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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  • Janie Unger

    HI - I have a lovely 19 m.o. rough coated Jack Russell. Her breeder rehaomed her to me when the original buyers brought her back. The breeder uses all of the negative training dominance techniques you described. Now I feel like I have a child w/ oppositional defiance disorder. She challenges me every minute. I am trying so hard to discipline her w/ love only. She steals everything in the house she can jump to - and she can jump 5 ft. high. My biggest challenge is that my dad is coming home form a rehab & he is almost 90 y.o.. She adores him & loves to jump for his attention - I tell him to ignore her until she settles down - tried the turn your back - she dooesn't get it. He uses a walker but it gives little buffer. I want them to have a loving relationship.
    Wouldn;t you like to do a training show w/ the elderly? My dad is compus mentus - a real card, very funny & intelligent still. We live just n/w of Orlando - I worked in TV production & could even get a crew going here. Please come & help us. I had watched your show before we got our little rascal - I had a 13 y. o. Shnauzer at the time - he was a great guy but he died of Melanoma which is why Beegoe's breeder thouht she was doing us a favor by giving us a dog. And Beegie is GORGEOUS - her groomer says she has a Marilyn Monroe complex "I'm beautiful - that's all you need to know." I tried w/ a trainer - even the trainer said she is a handful & what a waste of money. PLease, please help us. Instead of calming the household, the dog raises the level of stress to a palpable point. Thanks - we love you!

  • Kathy

    Well said Victoria!!!! Can't wait for Part 2.

  • My Kessel was very food aggressive with my best friend who couldn't come anywhere near the kitchen if I was preparing food for us or for him. He would tense his body and snarl viciously and then lunge at my friend with jaws snapping. I at first tried having Kessel "watch me" but that didn't work, he was always watching my friend out of the side of his eye. I then decided to have my friend feed Kessel whenever he was at the house and what a difference that has made! My friend can walk in the kitchen anytime now with no issues.
    I absolutely adore Victoria and hope that more and more people will embrace her methods!

  • This is absolutely wonderful! Thank you so much for this Victoria! I am passing it to ALL of my clients!!

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  • Julie

    I love this site! Please make an iPhone application so I can read it on my IPhone, the format now as it shows on the iPhone needs a magnifying glass for us 40+ year olds...

    Thanks!

  • Nina Rosalie

    This is a brilliant article. I wish you had written it sooner as everything you explained was on yesterday's ABC exam! Your words are very clear and so easy to understand. I never heard of "hanging" before reading this. It actually made me queasy at the thought. Honestly, I can't understand why ANYONE would choose to hurt a dog over rewarding it.....it just boggles my mind!

    I'm looking forward to Part two of Fact or Fiction . Keep your "voice" out there!! ~Nina Rosalie

  • Jamie L Bird

    Another great article. I wonder if you mind me printing this and using it as an informative hand out to people at consults that start spouting all of these myths?

  • Martha Waltien

    So far, I only got to see one episode on TV (we have FIOS in NYC and it is hard to learn when you are on, as we do not use cable channels) but I was hooked.

    I did go to your website to see videos and will try to learn from them, and will have to get your book.

    We have 8 cats and got 2 inside the house recently, but they are only in an enclosed porch so that they won't be afraid of the dog. He can see them from the window in the LR to the porch and barks incessantly at them. I tried to think about your notion, if I have it correct, that the dog is protecting, and so I went to the cats and petted them to show him they are friends, tried to give him treats, etc. but so far it doesn't work too well.

    I will keep listening, watching and reading all of your stuff because I think you are sensational.

    (We have had trainers already - not very helpful.)

    Thanks

    P.S. The dog is 6, we got him at 3 from the sanctuary, and he is half Affenpinscher and half Chihuahua and 10 lbs.

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  • Sounds like great information to me!

    Watching an "out of control" dog stop, focus, and try to figure out how to get what he wants by doing what the human wants is so much more rewarding (and useful!) than trying to get him to change by force. I've seen it again and again, and it never fails to delight me.

    There are a lot of trainers out there using these elegant, sensible, kinds methods -- let's hope this style of training gets more and more popular!

  • You have worked tirelessly to open dog owners eyes to the fact that "old school" methods of training are ineffective and dangerous. Im grateful its becoming socially unacceptabe. Our dogs want nothing more than to please us, therefore we owe them patience and understanding. And they love games! If we have patience, and make training fun, they want to repeat what keeps their interest, and what pleases us. Thanks for everything you do on behalf of dogs: )

  • Amen. I have trained a hard-headed strong-willed cattle dog and an extremely timid unsocialized (almost feral) rescued cattle dog mix this way and these methods work for the whole range of temperaments. Plus they make me a better person and a better trainer.

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  • Victoria, Thank you so much for clearly putting these explanations into words clients can understand and relate to. It seems I hear one of these myths every day from a client who calls. I am awaiting Part II. Thank you for a terrific blog!

  • Joey

    Victoria, I love this article. I have been watching your show more and more. I tried dominance training at first in combination with positive reinforcement...we've only had our puppy since March 9th but I already notice the puppy will not "come here" when called...so I started taking note of the trust and eagerness emphasis in your training and, voila, we are slowly working back around. Even calm aggressive energy in the dominance still seemed to drive him away, and it was too easy to slip and give a sharp voice or gesture when the goal was "dominance." I watch your show and then immediately try out what applies to little Joey these last few days and it's such a relief...and I feel a lot better knowing I'm not intimidating my dog!

  • Anne Arbon

    Absolutely easy reading, all makes sense, thankyou so much Victoria, no gobbledygoop.

    And Nina, there is a very famous american/mexican trainer who uses all of those dreadful methods, truly, people think he is GOD!!!!!!

  • Aimee Foster

    I agree with everything you said Victoria. I am a big fan of your show "It's Me or the Dog" and it has helped me a lot with my dachshund, Dixie Belle. I have tried both methods of training and know that positive reinforcement works so much better. I believe dogs respond to stimuli and if it is negative then it can really stress them out and make them miserable. I have seen that myself and I don't ever use dominance training anymore. I just ordered your book "It's Me or the Dog: How to Have the Perfect Pet." and I can not wait to use your methods to train Dixie Belle and my new maltese puppy, Angel. I want my mom to use it too because she is having housetraining problems with her yorkiepoo.

  • Victoria,
    Once again, you are a star. I always loved your methods when I lived in the UK and watched your programme. This was before I ever thought I would become a dog trainer. Sadly, here in Western Canada we don't get your programme and I so wish we did. All we get is Brad Pattinson and CM both of whom I cannot even talk about, they make me so angry.

    I was privileged to meet you briefly at the APDT conference in Louisville after listening to your lecture. Your passion for positive training came across so strongly that it really inspired me. Having now qualified a a dog trainer I am committed to carrying on positive training methods and debunking the ideas of all those CM and Brad Pattinson devotees who I come across with alarming regularlity. Our local library stocks CM's books and I am about to write to them and ask them not to stock any books that promote punitive training methods.

    Thank you Victoria, for being a beacon in the darkness. You are the only positive dog trainer with a TV programme. Please try to persuade Animal Planet to show your programme in Western Canada!!!
    Bren

  • Nina Rosalie

    Ann~ If I have the same trainer in mind.... I avoid watching him, but perhaps I should. As a future trainer I need to know the "bad and the ugly" along with the "good". Thanks! You've just helped me work towards becoming an even better, more informed positive trainer.

  • Excellant!!! needs saying and advertising as much as possible. Yes, I have seen a 'trainer' hang a dog and then praise it while still recovering!
    I will be passing this on to all my clients to back up what I am teaching them.
    Very sadly, people think the american/mexican trainer is God in England as well !!!!! It's getting so bad that people are being given his books before I see their puppy!
    We need a lot more articles like this available on the internet.

  • EJ

    Thank you Victoria! I am so sick of people completely misunderstanding dogs. 'But it works' is not a reason to continue using something that is so obviously wrong. What scares me the most is people with no professional experience are using these methods on their own dogs without fully understanding the methods they are using or their dogs problem. Please come home and tell the UK about positive reinforcement!

  • Janine

    We rehomed a six month old male papillon with us last Mother's Day....his former owner only had him for four weeks when decided she didn't want him ( he did not conform to show standards but was otherwise healthy, and it was obvious she wanted him only for breeding, but changed her mind.)

    We really got lucky with this little guy...no bad habits save for being paper trained (not so bad, really ) and he's both food AND play motivated....using your methods after watching /enjoying your show our 'butterfly' caught on fast...even adding a few behaviors of his own and because they were just so darned cute we responded positively to him....lol maybe he was training us in a way...such as sitting up on his haunches and pawing the air with both feet...or crossing them in front of his chest with his head tilted to one side..

    He now longer needs that bit of chicken or a promise of a tossed ball to obey commands. I have never seen a dog plant his caboose so fast upon being told to 'sit ' just once, plus he waits eagerly for the next command. Not only does your technique of positive re-enforcement work, since all his training has been in an aura of love, patience and fun he has learned pleasing Mommy & Daddy brings all kinds of rewards.
    We have a very happy ' pappy' s a result. it's great.

  • Pawpassion42

    Victoria, I just want to say that I absolutely love you. I watch your show all of the time and have used most of your techniques in working with my dog. If I could just get the rest of my family to employ them as well I think our crazy collie rescue could give Lassie a run for his money. I am working on a Bachelor degree in Human Development and FAmily Studies at Penn State University. After completeing that I want to continue on to obtain a Masters in Animal Psycholgy. I have always wanted to be a veterinarian and specialize in Behavior but now I;m thinking about just being an Animal Psychologist/Behaviorist. My soel goal in life is to have a No Kill Sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals with nowhere else to go. I especially want to work with dogs who have aggression issues and risk euthanasia simply becasue no one will give them the time or patience to help them overcome these issues. You have really inspired me and I love your positive reinforcement techniques.

  • Thelma Roquettes

    Victoria, I am a fan of your show, I watch it every time it is on. My question to you is, how old do you recommend a puppy to be in order to begin this positive training.I have a shitzu and dashhound mix that is ten weeks old with whom I am trying to train, but she doesn't seem to be receptive to training and I think that it may be because she is too young. Maybe you can do a show about very young puppies.

  • Trevor

    Victoria, I am completely convinced that positive reinformcement is the only way to go. I think it makes perfect sense and that is the only way I will train my dogs. I wish more people would take the time to learn that dominance-submission methodology does not work and is abusive to dogs.

  • I am not a pro- trainer but i do love dogs and have had them as pets my whole life (27 yrs) and I love Victoria's training methods. I watch her show as often as possible and have seen her work what seem like miracles for some dog owners. Thelma - I got a 7 week old puppy in December and the people i got him from had already been working with the pups on some training, he already seemed to know the sit command. I don't think it is ever too early to begin training. I had also seen an episode recently (which was a repeat) where Victoria was working with a family in England with 3 or 4 chawawas (sp) and a bulldog. Toward the end of the show they family got a new bulldog puppy (of maybe 10 weeks) and Victoria teaches her how to sit and stay. so good luck and keep up the training.

  • Edie

    We try never to miss a show!! Your training is so right on and has worked for us with the "Dogs All Come" and the clicker training. Also our 4 IGs are "leave it trained" thanks to you in guiding us with patience to pass on to them.

    Thank you again so much and hope some day you will make it to the Washington State area so that we can see you in person.

  • kayla everett

    first off my admiration for you and your work has lead me to do a total of 26 reports for my reading assighnments...(i'm currently age twelve in seventh grade) sometimes i've actualy drempt about owning a problem dog primarily for you to train it... (of course i would never do something so idiotic) however throuought my research on you and your work, i foung this wonderfull website or as i call it my little peice of heaven on earth... i agree with all of the facts above and at the end of you biography, where it says you have a labrador retreiver, i couldn't help but say to my self that that lab is probably 20 times smarter than zach georges dog "venus" anyway i could go on forever about how much i admire you and i know your probably busy but email me at [email protected]
    thanks!

  • Love this article Victoria and have shared it with colleagues. I say the line "positive does not mean permissive" to my students and private clients. I think like other words in dog training "positive' has come to mean something other than what it should mean. I hate it when some say "there is no purely positive trainer" as it shows their inexperience with what positive training really means. To me you either are or you aren't. Thought I'd share a quote I love with you - enjoy and I'm looking forward to the other parts to the series!

    "Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by
    the fear of punishment and the other by
    acts of love. Power based on love is a
    thousand times more effective and
    permanent then the one derived from fear
    of punishment." - Mahatma Gandhi

    Diane Garrod
    Certified Tellington Touch Practitioner
    Behavior Trainer - focus reactive/aggressive dogs

    Helium Steward/Dog Care and Health Channel http://www.helium.com

  • There is another aspect of positive training that I would like to mention. As a cross-over trainer, I have found that I am a much happier PERSON. There is something about the old training methods that always left me in a somewhat bad mood. It simply did not agree with me, though I was successful. Successful but not necessarily happy. With positive training I am now successful and happy. Which means that I always look forward to training as do my dogs.

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  • So many excellent points!!! Unfortunately, you are probably preaching to the converted. The people that need to hear this kind of thing, don't usually listen. Example: friend of a friend was visiting and lamenting for the zillionth time that her dog doesn't behave. She asks "Why can't I have a dog like that?", while pointing to my dog, Isabelle. You know what? Isabelle is a GREAT dog, but both she and I put a lot of work into her. The work was actually relatively easy because I also worked on selecting the right dog for my temperament and style whereas this woman admittedly "had to pick the little boy that nipped me...' for her own dog, then neglected to do training with him for months on end. On top of not neutering him. On top of not practicing with him after finally doing training. He doesn't have ANY discipline and isn't challenged intellectually nor does he get enough socialization/play because a.) people have a hard time being around him and b.) his mom is too embarrassed to take him to a fenced dog park because he is naughty (her words, not mine). She is SO NICE but nice and at the bottom of the food chain in her own home. She thinks discipline equates with not having fun. Because I'm disciplined with my dog she gets to have LOTS of fun. Everyone loves her, she gets LOTS of attention and freedom because I can trust (and practice to ensure) that she will listen to me and her life is enriched because of the work and discipline in her life. So I make her do things for her meals. So she has to listen to me if I give her a command. This isn't mean, I'm not random with her, She seems to enjoy doing things to earn her food/treats/play. I believe she and I are both happier for having "rules" and "discipline" and "structure" - she gets more exercise, more attention, more everything because she is well-behaved and people respond positively to her being a "good" dog.

    I also don't know how many times I've tried to explain this to people:
    "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. " People don't seem to believe it! If only they tried it they would see that the proof is in the pudding!

    This Myth/Fact sheet should be plastered at every pet store/dog park/groomer/etc!!!! Valuable stuff.

  • Pleeease don't use the crate for punishment, like others have said, the crate is supposed to be a positive thing. It should be like the dog's own little bedroom and retreat, just like a wild dog's den. If correctly crate trained dogs will actually choose to go take naps in their crates and sometimes will go there if they are scared, ect. because that is their safe spot. If the dog is put in the crate as punishment, he won't see that as his safe place and it will become somewhere he hates. Now...there is no universal potty training method...but the method I have used is taking doggy out multiple times a day and having treats handy each time. Praise and give treats when puppy potties outside. Always have puppy under supervision inside so if he poops/pees you can catch him in the act, say no loudly to distract and surprise him, and IMMEDIATELY rush outside with him. If he then goes or finishes going outside make a huge deal about it, praise him like crazy. He will pretty quickly associate your praise and attention with going outside and your disapproval with going inside. I hope this helps. I've potty trained 2 puppies this way...one is a year old now and one is two and they never ever have accidents so I have great faith in the method. Good luck!

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  • Archie

    Many people use dominance training because they are apathetic and want quick fixes, but the WORST is when people use this method because they are on some kind of a power trip. People who believe their dog should obey and submit to them just because they're the boss and awesome- it's perverse and sadistic. I have seen people slap dogs and scream in their faces, because they want to feel like a leader. Breaks my heart.

  • Samira

    Hi, I have a 9 month old Golden Retriever who is an absolute sweetheart and gives us no trouble except for walks. She's never liked walks that much, and I 've tried my best for her to have a positive association with it, regarding my energy etc. I am firm with her without using dominating techniques. The past one month, she refuses to budge on our walks. She will stop, sit or lie and not move. She will move when I say , lets go home, towards home. How should I go about this as I really want to take her for long walks and she needs the exercise as we live in an apartment.

  • To the best of knowledge, in the animal world the term "dominance" can only be accurately used when describing animals of the same species.

  • Orda

    This is a fantastic article!
    Unfortunately, in my country people go beyond "dominance:" training. I've seen men kick the living crap out of their dogs in the middle of the street for not obeying as well as people whose dogs didn't even know their name.
    More and more dogs here are being abandoned and since there is no shelter for dogs, they are abandoned at night on the streets of a different city so that they won't be able to return home.

    As a previous comment stated, you are preaching to the converted. I've tried so hard convicing people to use positive reinforcement, showed them how to use it, showed them the results of it but at the end of the day, slapping the dog is much easier than teaching him what needs to be done.

    I saw a video of yours and a lot of comments saying how bad you are and how your methods don't work. If you are consistent, positive and understanding, positive reinforcement, in any form of it, never fails! I've seen this with my highly aggressive and "dominance issues"(crap!) dog and how happy he is now at his new family and how happy they are with his obedience and loving nature.

Positively Dog Training Episode 610

Season 6 ends with a bang as Holly and Victoria reveal two brand new releases that listeners will be able to enjoy.

Positively Dog Training Episode 608

Victoria and Holly chat about the Victoria Stilwell Academy and the latest news from the program. They also answer your most...

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