Using Positive Reinforcement on Dogs vs People

Everyone knows I use positive reinforcement in my dog training. You’re probably sick of hearing me go on about it. But an issue that comes up more frequently than you might think is the idea of using positive reinforcement in the human side of dog training – and let’s be honest, the human aspect is the biggest part. The dogs are usually pretty easy – it’s the humans that need the most help!

The short answer to whether my passion for positive reinforcement applies to my work with my human clients is ‘yes – of course.’ Like all dogs and almost all other animals, we humans respond better to encouragement and praise than we do to fear of punishment and pain. Just look at how we’ve developed as a society in terms of how most of us raise our kids. When I was going to school, I still remember getting the switch (British version of the paddle) when I was naughty or got something really wrong. Nowadays, thank goodness we’ve evolved and our children are built up and encouraged to try, fail, try again and eventually aim to succeed – all with a positive spirit. That’s why I say that the way we raise our kids is very similar to the way positive trainers work with dogs. It’s very much the same.

The only caveat to the whole ‘positive trainers should only use positive reinforcement with the owners too’ concept is that there’s a big difference between a mature, world-wise, emotionally complex and intelligently aware human adult and both dogs and most kids. Some people argue that positive reinforcement dog trainers should only ever practice positive reinforcement with their human clients as well, and that it’s a double standard if they don’t.  And while that’s a noble goal that is almost always the preferred and first choice for how to approach a situation with a client or friend regardless of dog training techniques, the comparison breaks down a bit when you try to ascribe the same level of expectation and communication techniques to dogs and sentient, intelligent human adults.

Think about it for a minute. Say you and a grownup friend both want the only glass of cold water in the room after you return from a long run. You’re both thirsty and are dying for a drink. Now say your grown friend acted like a selfish, petulant baby by slamming the glass of water down, breaking the glass and saying ‘If I can’t have all of it, no one will have any of it!’ If that exchange happened with a 3 year old, you’d have different expectations and handle the situation quite differently than if it were an 8 year old, an 18 year old, or a 48 year old. We quite rightly expect more mature people to better understand the consequences of their actions on others, exhibit more restraint, and generally behave better than a toddler.

Now apply this to dogs. Keep in mind that most dogs have the emotional maturity and intelligence level of an average 2 year old human child. You can’t reason with them to the same extent you would a teenager or an adversary across a boardroom table. You can’t expect the dog and toddler to be able to understand the complex nature of what you may be planning like an adult should. More specifically, you don’t expect a mature adult to consciously make as many potentially dangerous, ego-centric choices, and your ability to withstand such immaturity from someone who should know better is understandably much less.

Over the course of 110-plus episodes of It’s Me or the Dog, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for not being particularly restrained when it comes to expressing my opinion and letting people know what I really think in a given situation. (Did I put that fairly?) Obviously a portion of that is due to the fact that while it’s a dog training show, the networks need a bit of a story to be told and a bit of slight dramatics never hurt in that cause. But I never put anything on for the camera. If I acted shocked, disgusted or dumbfounded by something the owners or dogs did on a show, it was because I was genuinely shocked, disgusted or dumbfounded.

Some people who are not the biggest fans of positive training in general and me in particular have occasionally reached for the argument that I’m ‘not nice’ to people I work with on the show, and that that shows a certain hypocrisy in my methods since I preach so vehemently for positive, enriching relationship-building in my dog training methods. I respectfully disagree.

If someone is being a jerk, I’ll tell them they’re being a jerk and will not back down from it. If they’re acting like a bully or endangering those around them – especially children – I’ll let them know that I completely disapprove. I hold humanity in high regard, and expect a certain level of empathy, awareness, compassion and generally good, safe behavior from grown adults who should know better. When people don’t act that way – whether it’s my husband, someone on my TV show, or a work colleague – I have no problem calling things like I see it and labeling their words, actions or behavior as unintelligent, ignorant, or uninformed. I also fully expect everyone who interacts with me to hold me to the exact same standards (if not higher, given the added responsibility I’ve been blessed with due to my increased public profile).

But I wouldn’t treat a dog or a young kid like with the same level of expectation. And I also wouldn’t insult a grown adult by assuming they have the same level of awareness and inter-relational insight skills as a dog or a two year old toddler.

Sometimes dog training clients can be rude. Sometimes they can willfully make your life miserable. Sometimes they can get combative regarding suggested techniques just to spite you. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not being respectful of others and having an open mind regarding new ways to approach things, especially with an expert in their field. Turning the other cheek is great and something we should all do when we run into nasty people, but when supposedly mature people who should know better display ignorance or a superior attitude that just peeves you off, it’s not always possible (or even advised) to look for an opportunity to ignore or redirect the bad and reward the good the way we do with young kids and dogs as positive trainers.

So where does that leave us?

While positive training has been proven by modern behavioral science to be the most effective and long-lasting approach to building solid, trusting relationships with our pet dogs (and other animals), it’s also generally a good guide to live your life by in your interactions with others. Sadly, however, there is ignorance, mischief and even malice in our human world among those with whom we sometimes live, work or play, and that malignancy comes from a different plane of consciousness than the more simple, beautiful mind and hearts of dogs and young children. With dogs, you never need a heavy hand – they don’t understand why they’re suffering it and it doesn’t help them to learn deeper or faster. Plus it’s not as fun and it breaks down the relationship. With mature human beings, though, very occasionally you may need to get in someone’s face to make a real difference in the world – but only if there are no other options and you’re sure that as sentient, rational beings they’re fully able to comprehend the complexity and nuance of both yours and their own behavior and the impact it has on the world.

So do I use positive reinforcement when working with dogs? Yes, 100%. Do I use positive reinforcement on young children and those without an adult sense of maturity? Yes. Do I employ positive reinforcement concepts 100% of the time with grown people? No, not always when I’m dealing with those who should know better.


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  • Nadine

    Dear Victoria, you are so right. i became aquainted with your show this year (iam from switzerland and sorry about my english;) and i love it. i and lots of people here also practice the positive training with dogs. it makes fun and well, the dog has another languages as human has and i think that most people dont realise that or forget that while the training. And also the most problem is the patience and also the time what a dog need. Lots of people take a dog at home and dont realise thats a lot of work like nearly a child who grows up. Only the dog "stays" in age of 2-5 year old child, like you say. I think you are very fair to other people in your show and i think its always better to tell the truth than put lipstick on the pig. iam sorry but some people are simply foolish;)
    i also like your impulse control-training. I practice that also here and i can affirm that you come to your destination and stays there. Negative Training makes things going worse or makes that the dog response with fear and thats not fair. I always say, communicate not command.
    Keep going on with your show, i love it:)
    best greetings nadine with the gang of little rascals:)

  • Lindsey Novak

    I agree with 100%. I don't know how you are so patient with thoughtless, self-centered people. There are so many people who don't deserve to have a dog.

  • Andrew

    Dear Ms. Stillwell,

    I love your show and I have learned a lot from you.

    I, too, am often shocked, disgusted and dumbfounded by some of the things the humans do to their dogs. I find myself screaming at the television "WHY would you do such a thing?" As others have said, many should not have dogs. They treat the dogs like a commodity, rather than as a loved and cherished family member.

    Frankly, I am surprised you don't react stronger at times to some of the people you encounter. Some are clearly struggling to understand how to do things better/ differently, and those are the people with whom it is easier to work. Others, however, are clearly challenging you - almost daring you to be able to do better, as they sabotage everything you do. Those are the people who are not worthy of your time. But it is the dogs who are suffering. I am glad you have the tenacity to stay and work with those individuals, despite themselves.

    We should honor and treasure every day we have with our dogs. They bring so much to our lives. The sad part is they don't stay with us nearly long enough.

  • Nikki

    Victoria-
    Thank you so much for all that you do to raise awareness about what dogs do and do not need in order for them to be successful in domestic life. You are a true champion for those who have no "voice" !! Since watching your show, I have begun to take a firmer hand with my human clients at times and it has helped immeasurably! I'll admit, the first time I saw you threaten to hit a guy, I was shocked. I was truly conflicted, sitting there thinking "How can she, in one breath, explain how true leaders never rule though fear and intimidation and, in the next breath, promise to hit him if he doesn't shut up??". But then I "got it"- That man was deliberately disrespectful to you, and you had to let him know explicitly that you would not be tolerating that. Your verbal threat was more akin to a warning snarl (or maybe an "air snap" ;) ) than to a physical assault. I have always been taught to baby clients and pander to them in order to keep them as repeat customers, but damnit, some dogs NEED me to give the people in their lives a "cognitive bitchslap" (if you will)! It also raises the value of my positive feedback because people know I'm genuinely proud of them. Thank you for giving me my backbone back!!

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