Fact vs Fiction, Part I

I want to dispel a few myths about positive reinforcement training methods.  There seems to be a great deal of confusion as to what positive reinforcement really is and about which dogs and behaviors it is useful for.  For example, I have heard people say that positive reinforcement trainers only deal with obedience training, but when it comes to severe behavioral issues such as aggression, dominance training methods are the only ones that really work because they are more in tune with a dog’s basic psychology.  Nothing could be further from the truth so I thought it was time to lay out the facts about positive training and explain why dominance theorists and practitioners have it so wrong.  (See the Myths & Truths page here.)

Myth:  Positive reinforcement trainers only use food as rewards, which is a form of 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:  This is something that I hear often but comes from those who do not understand how powerful positive training is.  Food is used as a reward especially for a dog that is food motivated, but rewards such as toys, praise and play can be just as powerful if a dog happens to be motivated by them.  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.  If a dog sees that there are pleasurable consequences for a behavior then he is more likely to repeat the behavior because doing so makes him feel good.  When a person is attached to that good feeling there is more likelihood of the dog listening and responding to whatever that person asks of him.  That is why I have never understood why people choose to train their dogs using force and punishment.  The dog might behave and do what the human asks but only because he has learned that not behaving will cause a negative reaction in his human and that needs to be avoided at all costs.  Not a good place to be!

Food also 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.

Myth:  A dog will only respond to food rewards and will ignore you if you don’t have food in your hand.

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 this has been achieved the high reward, such as food, should be 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.  It would be wonderful if a slot machine gave out money every time you played it but unfortunately that doesn’t happen.  The promise, however, that you could win the jackpot the next time you play makes you want to play even more until the slot machine pays out.  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:  Positive trainers do not use discipline.

Fact:  Positive does not mean permissive.  Discipline is an important part of the learning process, but the form of discipline used in positive training differs greatly from the type of discipline used in dominance training.  Such 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.  Positive training uses constructive discipline to guide the dog into making better choices rather than scaring or inflicting pain.  Hard punishments used by dominance trainers are not only cruel but are also potentially dangerous and damage the trust between dog and human. Again, dominance trainers will argue that these are effective methods of punishment because they stop dogs from repeating negative behavior, and they are right to a point.  The punishment is most likely to work there and then, but the experience of the punishment can make dogs feel more insecure and wary of their owners and it is common for dogs that are punished in this manner to keep reoffending because they haven’t been shown that there is another way to behave.  The only thing harsh punishment does achieve is to make the person feel better because they have gained control even if it meant dominating the dog into submission. That might be fine for some people, and unfortunately there are those that actually don’t mind using hard punishment.  I not only feel sorry for the dogs that such people come into contact with but also sorry for those people for being so misguided.  I have said in previous articles that I believe people who train their dogs using dominance techniques show a great weakness within themselves.  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.

I believe that dogs should learn just as much from constructive discipline as they do from reward.  Disciplinary techniques such as removal, time outs, taking something of value away, ignoring behavior and interrupting negative behavior with a vocal interrupter can be extremely effective, and I use these techniques on all kinds of dogs with all kinds of issues.  It is so much better to be able to influence an animal’s behavior without using force, which is why positive reinforcement methods really do offer a better alternative to outdated and abusive dominance theory.

Myth:  Aggressive dogs are trying to be dominant.

Fact:  Let me say this once.  Contrary to what some trainers might lead you to 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 another real 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.   This is just one example of how dominance trainers get it so wrong and then impart this flawed knowledge onto dog owners who believe what they are told because it comes from a person that is supposed to know what he or she is doing.

Coming next in Fact vs Fiction, Part II -  quick fixes , using  positive reinforcement on aggressive dogs, and the One True Way to train.

See the Myths & Truths page here.

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