dog guardians out there! This summary of the methodology of training is intended to help you know what to look for in a dog trainer or when evaluating information online, in a book or tv show for that matter.
So there are different kinds of trainers?
Yeah, there are “traditional” trainers, “balanced” trainers, and “positive” trainers.
Which are you?
I’m technically a “positive trainer”.
What’s the difference?
Well, positive trainers have science to back up their methods.
Let’s start with Dog Training 101: The Quadrants of Operant Conditioning
In learning theory, we have four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative punishment, negative reinforcement, and positive punishment. Positive and negative aren’t “good” and “bad” in training as they are commonly used, they are actually “adding” and “subtracting” much like in math. So positive means adding something and negative means removing something. Reinforcement means increasing a behavior (think of reinforced steel, which is stronger), whereas punishment means decreasing a behavior.
Positive reinforcement (+R) is adding something which increases a behavior, like rewarding your dog with a treat for sitting nicely. “Positive training” is really short for positive reinforcement, because positive trainers use primarily or entirely this method. It’s quick and effective, and offers long-lasting results without side effects. It does require a great deal of skill, timing and consistency, and creative problem-solving – but even if you make mistakes, they won’t result in harm to your dog.
Negative punishment (-P) is removing something to decrease a behavior, like turning away from your dog when they jump up on you (because you are removing your attention, which is what the dog wants at that time). Negative punishment should come only after excessive +R, if at all. Your dog still needs to know how to get your attention appropriately by sitting.
Negative reinforcement (-R) is removing something in order to increase a behavior, like relaxing the choke chain when the dog walks nicely on-leash. This method requires positive punishment first in most cases, usually you would have to inflict pain or cause fear in order to then remove it. There are exceptions, which I will write about in more detail later. In general, this is not an effective or humane means of training.
Positive punishment (+P) is adding something in order to decrease a behavior, for example giving a sharp jerk on the leash/prong collar in attempts to discourage the dog from pulling on the leash or squirting a dog with water in attempts to stop them from barking, for example. Positive punishment is pinching a dog’s ear, yelling at them, anything that is added to discourage a behavior. This method has been shown to be much less user-friendly and less dog-friendly, not really communicating what you intend to and actually creating behavioral side effects more often than not. Professional trainers don’t employ these tactics, unless very, very, very rarely and only after exhausting all other methods and consulting with colleagues, as outlined by the Humane Hierarchy and written into the code of ethics of various professional organizations and certifications.
Now, why do you need to know all that? Because, sadly, even some “trainers” don’t. Any trainer may describe their methods as “relationship based” or “motivational method”. I actually know balanced trainers who market themselves as positive trainers, so you need to know the difference. Here are the three major types of trainers:
Traditional trainers use positive punishment, negative reinforcement, fear, pain, intimidation, and mythology in training. Of course, they probably don’t call it that; they usually use euphemisms like “correction”, say that they tug on the leash to “get the dog’s attention”, claim that flooding will help the dog “face their fears”, and claim that dominance is “natural” to dogs, etc. They might tell you that you have to be the boss of your dog, make him do things or else; everything is their way because they said so. They’ll probably tell you that training with food treats is bribery and clickers are a silly fad. They typically use so-called “corrective” devices such as choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars in order to scare or hurt the dogs under their care – but they’ll call it an e-collar or insist that the shock doesn’t hurt, it’s only a “vibration” or “low-level stim”. However, these devices do cause an enormous increase in dogs’ stress hormones (ie anxiety and aggression) even when used correctly and/or by so-called trainers. If there is another way to train that offers the same or better results WITHOUT those long-term side effects, why wouldn’t you use that?
Balanced trainers try to incorporate all four quadrants into their practice, without regard to modern science (which proves that positive reinforcement is the most effective and humane way.) So while they might claim to be “positive” because they introduce new behaviors with treats, if they subscribe to dominance myth or still use “corrections” after they believe the dog should know better – this is disingenuous; they are NOT a positive trainer, they are a balanced trainer. I wasted the first couple years of my career as a balanced trainer; I understand that it sounds reasonable enough (there’s good AND bad in life, yin and yang). If only I knew then what I know now! It’s simply not a good way to teach any animal anything.
*If you are a dog owner, and you’re thinking, Hey, wait a minute! I thought balanced training sounded good… You are not alone, and it’s not your fault! The people giving training advice have a responsibility to give you the right advice, whether that’s a rescue/shelter, pet food/supply store, daycare, or veterinarian, but especially if it’s someone claiming to be a professional dog trainer. If positive training sounds new and far fetched, I highly recommend the books Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. And check out the links listed below for more info.
- use current, legitimate scientific research, cognitive behavioral therapy, applied operant conditioning / applied behavior analysis, and mostly or only positive reinforcement in training.
- typically use a clicker or a marker word in conjunction with immediate food treats (or another rewarding experience) in order to reinforce a dog’s behavior.
- also use careful management to prevent the practice of unwanted behaviors, teach the dog alternative behaviors, or teach behaviors which are incompatible with the problem behavior.
- use only humane and scientifically sound treatments of fear and aggression, such as systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning.
- DO NOT use or recommend positive punishment, aversive stimulus including choke chains, prong collars, and electronic shock collars, they do not cause flooding, use physical force or psychological intimidation, etc. – the “traditional” training techniques that balanced trainers also employ.
You might hear positive trainers go by different names, like “dog-friendly”, “force-free“, “clicker trainer“, “humane hierarchy trainer“, “science-based training”, or even “progressive reinforcement training“. Some just call themselves professional trainers, because positive training really is what we now know all training should be.
“What I’m advocating isn’t an all or nothing approach that discourages independent thinking. What I’m saying is that no legitimate independent thinking and thoughtful inquiry starts without first acknowledging what we already know to be true, based on scientific evidence. What I’m suggesting is that according to the experts in this field, we are many years of work and mountains of evidence beyond having to balance our training philosophies because the real scientists, knowledge producers and expert practitioners have confirmed ten times over that the new art and science of animal behavior IS the field.” – Emily Douglas, The Unexamined Dog
For more information:
The Truth About Positive Reinforcement written by Dr. Haug, run in Psychology Today
‘Types of Training Methods’ and ‘Red Flags’ in How to Choose a Dog Trainer by 4Paws University
Application of the Humane Hierarchy Position Statement from The Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers
Dr. Sophia Yin’s Philosophy
The Science Behind Positive Training from Victoria Stilwell
Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) approach from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers
The Continuum Generator by Jean Donaldson of The Academy for Dog Trainers