Why Should You Choose Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?

A new client recently asked me why he should pursue positive, reward-based training over a more punishment-based method. To be honest, I really appreciate questions like that.

It is easy for positive reinforcement trainers to assume clients are already committed proponents of dog-friendly training. But they often call us simply because they saw our advertisement or because a friend referred them to us.

The fact is, there are a lot of training options out there, and the success of TV celebrity trainers like Caesar Milan have made aversive training methods seem like the best choice.

While I always try to explain the benefits of positive training methods to my clients, I am particularly pleased when clients ask me why they should choose reward-based methods over harsher training philosophies. It gives me hope that positive reinforcement training is gaining mind-share and being critically considered by the general public.

I explained to the aforementioned client that positive reinforcement training would be better for his dog for the following three reasons:

  1. Aversive training is error-prone. It is important that we be clear on something: aversive training certainly can work. A cursory glance at the dogs competing in gun dog field trials shows that traditional, aversive training works and can produce some amazing results. However, just because something can work does not mean it is a viable method for every trainer, owner or dog.

    The sense of timing necessary to use aversive methods is usually beyond the skill level of most dog owners (and many dog trainers). Since dogs associate a punishment with what is happening right now, unintended side-effects can arise from improperly timed punishments.

    One particular dog I worked with comes to mind: a Chinese Shar-Pei who was zapped hard with a shock collar every time he pulled on the leash towards another dog. Within a couple weeks, this poor fellow went from being a little over-exuberant around other dogs to being red-zone aggressive -- after all, dogs became a predictor of pain for him.

    Also, since dogs quickly toughen up to weak punishments, and since most dog owners (and, again, many trainers) do not comprehend the level of force necessary to immediately extinguish a behavior, many dogs end up receiving near-constant, ineffective punishment as owners try in frustration to snuff out unwanted behaviors.

    Some believe any punishment issued to a dog is abusive, although some of the leading behaviorists and top proponents of positive training methods refuse to completely rule out punishment. (Patricia McConnell, who is an overwhelmingly positive behaviorist and trainer, refused to sign a no-force-ever pledge, and Dr. Sophia Yin has produced videos outlining the "correct" use of punishment.) Feel free to debate this among yourselves, but one thing is for certain: the ever-increasing quantity and intensity of punishment necessitated by insufficient initial delivery of a punishment is a sure recipe for the abusive treatment of dogs.

  2. Stress slows the learning curve. Punishment causes most dogs stress, and when a dog is stressed it ceases to learn and begins reacting. In my experience, the stress usually results in the dog freezing up or stalling out. However, the reactions can be more severe for some dogs, even to the point of resulting in a bite.

    Not only do harsh methods stress dogs, but they often stress owners and trainers as well. It is difficult for most people to constantly apply punishment to a dog without becoming agitated -- especially when the punishments seem ineffective and have to be amplified.

    Not only does positive training purposely avoid stressing dogs, it is much less stressful for owners and trainers as well. When training is kept fun and rewarding, dogs become partners in the learning process, and learning occurs much more quickly. Since dogs love to have fun, it does not make a lot of sense to train them in a way that makes them (and you) miserable.

  3. Positive training is more conducive to a fulfilling bond with your dog. Having trained hunting dogs using both positive and aversive methods, I have found that dogs trained with positive methods bond with the owner differently than those trained with aversive methods.

    Dogs trained using aversive methods tend to obey because they know better than to not obey. True, it is obedience. But in my opinion, that is not as fulfilling as a dog that obeys because it loves to do so. One dog feels a bit like a slave. The other feels more like a friend.