Training Methods Matter

The history of the evolution of dog training methods goes back to the early 1900’s. Pavlov set a foundation for the understanding of animal behaviour with his experiments that showed animals could make a link between a neutral stimulus and something desirable (operant conditioning). A short time later Thorndike pioneered motivational education and positive reinforcement. His studies showed that behaviours producing a desirable effect were more likely to be repeated (Thorndike’s Law of Effect). This work was then built on by Skinner who developed our understanding of operant conditioning (behaviour results in consequences, desirable consequences can be used to build desired behaviours). The progress of dog training then took significant steps back with the World Wars when the demand for Military dogs drove a training style using harsh, aversive-based methods.

Following the world wars, and based on methods popularized by military training, the general public largely adopted aversion / punishment / correction-based training methods. More humane methods of training were largely pioneered (and isolated to use) in zoos and marine animal facilities, where use of harsh methods can have lethal results for trainers. It was not until the mid 80’s when the mainstream dog training community began to adopt force free, science-based training methods, promoted by luminaries such as Karen Pryor, Ian Dunbar, Sophia Yin, Terry Ryan, Pat Millar and others. Such training is called by a variety of different names: Positive reinforcement, Progressive reinforcement, Clicker training, Force free training and others. There is a great deal of evidence pointing to the value of eliminating force and aversive consequences (punishment / correction) from training but there are still many old school trainers that insist that the use of aversives is essential, or faster, or better for training. A variety of popular new training ‘programs’ based on aversive methods have evolved (Alpha, Pack leader, Dominance Theory) or on a mix of aversive techniques with positive reinforcement (Balanced Training).

So, if the old methods worked, why do we need something new?
It is undisputable that aversive methods work. The problem is HOW they work. Aversive methods where the dog is punished / corrected for doing anything other than the desired behaviour have several undesirable consequences:
a. The relationship between the dog and trainer is based on fear rather than trust.
b. Behaviour is suppressed rather than promoted. The dog learns to suppress all behaviour other than the one the trainer wants. This can be stressful for the dog as they try to learn what the trainer wants without being able to freely experiment with alternate behaviours, for fear of an unpleasant consequence. In contrast, positive reinforcement relies on dogs being free (and encouraged) to experiment with their behaviours to see which one will achieve a desired response from the trainer.
c. Aversive methods tend to escalate over time becoming more harsh if training is not successful.
d. Fear based aggression can be triggered in some dogs. Other dogs may develop ‘learned helplessness’ and shut down.

If punishment works and positive reinforcement works, wouldn’t combining them be even more effective (aka Balanced training)?
Balanced training uses a combination of corrections and positive reinforcement, claiming that this leads to more effective training. Many balanced training resources claim that positive reinforcement alone as a training method does not work, or only works for some things. Balanced trainers may claim that positive reinforcement training relies on coaxing and luring and that bad behaviour is ignored. All of the above is untrue of properly conducted positive reinforcement training.

What is the problem with using positive reinforcement training but also adding corrections when the dog fails to do the correct behaviour?
Positive reinforcement training relies on providing a desirable consequence when the dog does the desired behaviour. While luring may be used to a limited extent to kickstart some behaviours, positive reinforcement based training relies much more heavily on processes called ‘capturing’, where we catch the dog doing a desired behaviour and mark the behaviour then reinforce it with something the dog loves, and ‘shaping’ where the dog is encouraged to experiment with his behaviour to discover the desired behaviour (breaking the final behaviour into small easily achievable effects). Corrections and aversives suppress new behaviours – thus directly inhibiting the very thing we need to build the behaviours we want.

What are the advantages of positive reinforcement-based training (PRT)?
• PRT strengthens the relationship and trust between handler and dog.
• Risk free – PRT does not carry a risk of triggering fear-based aggression or learned helplessness from the dog.
• PRT can effectively train both simple and highly complex behaviours – most service dog training is based on PRT. Complex routines such as those seen in Canine Freestyle competitions are usually based on PRT.
• PRT does not ignore undesirable behaviours but rather provides effective tools for addressing undesirable behaviours.
• PRT produces dogs that love to train and are eager learners.

The proof is in the pudding! Take a look at the graphic by Lili Chin for examples of behaviour and animals trained using purely positive reinforcement techniques.

Used with permission / Creative Commons license. For more wonderful graphics from Lili Chin, go to: