Positive method dog training – why to use it and how it works

If you adopted a pound-puppy or an all-grown-up dog, brought a puppy home from the breeder, or have a family dog you'd like to get on the training bandwagon, be sure to consider positive method dog training. It's not only dog-friendly, but also the most effective method for training behaviors that last a lifetime, if properly applied.

Here's what some highly respected experts in the field of behavior have to say about your dog and positive reinforcement training.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recommends that trainers focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors and avoid reinforcing undesirable behaviors. For example, if your dog wants to get petted, teach your dog to sit in order to receive the reinforcement of petting. If your dog jumps up on you, turn around and walk away.

You get the behavior you want from your dog because you manipulate the resources your dog wants: You control the distribution of treats, food, affection, praise, walks, tennis balls — all the goodies and all the toys!

The AVSAB "is concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems" (Position Statement at http://www.AVSABonline.org).

It Works? Says Who?

Dolphin and killer whale trainers use their skills creatively to train the largest animals on the planet without the use of force, intimidation, or positive punishment. Positive reinforcement principles were first demonstrated in research by B.F. Skinner (1938) but it wasn't until the early 1990s, with the popularity of clicker training, that the method came into our living rooms to help us train our companion animals in a scientifically sound as well as loving manner.

How to Identify a Good Trainer

In the July 2006 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (JVB), entitled, Good Trainers: How to Identify One", the consensus of veterinary authors recommend that when searching for a good training class or private lesson, you ask, "Are the dogs happy" and "Are the clients participating and happy?" The method a good trainer uses to stop unwanted behavior "should never include physical punishment. Punishment makes animals more reactive, so it increases aggression and arousal". Good training tools to use are listed as: "treats, harnesses, head collars, praise and toys".  The JVB asks it's veterinarians to examine a trainer's credentials, experience and education in learning theory, as well as participation in programs of continuing education.

Addressing the Arguments Against Positive Reinforcement Training

The main argument  advanced against positive reinforcement training is that training with food rewards is bad and makes a dog's good behavior contingent upon receipt of a food reward.

All living things repeat behaviors that are rewarded, and because food is a powerful reward to your dog, it is a highly effective training tool and speeds learning. Preventing treat dependence is part of a positive training program. After initial learning has been achieved, use the following methods to supplement the occasional food reward:

  • Substitute food with affection or toys
  • Provide real life reinforcements
  • Link behaviors in a "chain/sequence" using just one reward after the last link in the chain.
  • Reinforcement randomly

Another misconception regarding positive reinforcement training is that positive means permissive. Not so. Positive method training relies upon teaching well-mannered self-control and boundaries to your pup and good management skills to you.

Our dogs bring us so much joy and unconditional love — we can learn to train them with a method that is fun and promises to enhance the relationship we want to have with them. Start training as early as possible for the best outcome with the least effort!

Linda Michaels, “Dog Psychologist,” MA, and Victoria Stilwell-licensed Del Mar dog trainer and speaker may be reached at 858.259.WOOF (9663) or by email: [email protected] for private obedience instruction and behavioral consultations near Del Mar and the San Diego Coast. Please visit us at DogPsychologistOnCall.com.  All rights reserved.


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Positively Expert: Linda Michaels, MA

Linda Michaels is a VSPDT trainer, dog training columnist, and owner of Dog Psychologist On Call in Del Mar, CA. Linda holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology with research experience in Behavioral Neurobiology. She is a Behavioral Advisor for the Wolf Education Project (WEP) in Julian, CA and Art for Barks in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.


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  • Mary

    We utilize these methods at the rescue where I volunteer. It is amazing how quickly the dogs catch on and it is the only method that we can use with rescued puppy mill dogs because they are so afraid of people. One raised voice will send them back into the shells we have worked so hard to bring them out of. Ignoring doesn't hurt or frighten and the dogs are so happy to please those who are kind to them. I also use it with my dog and puppy at home. The first behavior I taught my puppy was down because she is such a little jumper that she could hurt herself. All I did was say "down" and move my treat hand towards the floor. She picked it up on the first try and whenever she gets overly excited, which at four months she does quite often, all I say is "down" and she plunks down immediately and wags her tail because she is so proud of herself. Thank you, Victoria, for using and demonstrating these techniques.

  • Shannon Hughes

    I am a huge fan of positive reinforcement training my 4 1/2 mth old lab/golden mix has done exceptional with this. We have only had him about 2 weeks and already he is very well trained using this technique he is so eager to please and loves to learn new things and does so quickly because he knows that there is a treat waiting for him when he does. Thank You Victoria for all your wonderful training tips.

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