A couple of weeks ago, I posted the first part of my 'Fact versus Fiction' blog. There are so many myths and misunderstandings out there about the science and reality of dog behavior, I thought I would try to help clear up a few more things here in part II.
Myth: Positive reinforcement cannot be used on more severe behavioral cases such as aggressive dogs.
Fact: Actually, this is where positive reinforcement methods are most effective. Using positive reinforcement to treat ‘red zone’ dogs is not only a safer option, but a much more effective one. Aggression is a dog’s way of protecting himself and his resources, and is deeply rooted in fear for survival, fear of loss of comfort, a desire to repel a perceived threat and is a great way to control space and environment. Aggression is therefore deeply rooted in insecurity. Punish an insecure dog and you make that dog even more insecure even though it looks like he is behaving better. When a dominance trainer works with an aggressive dog and uses punitive techniques to get a dog to submit or ‘calm down,’ not only is that dog using an instinctive survival tool of ‘shut down’ to make the person stop whatever they are doing, a dominance trainer will then label the dog’s non-reaction and ‘calmness’ as a success. People love successes, especially when they are achieved quickly and they look very impressive, but those of us who really know what is going on shake our heads in dismay because not only has the dog been mishandled, the person has been misled into thinking that their dog has been ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’. The other reaction a dog has to being manhandled through dominance techniques is to lash out and bite the trainer or owner in anger, frustration and/or fear in order to get that person away from them. The person is hurt, the dog is then punished again, and this destructive cycle is repeated.
Aggression in dogs needs to be handled sensitively and with compassion. Aggressive dogs are under stress and this stress needs to be managed so that the dog can feel better while the trainer finds the cause of the aggressive response and then works with the dog and the owner to modify it. Far from using force or punitive techniques, a dog is guided by using positive techniques that help him see a perceived threat or potential loss of a valued resource in a different light. For some dogs this can be achieved relatively quickly but for others it can take a while, which is why it is important to see every dog and every situation as unique. Positive reinforcement is the best philosophy to use in these cases but there are many methods within this one philosophy that can be used, making positive reinforcement a much safer and more reliable method to use on even ‘red zone’ dogs.
Myth: Dominance training is much safer because it has quicker results and for an aggressive dog anything that works quickly means that the dog is safer for humans to be around.
Fact: This is a flawed and dangerous way to think. This ‘quick fix’ idea demeans a dog’s experience and is psychologically unachievable. A dog’s emotional brain is wired in exactly the same way as that of a human. Yes, exactly the same way. So his physiological response to emotion is the same as ours, which means that our bodies have the same internal reaction to emotions such as fear, joy, excitement etc. When a dog is suffering from anxiety or fear that provokes a negative behavior such as aggression, then it is sheer foolishness to profess that by punishing a dog, the dog is fixed. This is dangerous and fundamentally wrong, I can’t put it clearer than that. If a human has an anxiety problem chances are they will seek out therapy to help them. That therapy does not work in one go (and certainly didn’t in the past when therapies were punitive) and it takes time to work through an anxiety and change the way a human feels about something. It is exactly the same for a dog because time is needed to really change the way a dog feels emotionally. Punitive training just puts a band aid on the problem but the dog still feels the same inside if not more insecure for the punishment he has received for ‘behaving badly’.
Myth: There are two different behavioral philosophies that you can use to train dogs - positive reinforcement or dominance training and both are equally effective.
Fact: There are many great training methods and many different effective and humane ways to train dogs, but all of those methods fall under one general behavioral philosophy – Positive Reinforcement. For some reason, though, a lot of people still don't like hearing trainers say that it's not ok to train your dog using any method that "works". Using that heavy-handed logic, it would be ok do just about anything to a dog if it meant they stopped misbehaving right then and there - there are more effective, safe and humane ways of doing things. I believe that there are many fantastic methods and approaches that can be used to effectively change dogs' behavior, but I also firmly believe that all of those methods have one thing in common - a general basis in the principles of positive reinforcement and force-free training. Things change. We evolve and learn. As a society, we've agreed to move forward in an effort to develop a better understanding of ourselves and our planet - why the resistance to apply that sense of development to our understanding of animals in general and dog behavior in particular? I can ony guess that those who refuse to accept that we now know better than to use force to dominate do so because they're either uninformed or because they actually derive pleasure from 'being the boss' of another being. If it's the former, then fair enough - that's why I've developed this site: to inform. If it's the latter, however, I have no patience for these people and view their rationale and motivations for such behavior as a sign of tremendous insecurity and weakness.
I advise owners to walk away from dominance trainers. Dominance methods are destructive and when it comes to training dogs, positive reinforcement is the only truly effective and humane philosophy for all the reasons listed above. This Positively site is the online home for positive reinforcement and I am so proud to have the best in the business blogging here. But don’t think for a moment that these or any other positive trainers are weak. We treat and train dogs with kindness and respect because we know that only through practice, scientific research and discovery can we truly understand a dog’s behavior and help to mould and change it if needed without using forceful or punitive methods. We are like-minded people that deal with dog behavior every day, and most importantly, we see the positive results that our training methods have both for the dogs we use them on and for the people that love them.