Dog training has come a long way from intimidation and “alpha-dog” style training. Thanks to behavioral scientists, we now know that using positive reinforcement is a much more effective way to train dogs. This is known as “positive reinforcement training” or “positive training.” This method rewards desirable, or “good,” behavior and ignores undesirable, or “bad,” behavior. And it has been universally endorsed by the behavioral scientific community at large as the most effective, long-lasting, humane, and safest method in dog training.
On MrOwl, there is a vibrant community of dog lovers and trainers with detailed information on training your dog, as well as caring for, feeding, bonding, breeds, and more. You can also find excellent blog articles, such as, How to Train Your Dog the Right Way, that gives a great overview of positive training. In this post, it lays out the four parts of positive reinforcement training and gives examples of how it works. The four parts are:
- using positive reinforcement
- avoiding the use of intimidation, physical punishment or fear
- comprehending the concept of dominance
- understanding the canine experience from a dog’s point of view
Although all four pieces fit together, the first part, using positive reinforcement, is arguably the most important. Positive reinforcement means that if you reward “good” behavior, there is a better chance of that behavior being repeated. After approximately 17 positive reinforcements of them doing what you want them to successfully, like going to the bathroom outside instead of inside, your dog will likely come to you when they need to go out.
The philosophy behind positive training is that dogs learn good behavior by being rewarded for doing well and punishment doesn’t have to come in the form of a harsh reprimand or physical force. Positive reinforcement trainers often use verbal cues, hand signals, treats, clickers, toys, or games to help modify behavior, correct bad habits, and teach tricks. One benefit to positive reinforcement training is that it can be used with both puppies and adult dogs.
The second part is almost as important – avoid using intimidation, compulsion, physical punishment, confrontation or fear. Scientific studies have shown that the use of confrontational, punitive training techniques on dogs does not work long term. It can actually exacerbate aggressive response and makes already aggressive dogs even more aggressive. Behavioral science advocates against compulsion training. Simply stated, it is more humane to reward than to punish.
Third, alter your understanding of dominance. For many years, dogs were trained using negative reinforcement or “alpha-dog” style training. (The proverbial rubbing a dog’s nose in its own poo.) Research has shown, however, that those techniques are not as effective as positive reinforcement training. (Giving a dog a treat when they relieve themselves outside.) The misunderstanding of what dominance is and how it works within the dog world is the single biggest challenge facing people’s ability to develop truly healthy, functional relationships with dogs. The thinking has been that dogs seek to “dominate” and that a person’s task is to assert themselves as pack leader and not allow dogs to be the “alpha dog.” Behavioral science has shown this thinking to be wrong.
Lastly, try to understand what your dog experiences from their point of view. Stay up to date on the behavioral science of dogs. Learn the dog’s language rather than expect our four-legged friends to learn ours. Doing so will give you the foundation to build a stronger relationship and make it easier to find effective positive solutions for any problem behaviors your dog might have. Try to appreciate its sensory experience. Put yourself into their paws and, as best as possible, view the world as they do. A strong bond cannot be built with a dog unless a person truly understands how the dog perceives the world around him.
So, what does this positive training look like in practice? It would follow a pattern similar to the following. When you and your dog are in good moods, have some small treats ready. Get the dog’s focus on you by saying their name. Show them a treat and let them sniff it, but not eat it. Slowly move the treat up in front of the dog’s eyes, over their head and towards their back. As you do this say the dog’s name and “Sit!” in an upbeat but firm voice. As the dog tries to follow the treat with its nose, their rear will naturally go down. As soon as the dog sits, say something like, “Good dog!” and give them the treat. This can take some time but keep practicing it several times a day at random intervals and soon the dog will learn the command.