Fact vs Fiction, Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the first part of my 'Fact versus Fiction' blog.  There are so many myths and misunderstandings out there about the science and reality of dog behavior, I thought I would try to help clear up a few more things here in part II. (See the Myths & Truths page here.)

Myth:  Positive reinforcement cannot be used on more severe behavioral cases such as aggressive dogs.

Fact:  Actually, this is where positive reinforcement methods are most effective.  Using positive reinforcement to treat ‘red zone’ dogs is not only a safer option, but a much more effective one.  Aggression is a dog’s way of protecting himself and his resources, and is deeply rooted in fear for survival, fear of loss of comfort, a desire to repel a perceived threat and is a great way to control space and environment.  Aggression is therefore deeply rooted in insecurity.  Punish an insecure dog and you make that dog even more insecure even though it looks like he is behaving better.  When a dominance trainer works with an aggressive dog and uses punitive techniques to get a dog to submit or ‘calm down,’ not only is that dog using an instinctive survival tool of ‘shut down’ to make the person stop whatever they are doing, a dominance trainer will then label the dog’s non-reaction and ‘calmness’ as a success.  People love successes, especially when they are achieved quickly and they look very impressive, but those of us who really know what is going on shake our heads in dismay because not only has the dog been mishandled, the person has been misled into thinking that their dog has been ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’.  The other reaction a dog has to being manhandled through dominance techniques is to lash out and bite the trainer or owner in anger, frustration and/or fear in order to get that person away from them.  The person is hurt, the dog is then punished again, and this destructive cycle is repeated.

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.  Far from using force 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.  Positive reinforcement is the best philosophy to use in these cases but there are many methods within this one philosophy that can be used, making positive reinforcement a much safer and more reliable method to use on even ‘red zone’ dogs.

Myth:  Dominance training is much safer because it has quicker results and for an aggressive dog anything that works quickly means that the dog is safer for humans to be around.

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.  Yes, exactly the same way.  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 sheer foolishness to profess that by punishing a dog, the dog is fixed.  This is dangerous and fundamentally wrong, I can’t put it clearer than that.  If a human has an anxiety problem chances are they will seek out therapy to help them.  That therapy does not work in one go (and certainly didn’t in the past when therapies were punitive) and 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:  There are two different behavioral philosophies that you can use to train dogs - positive reinforcement or dominance training and both are 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 - there are more effective, safe and humane ways of doing things.  I believe that there are many fantastic methods and approaches that can be used to effectively change dogs' behavior, but I also firmly believe that all of those methods have one thing in common - a general basis in the principles of positive reinforcement and force-free training.  Things change.  We evolve and learn.  As a society, we've agreed to move forward in an effort to develop a better understanding of ourselves and our planet - why the resistance to apply that sense of development to our understanding of animals in general and dog behavior in particular?  I can ony guess that those who refuse to accept that we now know better than to use force to dominate do so because they're either uninformed or because they actually derive pleasure from 'being the boss' of another being.  If it's the former, then fair enough - that's why I've developed this site:  to inform.  If it's the latter, however, I have no patience for these people and view their rationale and motivations for such behavior as a sign of tremendous insecurity and weakness.

I advise owners to walk away from dominance trainers.  Dominance methods are destructive and when it comes to training dogs, positive reinforcement is the only truly effective and humane philosophy for all the reasons listed above.  This Positively site is the online home for positive reinforcement and I am so proud to have the best in the business blogging here.  But don’t think for a moment that these or any other positive trainers are weak.  We treat and train dogs with kindness and respect because we know that only through practice, scientific research and discovery can we truly understand a dog’s behavior and help to mould and change it if needed without using forceful or punitive methods.  We are like-minded people that deal with dog behavior every day, and most importantly, we see the positive results that our training methods have both for the dogs we use them on and for the people that love them.

See Fact vs Fiction Part I.

See the Myths & Truths page here.

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27 thoughts on “Fact vs Fiction, Part II

  1. Claudia Bernal

    Thank you Victoria for sharing your knowledge, thanks for helping me to better understand my dog's behavior, i believe there's so much work to do in this particular area, i think training the owners should be the most difficult part.

  2. readinrobin

    You have just made me feel validated in the way I am treating my dog! He is the sweetest, most loving animal - to myself and my kids. But he is very wary of anyone he does not know well and I have no doubt in my mind that someone has abused him in the past (we adopted him off the street). I've been told that when I bring out treats when a strange person comes around that I'm rewarding him for barking and growling at them, but I just never saw it that way.

    I love your show, and I'm so glad to have found this blog. Thank you.

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  4. Deb

    I am a trainer here in Connecticut, I agree with you that the worst thing in the world that you can use on an aggressive dog is dominance or hard training of any kind. Most aggression is brought on by fear or at least in a llot of cases that I see. The heavy handed trainer might get an obedient dog but the price the dog pays is not worth it.

  5. susan and Johanna

    Dear Victroia,

    We would like to let you know that we love your show and follow all your tips.

    We think you are so Beautiful . We have a very good dog, We do have a question though?
    That is, why do some dogs growl when you are near their food bowl and some dogs do not.

    We do not expect you to answer us knowing how busy you are , we were just wondering.

    Keep up the Wonderful Shows

    Love ,

    Susan and Johanna

  6. Bonnie

    Hi Victoria
    Your new website is cool and I listen when you speak because you have the results to prove that your method of dog training works (and you are a nice lady).
    People and dogs are a lot alike in the way you can get the best out of them aren't they?
    Good job!

  7. Chabbie Kujala

    Hey Victoria,
    I am a dog trainer in Finland and I must say that I totally agree with you. It's sad that even in here we have trainers who uses dominance when training dogs. I have been training for over 7 years and all through my years I have been using the Positive reinforcement methods in my classes and also for the behaviour problem dogs. It works! Awesome work on this Fact vs Fiction. I truly hope that this will help owners make the right choice when deciding to train their dogs 🙂

  8. monika

    hello Victoria,
    I love "its me or my dog" You are amazing, brilliant! I wish to be half as good as You are, will work on it!
    Wish You keep doing what You love to do, ^_^

  9. Crystal Saling, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP

    I am a certified professional dog trainer and I agree whole heartedly with Victoria. I have been horrified at what can make it to TV as "therapy" for dogs, especially aggressive dogs. Aggression begets aggression. Just look at international politics- nations get along better when we make agreements NOT to hurt eachother by using nuclear weapons.

    Positive reinforcement and negative punishment/Least reinforcing scenario is definitely the way to go- you actually get the end result faster in most cases.

  10. Nina Rosalie

    Although just the thought of it sickens me, dominance training methods do not surprise me. It is, unfortunately, the way a huge portion of our society operates. We talk about helping each other here and around the world....but, for some mind boggling reason (that I will never understand) we employ violence to achieve peace. Does anyone see something wrong with this way of thinking and behaving??

    Many people have a need to feel superior (for whatever their reason) and can only achieve the feeling of power by subjecting our most innocent and vulnerable....specifically children and our pets...to the most disgraceful, heinous, apalling treatment. How do those people get away with this incomprehensible behavior? Sadly, I have no idea.

    Perhaps I sound like I am on some sort of political soapbox. That's not my intention. I am merely expressing a fear that societally, we have a long road ahead of us to change the "thinking" that in order to promote comeraderie, love and plain old good behavior, one must be mean. Being sensitive and kind does not mean being weak. In fact it is a strength that can reap ther most wonderful rewards. ... "You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar" is a cliche for a reason!

    Victoria, your "voice" speaks to, not only positive methods of training dogs, but to all that is decent and right and humane. Qualities to be held dear and highly valued. You have the admirable ability of being straight forward and honest while .treating humans and animals with dignity and respect. I sincerely thank you. ....I will now step down from my soapbox!

    (Please excuse my spelling....I've come to the conclusion and try to accept that it will never be a strenght!)

  11. julie rickhuss

    I would just like to say how much i enjoy your show, i have a new german shepherd dog eight and a half months old he`s a large pup for his age he was attacked by four dogs while in foster care before i got him and also barks at men and all dogs while out walking i keep trying the walk back then return but he still has to have the last bark is there any thing you could advise to help with him other wise he is settaling in wonderfully and has become one of the family.i tried the hand signal you use for sit and he picked it up at once . i look forward to your next show to try any new tips.

  12. kaye

    thanks victoria. i have a 14 week old puppy which i have had for 2 weeks now. i have used your positive training and with a treat she is already sitting, lying down, giving me her paw, almost rolling over, crawling across the floor and staying for almost 10 seconds when i keep repeating the command. she loves her treats and is working very well. oh shes also stealing my socks but i didnt teach her this! lol

  13. Lucy

    I just wanted to thank you, I watch your shows and take hints into acount, use them on my own dog, who can be very boystruss at times. He is a 4 mounth old border collie called ben. I watched out for tips on your show and it helped alot.
    Thanks so much,


  14. Lucy

    Dear Readers,

    I forgot to tell you on my last post that I'm writing an internet book, that i'm hoping will get published at one stage, and if anyone wanted to say something that I could put in it then post me back.

    Many Thanks,


  15. Kelli

    I have just watched your show for the first time. I think you are great,! For years, I have been told , that my methods weren't "dominating enough" and I should "spank my dog". I have thought these ideals were negative & horrible practices. I have a 5 yr pitbull/boxer mix that I adopted from patient at my pharmacy. He is a hyper dog. and is aggressive towards other dogs. He had been bit by a couple of dogs. I had no clue, that from the scent-a dog can compute another dogs age, gender, and so forth. I look forward to your next show & book, that will help enlighten my positive reinforcement skills.

  16. Jen

    Hi Victoria,
    I am currently trying to find information on training methods and ideas that will work the BEST for my dog. I have read and understood everything on this site but there is one aspect of +R training that i cannot seem to find the answer to and i really hope you can help by answering this comment.
    The question is how to effectively proof a dog using +R and how to guarantee that a dog will respond to a command first time every time. What methods are used in proofing a dog in high distraction areas.
    This is essential for me to understand as i know the dangers of not having a dog come when called, my neighbours chihuahua recently got knocked down and passed away as it ignored its owner while chasing a rabbit.
    Thank you.

  17. Pingback: Articles on Dominance & Aggression, Photos « Boogie’s blog

  18. Savannah

    Ooooooo. Cesar just got PWNED!!! Thank u soooooo much 4 posting this blog! So true! I love ur show and ur the best!! Thanx again!!! 😉

  19. Alyna, The Gift Detective

    Excellent points! In fact, I believe the book, Click to Calm has a very good illustration of a very aggressive dog being helped by positive (in this case, clicker) training. This is the book: http://amzn.to/8X3RVO I ordered it to help my dog get over her insecurity after she had been attacked by a dog - she was pretty upset after the attack and on edge, nearly aggressive (but not quite, I decided I needed to address it BEFORE it became a problem) but definitely fearful and reactive. I think her fear was heightened by the fact that she had been attacked while she was sniffing the ground (a calming signal, supposedly) - the dog who attacked her also attacked THREE other dogs in a matter of hours, it obviously had some issues. In any case, the book was a big help and certainly helped us. Positive training can make a huge difference in so many different training scenarios, including aggression!

  20. Tracy Chancery

    I now understand my puppies reaction to my consequene for his aggressive behavior, but what type of positive reinforcement techniques can I use to stop the aggressive behavior? He growls and attempts to snip when he does not want to be touched or picked up when he is sleeping. I pick him up anyway, put his on his back and say no, settle, then release him when he stops growling and snarling. We have had him since he was 8 weeks old and now he is 13 weeks. I don't want to give up on Nutter, but am leary of having a dog that I cannot trust around children, friends, and family. I have two other dogs and he is not dominant with him. Most people I speak to say that this is how chihuauas are.

  21. Dr. Kathy Morris

    Having graduated 37 years ago, and being "trained" in dominance behavior modification, it is gratifying to see someone, in he public eye, validate the power of Positive training. If pet owners have the time and dedication, most of these dogs can accomplish good behavior. One caveat, with which I'm sure Ms. Stilwell will agree, is that if there is any risk, especially to young children, even a "red zone" dog who has been trained, should not EVER be allowed to be alone w/ children. In fact, no child should be left alone w/ any dog, as, some dogs, in trying to protect a crying child, will injure it.
    Dr. Kathy Morris-Stilwell

  22. Cindy Forgy

    I volunteer with a non-profit rescue. We have in our care right now,a 5 year old StaffordshireTerrier. He was found fending for himself for 2 years, on a rural bike/walking trail. The people who found him had originally intended to keep him but he does not get along with their 2 small dogs. They signed him over to rescue. After a few weeks at the shelter, he proved himself to be something of a Houdini and could escape pretty much anytime he wanted. He also showed us that he did not like ALL other dogs at the shelter. Iinspite of all of the obvious signs he gave us, one of our volunteers let him escape from his kennel at which time a fight ensued between him and another dog she had out at the time. The fight was a typical dog fight, the smaller of the dogs suffered a bite, nothing life threatening thankfully. The "board" of the shelter/rescue made a decision that the dog needed to be euthanized because he got in a fight. I personally fought them on their decision and paid for his boarding at a local vet clinic. The dog was not happy there at all, so the decision was made instead of euthanizing him for doing what dogs do, he was signed back over to the people who originally found him. He's being housed in a barn for now and spends part of his week there and the rest of the time with the people who found him. There is a small group of us who are caring for him. We've been working with him for just 1 week and have him walking very very well on a leash unless there is a cat or other small animal around. I'm looking for hints on how we can get this boy trained to walk better on a leash and ignore the distractions around him. I love your philosophy and have used some of your techniques so far to help with the leash walking. I also have used your "calming" CD with amazing results with shelter dogs.

  23. Pingback: Fact vs Fiction, Part I | Victoria Stilwell Positively

  24. Marcello

    love your article and your show..
    I surely like to think that positive training method is the safest one but unfortunally I just can't think it is the quickest and so the most practical... I mean..talkin' about everyday life.. I have not so muchtime to practice positive reinforcement with my dogs and I am making small progress in a very looong time...I can't stop thinking of my dog as a child who sometimes needs to be told off for his misbehaviour... am I hopeless??

  25. Premier Dogs

    Unfortunately, in North America at least, anyone can call themselves a dog trainer without any experience or certification whatsoever.

    I am a force-free trainer and behaviour consultant, and I regularly deal with dogs that were taken to "positive reinforcement" trainers without a successful outcome... this includes everything from basic obedience training to well-established behaviour issues (including aggression).

    Of course the lack of success with the +R trainers taints the idea of positive reinforcement in the minds of those owners but, as I explain to them, "It was not positive reinforcement that failed you... it was the trainer." In my opinion, this is one of the biggest hurdles that the +R community has to deal with.

    In the vast majority of cases, force-free training and behaviour modification programs are more effective, more reliable, more humane and safer than aversive alternatives - but it still takes a knowledgeable and appropriately experienced trainer to gain a successful outcome.

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