The Truth Behind Positive Training

On Sunday 23rd March 2014 there was a great article about dog training in the Sunday Telegraph as well as in the Telegraph online.  The article highlighted a study that found pets trained using aversive methods were 15 times more likely to exhibit symptoms of stress than those trained using "positive" techniques and that training dogs with positive and humane principles was more effective and caused less stress and anxiety than training a dog using aversives such as physical punishment and equipment such as shock, choke or prong collars.

The study's results don't surprise me, nor any other trainer that uses positive methods, but it was great that the message was getting out to readers who might not know the difference and be confused about what methods to use or what kind of trainers to employ. What surprised me, however, was the opinion of a well known "animal psychologist" in the UK who warned that relying solely on positive training could lead to badly behaved pets. "It's a bit like realizing children need boundaries and having to say no.  That doesn't mean being cruel. It means owners have to not be so indulgent."

I was a little bewildered by this expert's view, because as an expert, surely he must know that "positive" training doesn't mean you let the dog run riot and do whatever he or she wants, nor does it mean you never say no.  Is that what the general public thinks too, that positive training is nothing more than stuffing food in dogs' mouths when they've done something good and never giving feedback when they do something we don't want them to do?  The animal psychologist it not the first to misunderstand the term "positive training".  There are many scientists and animal behavior experts that  don't get it either.

Positive training is a philosophy where dogs and other animals are only taught using humane, force free techniques that encourage dogs to learn, problem solve and think.   There is no fear, intimidation, bullying or domination as there is in old school punitive training methods, and as the study proves, positive training is a much more effective methodology that promotes learning and helps "rehabilitate" dogs with stress, anxieties, fears, aggressive behavior and phobias.  Positive training sets dogs up for success and relies on management strategies as well to promote that success.

Contrary to popular opinion though, positive does not mean permissive.  We don't allow dogs to do whatever they like and we do give them boundaries and tell them "no" when we need, exactly like children!  We use rewards in the form of food, praise, play, toys etc to encourage and mark good behavior as well as humane techniques to discourage negative behavior.  The kind of techniques I use to create boundaries are vocal cues to interrupt and redirect negative behavior to positive behavior, times outs or removal of the dog, withholding a reward or simply ignoring behavior.  These techniques work on all kinds of dogs from Pomeranians to Pit bulls and with all kinds of behavioral issues from dogs that chase to those that display severe aggression.

All was not lost though! I turned to my facebook followers to ask what they thought the term meant and they didn't disappoint.  Their responses were spot on: "Training without intimidation, fear or pain," "teaching with respect, love and kindness," "positive training works with the dog mentally, physically and emotionally," "Teaching and learning without coercion," "being firm but kind," "using techniques and tools to motivate a dog's thinking," "teaching alternative behaviors,", "encouraging relationship building and clear communication."

Positive training puts the emphasis on teaching dogs what to do, not continually punishing a dog for not doing what we want.  What sets apart a really good positive trainer  from the rest is not just their ability to teach a dog to do things using reward based teaching, but to use humane techniques to also curb and prevent negative behavior.  Positive training makes dogs more confident and builds a strong bond between dog and person. It encourages the dog to listen and respond when asked to do something and works well on all kinds of dogs including those" working" dogs with high drive.

So to all those  Sunday Telegraph readers, animal psychologists, scientists and anyone else who is confused about the term "positive training," I hope this clears a few things up and helps you pass on the right kind of information to those who need it.  We might continue to argue about what techniques are best but I'm sure if we asked a dog how he wanted to be treated, he would chose the positive, humane approach.  After all, like it or not, dogs fulfill the role of friend, companion and child to much of the animal loving population and we need to treat them as such, as well as celebrating their unique dogdom and the incredible ability they have of bringing such joy into our lives.



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One thought on “The Truth Behind Positive Training

  1. Lindsay Pevny

    To me, "positive training" doesn't only refer to the positive reinforcement used - it's also about the positive attitude the human needs to make it possible. Ever since I learned about R+ training, I realized that dogs never need to be blamed for misbehaving or not seeming to listen, and they never purposely disobey us, and that makes having dogs so much more enjoyable.

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