Myth vs Fact
There is a fierce debate raging in the dog training world between traditional dominance and punishment-based trainers and the positive training movement.
Common Dog Training Myths:
- There is more than one way to train a dog.
- Positive training methods don’t work on 'red zone' dogs.
- Dogs only 'respect' leaders who assert their 'dominance.'
- Positive trainers do not believe in discipline.
- Training a dog with food is basically bribery.
- Positive training stops working when you stop giving treats.
- Aggressive dogs are trying to be dominant.
- Dogs are pack animals like wolves and are hell-bent on becoming the 'alpha' or 'top dog' over their owners.
- Dominance training is safer because it works faster.
- Positive training is always slow.
- Positive training and dominance training are both equally effective.
- Positive trainers treat dogs like human kids
- 'Alpha Rolls' make dogs calmly submissive.
MYTH: There is more than one way to train a dog.
FACT: This is the trickiest one to answer, because technically speaking, this is true. You can train positively or you can train with intimidation. (Within these two approaches, there are a lot of different tools and methods you can use.) What you have to ask yourself, though, 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 your dog, he will probably stop what he is doing, but trust will be broken, and if you continue to intimidate him, he may well bite. If you want to have an emotionally balanced and confident dog that trusts you and wants to be with you, the positive path is the one you should take.
So yes, there are different ways to train your dog, but until certain punishment-related tools and techniques are (correctly) deemed as illegal, it is left up to your individual moral compass to guide which path to follow when building a relationship with your dog.
The simple question is this: do you want your dogs to follow you because they want to, or because they are scared of what will happen to them if they do not? There is no place in the healthy, balanced dog/human dynamic for macho, intimidating behavior, and only positive training methods create and foster relationships with your dog based on mutual trust, respect and love rather than pain, fear and intimidation.
MYTH: Positive training methods don't work on 'red zone' dogs.
FACT: Actually, this is where positive reinforcement methods are at their most powerful. Using positive training to treat ‘red zone’ or severely aggressive dogs is not only a safer option, but a much more effective one.
Positive training doesnot 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 It’s Me or the Dog, her other shows and in private practice, Victoria and other positive trainers around the world successfully rehabilitate big, powerful dogs suffering from severe aggression issues on a regular basis. But instead of fighting aggression with aggression (a game-plan that usually results in someone eventually getting bitten), a qualified positive trainer is able to truly change the way dogs feel for the rest of their lives using force-free methods – not just the way they're acting at that moment.
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. Instead of using forceful 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.
MYTH: Dogs only respect leaders who assert their 'dominance'.
FACT: Well, dogs do need effective leadership from us, but the whole idea of dominance is a very complex and widely misunderstood concept which almost always takes dog owners down the wrong path when applying it to their dogs' behavior.
Instead of looking to become alpha, top dog or pack leader over us, most dogs simply want safety, security and those things which generally make them feel good. They know we're not dogs, and in fact they prefer us to provide effective, non-combative and punishment-free leadership. Contrary to popular belief, we do not need to try and act like what we think an alpha wolf would do when dealing with our dogs, but rather provide consistent, reward-driven learning which helps guide dogs into making the right choices – the choices we want them to make in order to succeed in our strange domestic world.
So do not get caught up in whether or not you or your dog has the upper hand in the battle for dominance. Focus instead on building a common language, rewarding the good behavior, redirecting the bad behavior, and instilling confidence in your dog to live successfully within the boundaries that you set for your household.
MYTH: Positive trainers do not believe in discipline.
FACT: Positive does not mean permissive.
Most positive trainers do use discipline, in the form of vocal interrupters, time-outs, ignoring negative behavior, or removing something that the dog wants, all of which are used to guide the dog into making the right choices rather than forcing it to behave out of fear. In technical terms, such discipline is called “negative punishment” because it removes (negative = 'minus' or 'less') something that the dog likes, such as your attention, access to you, or a favorite toy. This is by no means to be confused with the term “positive punishment,” which, though it includes the word “positive,” is defined as punishing the dog by adding something to the equation that the dog does not like (corrections, physical force, or intimidation).
Dominance-based discipline uses force and hard punishment such as ‘alpha rolls' (when a dog is forcibly laid on its back and side and held down until it ‘submits’), ‘biting’ (where a person uses the tips of their fingers bunched together that are poked into a dog’s side in order to simulate a ‘bite’ that a dog would use to reprimand another dog), foot pushes (where a person uses the side of their foot or heel to prod or kick a dog when it is misbehaving), hanging (where a dog is hung by his collar until his air supply is cut off), and shock collars that deliver an electric shock when the dog misbehaves.
Anyone can get a dog to behave using punitive training but it takes a real understanding of dog psychology to use discipline effectively without inflicting pain or fear and to guide a dog into not repeating negative behavior while maintaining trust between dog and person.
MYTH: Training a dog with food is basically bribery. A dog should never be bribed into doing something for food but should obey their owners because they want to make their owners happy.
FACT: Those who claim that food is bribery do not understand how powerful using food in training is.
Food has the power to help a fearful or anxious dog overcome his fears. When food is presented to a fearful dog in the presence of a stimulus that causes that fear or anxiety, the smell and taste of the food bypasses all other parts of the brain and goes straight to the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala. Instead of feeling fear, the brain begins to be overcome with not just the pleasurable feelings that food gives but also allows the dog to focus more on the good sensation and less on the negative emotion. Food is incompatible with fear and is therefore a valuable tool in modifying a dog’s fear, anxiety and stress.
Positive training isn’t just 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.
The bottom line here is that a reward that motivates a dog to learn is a great training tool because learning not only makes a dog more confident and able to live successfully in a domestic environment, it also encourages mutual understanding that increases the human/animal bond. That is not bribery.
MYTH: Positive training stops working when you stop giving treats.
FACT: Any reward that is used to motivate the dog to learn has to be of high value until the dog is responding reliably. When training positively, once this has been achieved, the high reward, such as food, is only used intermittently. That means the dog doesn’t get rewarded with the food every time he responds to a cue, but the next time he responds he might just get it. Then the next couple of times he responds, a lower-value reward such as praise will be used, but the dog continues to respond.
In fact, intermittent reinforcement like this actually makes a dog respond faster and more reliably because it is based on the same theory that makes a slot machine in a casino so addictive. This is how dogs really learn so even if you don’t give a food reward every time, the possibility of the potential of one in the future makes a dog work much harder.
MYTH: Aggressive dogs are trying to be dominant.
FACT: This is very rarely true.
Contrary to what many believe, dogs are not out to achieve world domination! Dominance theory relies heavily on the idea that if a dog is being aggressive, controlling or just behaving badly then it must be trying to dominate the owner. While domination does happen in the canine world, it shows a true misunderstanding of dog behavior to label everything a dog does as an attempt to be top dog or boss over a human.
If a dog is exhibiting controlling behavior in or out of the home, chances are that he hasn’t been taught how to behave appropriately. If a dog hasn’t been taught how to function in a domestic environment he will behave in the only way he knows how. He might control access to food, space or furniture by aggressing at a human only because he is insecure and hasn’t been given the confidence to know that there is no need to guard these resources. Dogs guard and control for fear that they will lose access to their comfort and what makes them feel good and not because they want to dominate humans and the household, yet for so long these kinds of behaviors have been grossly misunderstood.
MYTH: Dogs are pack animals like wolves and are hell-bent on becoming the 'alpha' or 'top dog' over their owners.
FACT: Dogs are not wolves, and most of the common thinking which assumes that we should base our understanding of how dogs think and act on wolves is based on flawed and misguided research which has been renounced by the very scientists who first presented the idea.
There are thousands of years and many generations removing dogs from wolves both genetically as a species and practically as our domestic companions. What's more, even the idea of 'top dog' or 'alpha' status in the wolf world has been wildly misunderstood and is a dangerously misguided way of thinking about our dogs. Dogs actually offer submission to one another rather than aggressively staking out claims of superiority, and the way wolves interact has very little bearing on how we should assume our dogs think, feel and act.
MYTH: Dominance training is much safer because it has quicker results.
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. 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 dangerous and fundamentally wrong to assume that by punishing a dog, the dog is fixed.
If a human has an anxiety problem, chances are they will seek out therapy to help them. That therapy does not work in one session (and certainly didn’t in the past when therapies were punitive). 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: Positive Training Is Always Slow
FACT: This is not true. People who have yet to experience it are routinely amazed at how quickly the power of positive reinforcement transforms dog behavior. Positive training actually changes the way a dog feels, thus altering his tendency to make the 'wrong' choice. Once a dog learns to think for itself within the guidelines that we set for him, everyone is in for a far more harmonious, balanced and happy life experience.
That's not to say that more serious fear and anxiety-based behaviors don't take much longer to get under control, because they often do. But which would you rather have: a quick solution based on 'patching over' the underlying issue with the huge risk that the bandage will likely come unstuck, or a solution that takes longer because it addresses what's really causing the problem and is far more likely to truly change the dog's behavior forever.
MYTH: Positive training and dominance training are both 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. Simply, there are more effective, safe and humane ways of doing things. There are many fantastic methods and approaches that can be used to effectively change dogs' behavior, but all of those methods have one thing in common – a solid basis in the general principles of positive reinforcement and force-free training.
MYTH: Positive trainers treat dogs like human kids.
FACT: Treating animals like they are human beings is called anthropomorphizing, and good positive trainers do not do it. In fact, many of the common behavior issues that Victoria and other positive trainers are regularly called in to fix stem from the owner's tendency to anthropomorphize their dogs, and the first step in such situations is to convince them to stop treating their dog like a child.
At the same time, modern behavioral science has shown us that the dog’s emotional brain is wired very similarly to a human’s – dogs have emotions, just not with a human’s level of complexity and ability to extrapolate. Comprehending this is the first step toward understanding our dogs: seeing the world from their point of view.
Furthermore, studies have shown that the most socially mature dogs have an intelligence and ability to problem-solve and understand words and gestures similar to that of a two-year-old human child.
In short, most of us now raise our children using all the same positive reinforcement philosophies at play in positive dog training, but that does not mean that we should equate the two or treat them exactly the same.
MYTH: 'Alpha Rolls' make dogs calmly submissive.
FACT: The complete opposite is actually true.
The so-called 'alpha roll,' – a popular punishment technique used by dominance trainers – is the practice of restraining the dog on its back or side until it 'calms down.' It may indeed appear that the dog has become quiet and relaxed, but the dog has actually employed an instinctive survival tool we call 'shut down.' This response is used by animals to appease aggressors and attempt to avoid any further violence. If the dog remains still or 'shuts down' until the aggressor moves away, he is more likely to be safe.
Even if a restrained dog’s demeanor appears calm on the outside, research has proven that forced submission or restraint raises a dog’s stress levels, due to a release of cortisol into the dog’s bloodstream. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in the adrenal gland and released in response to stress. Elevated stress inhibits learning and compromises a dog’s ability to function normally.
To the untrained eye, a restrained dog’s stillness may indicate that he is calm, but an internal battle is being fought as the dog tries to cope with what is, in essence, a stressful episode brought on by of an act of physical violence by a human, in which the dog is the victim. Any 'success' that may be achieved when using dominance techniques on even a mildly aggressive dog is generally just a case of the dog’s 'shutting down,' suppressing his true instincts, and masking valuable warning signals.
Trying to 'put the dog in its place' usually results in a short-lived quick fix, merely postponing the inevitable negative response once the dog feels threatened again. This delayed reaction can easily resurface at the worst possible moment, such as around children or in public.
Advocating for Animals – Victoria and Holly are joined by actor and animal activist, Peter Egan to discuss dogs, moon bears and...
Victoria is joined by dog behaviour expert and a driving force behind the UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter Andrew Hale to...
The rescue of 180 Chihuahuas sparks a larger conversation on how to transition dogs from crisis situations into homes.
Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- 2021 Dog Behavior Conference Announced
- Why I’m Not a Purely Positive Dog Trainer
- Becoming a Dog Trainer
- Social Bullying
- Does Your Dog Respect You?