You probably don't like any dog training method that involves the word “negative.”
“I don’t want that around my precious doggo.”
And, I agree with you…
Most dog owners would rather live with a "bad" dog than have a dog trainer apply ‘negative’ behavioural training methods to correct said bad behaviour forever.
This has led almost all dog trainers to throw away decades of proven dog training methods in favour of ‘positive’ and modern systems – even if they barely get the desired result.
So, it begs the question…
Are dog owners and our positive-only dog behaviourists and trainers killing our dogs with kindness?
In this article, we’re going to explore the various types of training methods. What negative and positive really mean. And how dog owners and trainers can apply it every day to effect lasting changes in their dogs.
The short answer is “No!”, but you need to understand why.
The science behind most dog behavioural work and obedience training is Operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, there are 4 consequences for each behaviour.
1. Something Good can start or be presented, so behaviour increases = Positive Reinforcement.
2. Something Good can end or be taken away, so behaviour decreases = Negative Punishment.
3. Something Bad can start or be presented, so behaviour decreases = Positive Punishment.
4. Something Bad can end or be taken away, so behaviour increases = Negative Reinforcement.
#1 relates to pleasure: providing treats, playing a game, or a lovely run in the park.
#2 is taking something away that the dogs like a favourite toy or a treat.
#3 is direct punishment, hitting or using electronic collars or choke/check chains.
#4 is removing something that may be causing pain or distress, stop hitting or stop pressing the button on a shock collar.
You can clearly see why #3 and #4 are negative training methods, not because they don’t get the behaviour fixed… but because they tend to make a dog fearful and withdrawn.
However, denying the effectiveness of #2 leaves dog owners with only #1, which is essentially killing their dogs with kindness – and it doesn’t work!
Except in certain circumstances, most good dog behaviourists and trainers tend only to use positive reinforcement and negative punishment.
Personally, I think bad trainers and behaviourists would either use just one (usually #1) or all four when training a dog.
I know it will sound strange to hear me say positive reinforcement can be bad for a dog.
However, many trainers and some so-called modern behaviourists, think they can effect lasting change in a dog using just positive reinforcement.
To them, this is the only ethical way to change bad behaviour in a dog.
If they truly understood the science of behavioural and training methods, they would not take Skinner's work and throw away three-quarters of it.
According to the behaviourist who created the behavioural quadrant, Skinner, the term ‘positive’ means that something is being presented soon after an action.
As a result of that presentation, the action increases in frequency or intensity. The ‘positive’ in positive reinforcement has nothing to do with good or bad, or with what is beneficial or detrimental.
It is not connected to what anyone does or does not want.
By definition, positive reinforcement could include what we would label as ‘harsh punishment.’
Here’s what I mean…
If, for instance, a dog snarled and threatened to attack you, and you responded by kicking and abusing the dog… then that abuse could serve as a positive reinforcement.
The dog’s aggression towards the owner intensifies because of the abuse. Repeated over time, the level of aggression and the frequency becomes the dog’s natural response to abuse.
Your abuse would therefore function as positive reinforcement of the aggression. Same way praising and treating a dog can reinforce bad behaviour when it is done at the wrong time. Just as surely as punishing him in the wrong way.
Do you now see why you need an experienced dog trainer with a deep understanding of dog training science?
Understanding operant conditioning and behaviours is far more complex than the simplistic belief that punishment is bad and reinforcement is good.
As an experienced dog trainer, I wish it was that easy… like the 80s cowboy films where the hero wears a white hat and the antagonist a black one.
I challenge any dog trainer or behaviourist to demonstrate the effectiveness of their method using positive reinforcement only. It is impossible to train any animal, be it dogs, humans, horses, or monkeys using positive reinforcement only.
Either these people are deluded or lying to dog owners.
If they weren’t they would realise that negative punishment can be as simple as closing your hand on a treat so a dog doesn’t get it. Walking a dog on a lead is "negative punishment." Turning away from a dog that is jumping up is NEGATIVE.
Many of these so-called “Positive-only trainers” are actually teaching in our colleges and universities and are responsible for marking exam papers of students who will graduate and become our future dog trainers and behaviourists.
They’re often marking papers based on their own biased, unsupported opinions and unproven theories.
I have first-hand experience with this!
These people quote Skinner’s work and talk about operant conditioning… yet consciously ignore the fact that Skinner’s operant conditioning has four interdependent elements.
They simply choose what feels right to them vs what’s proven to work.
I find them not only sleazy but also complicit in the increasing number of dogs that are regularly euthanized or put into rescue.
What positive-only trainers lack is the understanding that all animals, including humans, need to be aware of actions and consequences.
In their hurry to show how kind and caring they are, they ignore the main tenets and principles laid out in ethical conditioning.
No dog trainer should claim they use only positive and friendly methods when they also apply negative punishment under operant conditioning – using a lead is negative punishment.
Any dog trainer who cherry-picks Skinner's work and claims to take the moral high ground yet uses negative punishment (not offering treats for unwanted behaviour) is sleazy.
A dog can be running around enjoying itself – maybe a little too much. As soon as we attach a lead to their collar or harness, then we’ve used negative punishment because we have taken away something the dog enjoyed – freedom to play.
Because someone hears the word ‘negative punishment’ and feels it means animal cruelty?
The answer is “No” because it puts the dog and people around it at risk.
There are dog trainers that will advise you to turn away and fold your arms when the dog nips you. More often than not, this results in the poor dogs becoming more frustrated and anxious, therefore, more dangerous and aggressive to humans.
If the initial frustration and attention-seeking behaviours from the dog do not work, it could result in the escalation of aggression or unacceptable behaviour.
I am of the opinion that most of these behaviourists and trainers never even touch the dogs they are treating. They sit and observe for a few hours. They scribble fifty-pages report on what you should do – even though they are totally incapable of doing it themselves.
It’s like learning to drive by reading a book.
It’s my belief that over 40% of the dogs I’ve worked with are dogs that other trainers and behaviourists have failed to make any appreciable difference – probably those who claim to be positive-only or force-free trainers.
These are likely the same trainers that instead of teaching a dog to heel, put on it what they consider are kind and gentle devices such as a harness or, worse, a Halti.
I have seen dogs desperately struggling to get these infernal devices off their faces. And many end up having their hair rubbed down to the skin, blisters and abrasions and infections where they have ridden up and rubbed against the eyes.
Are these supposed to be the kind alternatives?
All harnesses, Halti’s and head collars work on impeding the dog to make it not pull. Surely that can only happen through pain and discomfort. They also do not teach the dog to heel they only restrict it.
If the "training aid" does not actually train the dog – i.e. in other words, when you take it off the dog immediately pulls again – then it is definitely not a training aid and must work using pain and discomfort.
As an ethical dog trainer in Thailand, I teach methods which actually train the dog to walk to heel, rather than just impeding and distressing it.
In many recent pressers and media articles, there have been calls to change the way schools, organisations, and families instil ethics and discipline in our children.
The experts have come out to say that we’ve failed recent generations by not teaching and extolling the virtues of respect and instilling an ethical and moral compass.
It’s unfortunate that some people in positions of education and training believe neither children nor pets should be controlled by anything other than positives – and good vibes.
No negatives, discipline, or control whatsoever. Ignore the bad… reward the good.
Unfortunately, we’ll end up creating a society that fails to instil morals, decency, and self-control. We owe our children and our pets an educational and training programme whereby they understand boundaries and guidelines, right from wrong. Respect, rather than contempt.
None of these requires cruelty pain or distress.
In a society where we cannot even say “No!” to children or pets, it won’t be long before anarchy reigns. We are now euthanizing far more of our once beloved pets for behavioural and training problems than ever before.
Just think for a moment why that may be happening.
I read a report some weeks ago that said aberrant behaviour in our dogs is the main reason they are euthanized. I would place all the blame firmly at the doors of the positive-only and so-called force-free trainers.
All animals, especially mammals, need a track to run on… and that track is "consistency."
In the wild, actions have consequences. The correct behaviours and boundaries are taught by pack members including the mother, older siblings, and the alphas in control of the pack.
It’s no surprise that very few injuries result from aggression or fights – even in wild animals such as wolves, coyotes, wild dogs or jackals.
These animals have a strong and powerful set of rules and hierarchies that filter down to even the bottom members of the pack. They have a strong ethos of belonging. Each animal’s position and rank in the pack receive the respect it deserves.
That is because the ‘pack’ as we call it, is not run by alphas as in a dictatorship… It’s a family unit made up of a father, mother, and offspring.
It is vital to note that leadership in this setting is rarely tyrannical but based on mutual respect.
Posture aggression (arching the back or displaying teeth) is the norm rather than any real attacks to reinforce rank. The reason for this is obvious, tyrants and overtly aggressive leaders would engender fear rather than respect, and insecurity rather than confidence.
Unless the pack works as an efficient cohesive unit, then their hunting forays would be far less successful – especially if some members of the pack are injured from inter-pack fights.
As humans, we cannot truly be alphas to our dogs – after all, we are not dogs and do not communicate the same way. But we can lay out boundaries, guidelines, and rules to follow.
We can control resources which may include food, toys, games, and even access to us. As resource controllers, we can gain mutual respect without fear, thereby creating a deeper bond with our pets.
But as in any community, pack, or family, there have to be guidelines and these must be clearly defined for them to work.
Stress plays a vital role in learning: too much of it and learning collapses, too little and learning does not occur…
Provide the correct amount of stress and learning automatically happens and we begin to witness changes. Certain aspects of stress are vital to a dog’s growth, both mentally and physically.
The example I like to give is in regard to how puppies learn.
Learning for them doesn’t begin when they reach their new home... it starts the day they are born – maybe from the womb even. The only two senses puppies have from birth to about 2 weeks old are touch and taste.
They are born blind, deaf, and unable to smell.
Their sense of smell starts working from about 10 days, hearing at 3 or 4 weeks, and reliable sight at 6 – though they can see before that, it’s almost like looking through a veil.
Gentle and careful handling by humans during this vital time from day #1 onwards creates a mild stress response in the puppy, which acts to improve them both physically and emotionally.
Therefore, this is good stress.
Puppies that are handled during the first few weeks of their life mature and grow quicker; they are more resistant to infections and diseases, and are generally more stable.
They become far better at handling day-to-day stress, are more exploratory and curious, and learn much faster than pups that are not handled during this crucial period.
That is one reason you need to be careful when choosing a puppy.
Do not purchase from puppy farmers or large breeders who do not have the time to handle the pups, and never get one from a pet shop. Look for breeders that are not commercially minded.
Those who have them indoors. And love dogs, not just for the money they can make from breeding them.
When people do not truly understand how dogs learn, then all they do is follow the latest fad and theory. Unfortunately, this is almost always to the detriment of the dogs.
We must all be aware and conscious of the fact that both puppies and adult dogs must have the full spectrum of experience – not just the positives. But to pull this off we also need consistency and understanding of what is acceptable and what is not.
… but it should not be used in isolation.
It must be coupled with consistent actions such as encouraging good behaviour but actively ensuring we don’t reward or ignore the unacceptable behaviour – they have to be dealt with using the appropriate punishment to ensure the behaviour decreases.
If good or bad behaviour is clearly defined for a dog, then it becomes far easier to understand and follow.
Your dog will be calmer, and more settled, and your relationship together will become stronger and deeper – both owner and pet will benefit.
As dog trainers and owners, we all need to play our part to ensure that the number of dogs currently being re-homed, sent into rescue, or euthanized will once again reduce.
We need to train the ‘bad’ out of our dogs instead of actively praising them, hoping they’ll change – my experience says they won't!
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