Dogs are not on a quest for world domination. They are not socialized wolves who are constantly striving to be ‘top dog’ over us, and they are not hard-wired to try and control every situation they are in. Contrary to what traditional training ideologies and much modern media would have you believe, most canine behavior problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you Therefore, teaching dogs ‘who’s boss’ by forcing them into ‘calm submission’ is precisely the opposite of what they really need in order to learn effectively and overcome behavioral issues. Resisting the urge to ascribe our human insecurities onto how we believe our dogs think and feel is a prerequisite to being able to understand and build truly balanced and healthy relationships with our dogs.
But that’s only half the solution. The use of positive reinforcement methods when teaching your dog has been universally endorsed by the behavioral scientific community at large as the most effective, long-lasting, humane and safest method in dog training. Basically, positive reinforcement means that if you reward a behavior you like, there’s a better chance of that behavior being repeated. When paired with negative punishment (the removal or withholding of something the dog wants like food, attention, toys, or human contact for a short period of time) or using a vocal interrupter to redirect negative behavior onto a wanted behavior and the guide a dog into making the right choices, these methods, combined with an awareness that most dogs are not trying to be dominant, are what I call ‘positive training.’ Traditional (old school) trainers often argue that positive training shows weakness and a lack of leadership, but the truth is that the most respected and successful leaders are able to effect change without the use of force. Positive is not the same as permissive. Of course I believe in effective leadership, but dogs know we’re not dogs, so it’s silly for us to try and act like one by calling ourselves ‘pack leaders.’ In fact, the very scientists responsible for defining so-called ‘pack theory’ have since renounced their own findings as well as clarifying that there is a huge difference between the behavioral tendencies of wolves and dogs. Remember that dogs and humans are very different species, and we should no more try to act like a dog than we should treat dogs like humans (a situation that happens all too frequently and leads to all kinds of problems).
Positive training doesn’t only work on small dogs with minor obedience issues – it is also by far the most effective way to treat severe anxiety and ‘red zone’ aggression cases. On my TV show, It’s Me or the Dog (now seen all over the world) as well as in private practice, I regularly work with big, powerful dogs suffering from severe aggression issues. But instead of fighting aggression with aggression (a game-plan that usually results in someone getting bitten eventually), I and thousands of great positive trainers worldwide are able to truly change the way a dog feels for the rest of his life using force-free methods – not just the way he’s acting at that moment. In order to effectively manage aggression and anxiety-based issues, you must first understand why the dog is doing what he is doing and then work to address the root cause of the problem, not just suppress the symptoms with punishment. Too often, dominance and punitive trainers misdiagnose the real cause for dogs’ behavior, meaning they apply forceful treatment protocols that are ineffective at best and very dangerous at worst. These methods often appear to ‘work’ because they do indeed stop the dog’s behavior at that moment, but this success is usually short-lived because the dog’s instincts and reactions are merely being suppressed temporarily – not truly changed. Like a human undergoing psychological treatment, there are no shortcuts to changing how one thinks and feels, and it takes time to achieve true success.
That’s not to say positive training is always slow. Indeed, people are routinely amazed at how quickly the power of positive reinforcement transforms dog behavior. The use of food as a reward in training is not bribery – food has a powerful effect on brain chemistry which encourages dogs to learn and helps them overcome emotional states such as fear and anxiety (the root cause of most aggression), so ignore those who claim that using food is bad because they simply do not understand its power.. Positive training isn’t all about using treats though. I encourage people to use whatever reward motivates their dog, whether it’s praise, play, toys or life rewards like going for a walk or getting a belly rub.
People often ask me if there’s more than one way to train dogs, and I always say ‘of course there is.’ Just like there’s more than one way to spell the word ‘Mississippi.’ But only one of those ways is right. What you have to ask yourself is what kind of person do you want to be and what kind of relationship do you want with your dog? Punishment does work for a while – if you poke, yank, shock, kick or hit me, I’ll probably stop what I’m doing, but I won’t like you very much, and if you do it enough, I may well snap one day. I want my dogs to follow me because they want to, not because they’re scared of what will happen to them if they don’t. There’s no place in the healthy, balanced dog/human dynamic for macho, intimidating behavior, so be sure to use positive training methods to create and foster a relationship with your dog based on mutual trust, respect and love rather than pain, fear and intimidation.
"Those of us who love dogs know what an important part of our lives they share. That’s why I’ve made it my life’s mission to help create healthier, more balanced relationships between dogs and owners by spreading the word about positive reinforcement training. We all know that dogs need and want us to provide effective leadership, and I firmly believe that the only way to truly ensure that we are successful in achieving the necessary balance with our dogs is by using positive reinforcement and treating them with the same respect that we ask of them. Dogs are dogs, after all, and since they don’t speak our language, the only way we can effectively communicate with them is if we learn to talk and think dog - Positively. Victoria Stilwell Positively is also proud to provide financial support for The Victoria Stilwell Foundation, which helps individuals and groups around the world to make life better for both dogs and humans by supporting canine assistance organizations and rescue shelters.
Victoria Stilwell Positively is a global community of trainers, owners, and anyone who believes as I do that positive training does more than teach your dog to sit, stay and come – it is a set of guiding principles that enriches the relationship between us and our dogs through positive reinforcement, effective leadership and an ability to truly communicate with the pets we love. Positively"