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"Positive" Dog Training Is Not Always What It Seems

Why falsely-advertised "positive reinforcement" training can do harm.

Ilana Reisner
Source: Ilana Reisner

At some point in my career as a behaviorist, I had the experience of attending a training class with one of my own dogs at a facility (that shall remain nameless) which claims to use only positive reinforcement-based (R+) training. However, within 10 minutes of being there, it was painfully obvious to me that, although they claim to be only positive, they didn’t understand the full scope of what that truly means. Sure, they used all the appropriate “catch phrases” on their website that I look for when trying to find out if a trainer is R+ or punishment-based (P+) and they even go to the extent of having their clients read and sign a statement stating that they agree to not use shock collars and prong collars for training their dog.

Unfortunately, despite these claims, the trainers at this facility used both physical pressure and social pressure, applied to a dog’s personal space, to achieve certain behaviors, and they used verbal scolding/yelling and leash corrections or “pops” to diminish unwanted behaviors. As if that weren’t enough, they also failed to recognize when a dog was fearful and scolded the dog’s owner (me) for attempting to counter-condition the dog during exposure to the fear-inducing stimulus (approach of people).

Let’s take a look at why each of the things they did and proposed should not be a part of any R+ training program, and are even potentially harmful to the dog, the owner, or the dog-owner relationship.

Physical pressure

A common example of physical pressure in dog training is using your hand to push the dog’s hind end down in order to make the dog sit. While this does often result in the dog’s rump hitting the floor (the desired outcome), your hand on his hindquarters then becomes a cue for the behavior. In other words, in order to get the dog to sit again, you will need the physical prompt of touching his rump. Of course, you can fade that prompt just as you would fade a food lure held over the dog’s nose, but that’s an extra step and one that most owners will not be able to accomplish without the help of a qualified trainer.

Social pressure

All mammals stand within a “bubble of personal space” which they maintain for safety and comfort. Some of us have bigger bubbles than others (like me!) and the same is true for many of our pets. When your personal space is encroached beyond your comfort level, you naturally back up in an attempt to maintain the desired bubble size. An example of using social pressure in training is placing the dog in front of you, preferably in a corner of a room, and walking forward into the dog’s personal space. The objective is to pressure her to back up, and thus to be cornered, which then forces her to sit. The problem with this technique is that you are relying on the dog’s fear to elicit a behavior. So now you have a dog who fears her owner’s approach, thus breaking a sense of trust the dog has with her training partner.

Verbal scolding, yelling, leash pops, and corrections

Dog training has come a long way since the 20th century. Those of us who have been around long enough know how we used to regularly do things: Shock collars, prong collars, and choke chains were part of most dog trainers’ repertoires. I admit to being a “cross-over trainer” — my first two dogs as an adult each had the unfortunate experience of wearing shock collars and being walked with prong collars. (I’m so sorry, Jackson and Nick; I didn’t know any better.) But as Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better." We now know through many studies on punishment, in both children and dogs, that there are long-standing repercussions to using punishment. This is true even if the punishment does not physically hurt. Punishment and confrontational methods can increase fear and anxiety in the dog, put the human user at risk of being the target of aggression, and can inexorably break the trust and the bond between the dog and his human. While verbal scolding, yelling, and leash pops are not likely to physically hurt the dog like shock, prong, and choke collars can and do, they nonetheless have to be nasty in order to stop the undesired behavior. This is the very definition of punishment.

The upshot: To be truly positive, or nonaversive, these methods and techniques should not be used.

Can you reinforce a fear-based response?

Back to the trainer at this facility, who claimed that my attempts at counter-conditioning the dog (offering an abundance of hot dogs when he was frightened) were simply rewarding the dog’s reactive barking and backing away, and thus increasing the likelihood of the behavior being repeated in the future. This was incorrect, however, because his barking and backing up were driven by fear.

Emotional reactions such as fear do not arise from the same portions of the brain that cognition and learning do. When a dog is rewarded for choosing to sit, the front part of the brain (the cortex) essentially says, “Great, I like hot dogs, so, in order to get more, I’m gonna sit more." In contrast, fear is not a voluntary state of mind, and therefore cannot respond to desirable stimuli (R+) by becoming more fearful, or to aversive stimuli (P+) by becoming less fearful or more confident. The scary stimulus would ideally become associated with those hot dogs pushed into the dog's face (counter-conditioning) so that “stranger danger” becomes “Halleluiah, bring on more strangers, because I get hot dogs!” To the layperson who doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of this mechanism, the trainer’s explanation may have made perfect sense—and the results might have been harmful. If dog owners believe this misconception, their lack of counter-conditioning (feeding, reassuring, talking in a happy voice, distracting) means the dog goes on living its life in fear when approached by strangers, Even worse, however, the owner attempts to stop the “unwanted” behavior of barking and backing away by punishing the dog (remember, a leash pop or a verbal scold function as punishment) which not only increase the fear and anxiety, but can lead to defensive aggression towards the owners themselves.

Finding a trainer

So how do we find a well-qualified trainer beside looking on their website for those key phrases about using only positive reinforcement? You could actually attend a class as I did, although I lasted only two sessions before I just couldn’t take it anymore. I regretted losing the nonrefundable fee, but it was worth it to be out of that environment completely and save my poor dog from that experience.

Or, research the trainer’s credentials (the training they underwent) and any continuing education they may have taken. Unfortunately the training world is still generally unregulated. There is no one certifying body providing oversight, and anyone can call himself or herself a dog trainer (or, worse, a behaviorist) without appropriate, science-based education.

Where can you find trustworthy trainers with the education level needed to help you and your pet? Here are some respected organizations that offer credentials to qualified individuals:

  • Karen Pryor Academy certified training partners (KPA-CTP)
  • The Academy for Dog Trainers certified trainers (CTC)
  • Canine Behavior Certified Consultants—knowledge assessed (CBCC-KA)
  • International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)
  • Certified applied animal behaviorists (CAAB, PhD)
  • Board certified veterinary behaviorists (DVM, DACVB)

Are there others? Sure. Members of the Pet Professional Guild have signed a contract stating that they will never use any form of punishment to train animals.

Important note: No certification guarantees that a trainer or behaviorist uses only force-free, non confrontational methods. If you are unsure, ask what methods the trainer uses, specifically in regard to aversive tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, intimidation, physical or social pressure.

There you have it. Don’t be duped into thinking that, just because a trainer’s website contains all the catch phrases about being positive, the trainers use NO punishment or even know what they are doing! Hopefully my own loss of money (still mad about that) can be your gain, and help you to choose a trainer and avoid the heartache I felt having to part ways with a respected facility in my community.

—Amy Pike, DVM, DACVB; Animal Behavior Wellness Center, Centreville, VA,

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB), nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the ACVB.

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