About Positive Dog Training
The world of dog training is changing. "Traditional" training by compulsion, based on the assumption that a dog needs to be dominated to be made to do what we want, is being replaced by a more modern approach. This approach is driven by an enhanced understanding of how dogs (and many other species) learn, and what makes them increase or decrease the frequency of a behaviour. Positive reinforcement (i.e. anything that will increase a desired behaviour by making it rewarding for the animal to perfom it) is now being used by more and more dog trainers as a dog friendly and more effective alternative to the traditional approach to dog training.
At the same time as our understanding of animal learning improved, the assumption that dogs need to be dominated to be happy and obedient was also debunked as a myth.
View the RSPCA's position on dominance based training.
View the APDT's position on dominance based training.
The expectation that a dog should work for us just because we own him, or that he will only work for us if he knows we are "the alpha", means that we spend a lot of time being upset with the dog when it doesn't do what we want.
Once we let go of that expectation, we can get on with what we actually need to do: Just train the dog.
Dogs are actually quite easy to train. They have no hidden agenda: they simply do what works for them.
They work out what they need to do to:
- make good things happen, or stop them from going away
- make bad things go away, or stop them from happening.
In "traditional" training, the leash jerk on the choke collar is a "bad thing" that happens after the dog does something we don't want it to do. The dog will work out over time what it needs to do to avoid this bad thing from happening. In the process, it will also work out that when it hears our "nice voice" (the verbal praise we are allowed to use in this type of training), no bad thing is about to occur. Over time, this will teach him what is safe to do.
This training method exploits the law of learning that a behaviour that has negative consequences for the dog, will reduce and eventually go away.
By contrast, "positive" training aims to reinforce the dog (ie make a good thing happen) when he does the right thing. We help the dog understand what we want him to do by either initially showing him what to do (e.g. by luring with food in our hand, not by pushing him into position), by rewarding a behaviour he does on his own (like sitting down), or by rewarding a small step towards the behaviour we have in mind, gradually cranking up the requirements until we get to where we want to be ("shaping").
This training method also uses the law of learning, in this case that a behaviour increases in frequency if it has positive consequences for the dog.
So, both methods, if applied with good timing, consistency and sufficient repetition, will work.
The traditional method produces a dog that works to avoid punishment.
The positive method produces a dog that works to gain rewards.
The problem with traditional training
Dogs have been trained to the highest obedience competition levels with this method, so there is no doubt it can work. However, to work, it requires two things: a dog that can psychologically and physically cope with the discomfort and potential pain inflicted during training, and an owner who uses this technique expertly in a way that causes quick learning, as opposed to a long drawn out (and so more painful) learning period.
The biggest advantage of the traditional method is that it is relatively easier to understand and execute than the positive method: for most of us, it seems easier to identify what we don't want and react to that with a form of reprimand or punishment, than to focus on what is desirable and reward any step in the right direction.
However, there are potentially significant side effects to traditional training methods which use aversives:
"You can find pet dogs and obedience show ring competitors from both training styles that are happy, reliable, willing workers. You can find dogs from both training styles that are poorly trained and out of control. But you’re likely to see more dogs in a compulsion-based class who grudgingly comply with commands or look bored or disgruntled than in a positive reinforcement class, where enthusiasm usually abounds among two-and-four-legged students alike. More importantly, methods that utilize coercion, force and intimidation have a significantly higher likelihood of creating behaviors such as learned helplessness, in which the dog simply shuts down, and aggression, in which the dog fights back." Pat Miller, Do-Over-Dogs
For more information including videos, have a look at Dr. Sophia Yin's extensive discussion of punishment/dominance based versus positive reinforcement training.
The high number of cross over trainers speaks for itself.
A large number of positive reinforcement trainers "crossed over" from traditional methods, never to look back again. Pat Miller, Pam Dennison, Mark Spector and our very own David Weston, founder of The Kintala Club, are some of the well known of these trainers. More
All of these trainers were training dogs successfully the traditional way, earning the highest obedience titles. Each of them had an experience with a particular dog, which made them question their methods, and subsequently discover the alternative way of training dogs by using positive reinforcement. They went on to be just as successful, or more so, using this method, and felt resoundingly it was a superior and more humane way to train. The trainers above, and many others, went on to publish popular books and slowly managed to spread the word about this different method of training. Positive Training is now on its way to becoming mainstream in the US. Cesar Millan's seemingly contradictory popularity may be the backlash any major change brings with it.
From puppy to adversary
When we take a dog into our lives, most of us, I suspect, are looking for that special bond that can exist between dogs and humans. Of all the baby domestic animals, puppies are the most people oriented. They seem to come with an innate desire to be with us humans. They happily bounce up to anyone, wriggling their whole body in excitement. Everyone's expectations are high when the puppy is finally brought home.
Then, at puppy school, we are told that we must show the puppy who is boss so it won't become a nightmare to be with when it is older. That it will only be happy if it knows its rank, or otherwise it will try to boss us around.
We are told we must never let it on our bed, not let it follow us around the house, and lock it up in the garage at night so it learns to be alone, learns that it has no power, that we are the ones who control its life.
When it mouths us, or picks up something it's not meant to, we must tell it off with a firm voice, or even a growl. If it doesn't stop, it must be shaken by the scruff of its neck, because "that's what a mother dog would do".
And so the dream ends. We push aside our instinct to be gentle with the puppy, and treat it as we are instructed. We become used to being harsh with it. The puppy learns that bad things can come from us. It learns what it has to do to avoid our anger.
We are now more adversaries than friends: to show the puppy its place, it must always be told off when it does the wrong thing. Be rolled on its back to learn to be submissive. We find ourselves getting angry at the puppy more and more often, because it does so many wrong things, even though we believe it should know better.
As it grows older, the puppy no longer comes to us happily. It starts to be more interested in the world around it, starts pulling on the leash to get to this world faster.
We go back to dog school for help. We put a choke chain around its neck. This is how we communicate with our dog, the dog we wanted to bond with: we give it a jerk to its neck with a metal chain if it does what we don't want it to do. The best it now gets is our happy voice if it happens to have guessed right what we want. Once again, the dog works out what it needs to do to to avoid the punishment of the leash jerks. So, the training is successful.
It's not how you thought it would be. But that's what you have to do to a dog, don't you?
Don't end up in this trap: learn how to train your puppy the truly positive way, and enjoy life with your best friend!
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