Welcome to Positively!
Hello and welcome to the new online home of positive reinforcement dog training! I’ve been planning the development of this website ever since it became clear to me that a unified voice was needed to help let the public know that there’s a better way to train their dogs… Positively!
For the past five years, I’ve filmed almost 100 episodes of my show, It’s Me or the Dog. When I first started shooting, positive reinforcement was still the dog training philosophy with the most momentum in terms of educating the public about training methods based on modern behavioral science. For the past 40 or so years, amazing trainers and behaviorists like Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell, Karen Pryor, Nick Dodman (all of whom deliver their fantastic knowledge as Expert Bloggers on this site!) and many others have been moving the needle of public awareness away from the traditional, yank-em-crank-em, dominate-your-dog-into-submission style of dog training and towards the use of positive reinforcement. This gradual shift had been gaining in popularity and awareness, as more and more people continue to see positive results while building mutual trust and respect with their dogs. Most dog owners prefer to train their dogs using rewards and constructive discipline, rather than using more punitive training methods, because they want their dog to WANT to behave rather than having their dog behave only because he is scared of what will happen to him if he doesn’t.
A lot of this may seem like common sense, especially when you see the parallel progress we’ve made as a society in the way we raise our children. Of course dogs are not children, but many of the same general behavioral philosophies apply – using reward to reinforce positive behavior and discipline to guide rather than to instill fear. Modern behavioral science has shown that dogs have a lot more in common with us humans than people and trainers may have thought 50 years ago – they feel emotions similar to ours (fear, anger, joy, excitement, social insecurity, even love) – so it’s important to understand that many of the same basic philosophies we use now with children can be applied successfully to training your dog.
As clear as this issue may seem, unfortunately there are still those who use dominance-based techniques to train dogs. There is less of an emphasis on understanding WHY a behavior is occurring and more of a desire to get a ‘quick fix’ and suppress bad behavior with punitive means. The dangerous thing about doing this is that quick fixes can quickly come unstuck. The dog might not be doing the behavior because it is afraid of his owner’s reaction, but he still feels the same way inside, and one day those feelings will come to the surface again, and even more intensely than before. Similarly, dominance trainers will often treat ‘fire with fire’ in the sense that they combat what are most commonly insecurity or fear-based issues, such as aggression, with punitive methods that create more fear. Some may say that the dogs aren’t fearful of a dominance trainer, but when you really look at it, you can see the difference. For example a dominance trainer will often ‘flood’ a dog who is anxious and aggressive around other dogs, by forcing the dog into a situation where it is surrounded by lots of dogs it doesn’t know, forcing the dog to refrain from responding when inundated with that stimulus the dog fears most until the dog ‘submits’ to the fact that there’s nothing he can do. The dog doesn’t react when it is surrounded by all the other dogs and the technique is therefore labeled a great success – the dog is cured! But what would you do if you as a human were scared of other humans and had a habit of lashing out at people walking past in an effort to get them away from you, but were then forced into an environment where you were surrounded by thirty or more people? Would you lash out in that scenario or would you be worried that if you did you would get attacked back? Chances are if you’re smart and want to survive, you are going to shut down and not do anything until you are out of that situation and in your comfort zone again. Then your reaction to just one person going past you might be even worse because the stress and trauma you felt being flooded by so many people has made your fear worse.
The same dog being treated with positive reinforcement would slowly be desensitized to the presence of other dogs in a controlled environment with constant praise and rewards whenever he had a calm response. Eventually, more dogs are added and the dog is set up for success by teaching it to literally feel differently about the presence of that which once caused such a fearful response. It may take a little longer, but it’s safer and, more importantly, humane and effective for the dog.
A main reason why I think a lot of dominance trainers take the approach that they do is because if they do take the time to find out why a situation is occurring they often fundamentally misdiagnose what is causing the problem in the first place. If a dog is aggressive then often that aggression is attributed to a dog trying to be an ‘alpha dog’ or boss of all the other dogs. In order to treat this aggression the dog will often be ‘put in its place’ with punitive methods such as ‘alpha rolls,’ where a dog is forcibly put onto its back or side and held there by the owner until it submits, so that it recognizes that it is not the alpha. But think about it – most aggressive response is not a dog’s attempt to usurp others, but a demonstration of a lack of confidence and insecurity. Punishing that insecurity just serves to increase the insecurity even more. The aggressive behavior might look confident and dominant but there is always an underlying discomfort. Think of the bully in the playground. Is the child who bullies other children a secure or insecure child? Nine times out of ten the bully is the insecure kid. Confident children don’t feel the need to bully, and the same dynamic can be said of dogs. Misdiagnosing the reason for the aggression and suppressing that aggression with punitive training means that the dog is made even more insecure and that insecurity has the potential to surface again, possibly more violently than before. A positive reinforcement trainer will recognize that most aggression is not a dog trying to be alpha but a dog that is aggressing because it is trying to control situations or stimuli around him that make him feel uncomfortable. The positive trainer will then find non threatening ways to train the dog to feel more comfortable around the stimuli, with the result that this confidence means there is no need for the dog to behave aggressively.
Sometimes this debate can get frustrating, because so much of the positive reinforcement argument is based on common sense. Unfortunately there are still a lot of owners and trainers out there who feel that their machismo or manliness might be called into question if they do anything that’s misperceived as letting a dog be the ‘pack leader’ over them. To those, this debate is likely a lost cause and destined to go nowhere since we’d ultimately be debating two completely different things, but I and the rest of the Positively community will continue our efforts to bring awareness of positive reinforcement back to the forefront of the popular consciousness. I see progress being made every day on both small and large scales. Have a look around this site, read the other wonderful Expert Blogger entries, and come back often to check for new info.
Lastly, if your dog were to choose how it would like to learn, would it choose reward based positive training or more punitive, dominance methods? I’m sure I know what my answer would be.
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Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- How To Not Be a Rude Dog Owner
- Managing Your Overwhelmed Dog
- Coping With Fear
- The Emergency Drop It