Why I’m Not (and never have been) a Purely Positive Dog Trainer

First of all, I’ve certainly never referred to myself as a ‘purely positive’ dog trainer, but I’ve heard many others – usually pretty vocal opponents of humane modern dog training – label me and others with that description. It seems to be somewhat of a dog training unicorn, in that there are those who still believe firmly in using ‘anything that works’ with dogs, who speak authoritatively (and usually derisively) about the ‘purely positive’ crowd. The problem is, from where I stand (and I see quite a lot), I honestly can’t think of one trainer I know that is in that mythical ‘purely positive’ club. It’s sort of like those people that hurl the ‘accusation’ aren’t actually aware that their target doesn’t really exist in real life.

Traditional trainers (and users of the ‘purely positive’ moniker) generally believe in using whatever works when training dogs. That can often include positive reinforcement and rewards, but it also means a healthy dose of physical or emotional punishment that creates some amount of pain, fear and/or intimidation in order to get the dog to comply. These trainers prefer to call themselves ‘balanced’, meaning they use a balanced approach which includes all available positive and negative tools and methods when training dogs. I am not a fan of ‘balanced training.’

So as a dog trainer, what do I believe, and have I changed my tune since starting to work closely with law enforcement K9 units via my Guardians of the Night series?

Here’s where it gets tricky: when I started Positively almost 10 years ago, there was no description I could find that accurately described what I and countless other dog trainers like me did and believed. There were lots of names – force-free, reward-based, positive reinforcement, fear-free, and, of course, purely positive – but when you dug a bit into what these phrases really represented, there were holes or inconsistencies when compared to what we actually practiced. As our current political climate is re-teaching us, words matter. So it was important to come up with an accurate description of what we believe and do as dog trainers.

So I created a new name: Positive Training. It’s not anything official. You won’t find it in scientific journals or hear a behavioral or cognitive scientist use the term. I coined the term for myself and the thousands of other dog trainers who didn’t have a neatly-packaged phrase to fit what we practiced and preached. I’ll get into how I define Positive Training in a minute, but first it’s important to reiterate what it’s not.

Positive Training is not ‘purely positive’.  Never has been.

Super-brief (and hopefully user-friendly) behavioral science lesson time. Applied behavioral science has provided us something called the four quadrants of operant conditioning, which is a series of terms relating to the various influences that increase or reduce certain behaviors from happening. These can get quite dense, so here’s a bit more in-depth info about the four quadrants, but in short, here’s what they are:

  • Positive punishment – adding something aversive to a situation to reduce unwanted behavior (i.e., hitting a dog)
  • Negative punishment – removing something desirable to reduce unwanted behavior (i.e., taking food or a favorite toy away from a dog)
  • Positive reinforcement – adding something desirable to increase the likelihood of wanted behavior reoccurring (i.e., giving a dog a food reward for responding to your cue, such as when you ask a dog to sit)
  • Negative reinforcement – removing something aversive to increase the frequency of a wanted behavior (i.e., stopping a continual shock in order to get a dog to return)

Now I honestly don’t know for sure what people mean when they use the term ‘purely positive’, but my best guess is that they mean only ever using positive reinforcement from the list of the four quadrants above. The problem is, that’s not what most positive trainers do.

So what do Positive Trainers do?

In terms of the four quadrants, positive trainers practice both positive reinforcement AND negative punishment. Yes, we reward good behaviors to increase the likelihood of wanted behaviors reoccurring, and we do this in a variety ways – food rewards, toy rewards, life rewards (going for a walk), praise, affection, attention, etc.  And yes, we also remove things that dogs want in order to reduce unwanted behaviors – taking away a treat or a toy as well as utilizing other ways to get the behavior we want – ignoring, interrupting or redirecting behaviors we don’t like onto alternate behaviors that encourage the dog’s success.

Positive trainers focus on teaching behaviors we want the dog to do, rather than focusing on punishing behaviors we don’t like. We also put great emphasis on giving dogs an element of choice, using natural motivators to encourage problem solving and techniques to increase confidence and promote emotional stability, rather than exacerbating emotional anxiety and instability with traditional techniques and devices intended to suppress negative behavior without understanding why the behavior is occurring and with little emphasis on teaching the dog to do something different in a similar situation.

What does “aversive” mean?

Aside from the fact that it appears to focus only on positive reinforcement and discount negative punishment, ‘purely positive’ also doesn’t work as a description because everyone’s definition of what can be defined as aversive is different – and that’s even before we take into consideration what a dog might find aversive.

Some may argue that taking a dog’s favorite toy away when he’s misbehaving (negative punishment, and squarely within what a positive trainer may do) is aversive. When I have to close the kitchen door to keep my dog Sadie from accessing the rest of the house because I have to clean the floors, for example, if you asked her, I’m sure she would tell you that closing the door is aversive for her. Positive trainers routinely do many things that may easily be called ‘aversive’ depending on your definition of the word and your subjective opinion of what is undesirable from the dog’s point of view.  Everyone has a different view on what an aversive is and although we might think something is not aversive to the dog, it is sometimes hard to tell because we don’t know what the dog is actually thinking and the reaction might be so subtle, we miss it. We might think something is not aversive, but it is to the dog. Going out and leaving the dog at home is commonly unpleasant for many dogs, especially ones that get distressed when separated from their human family. It was not your attention to be aversive, but your action of leaving is. So in that sense, again, positive trainers are not ‘purely positive’.

So where do we draw the line with the definition of aversive? How do positive trainers like me define something as an aversive we won’t use?

Pain, fear and intimidation

It’s pretty simple, really. Anything that causes pain, fear, or intimidation to a dog is something that a positive trainer will not use. Note that I didn’t include frustration. It is possible for a dog to become frustrated and sometimes a little stressed while being trained by a positive trainer, and while that is something worth trying to minimize, it’s sometimes unavoidable. But positive trainers will never use a tool or method which intentionally intimidates the dog, or causes pain or fear.

That means my definition of ‘positive training’ goes way beyond just the four quadrants. You can find out more about what I call positive training in more detail here if you’re interested (and I hope you are – especially if you’re one of those who labels trainers like me ‘purely positive’). In short, positive training is comprised of four pillars:

  1. Use of positive reinforcement (and, for you behavior geeks out there, negative punishment)
  2. Avoiding the use of intimidation, physical punishment or fear
  3. Truly understanding the common misconceptions about the word ‘dominance’
  4. Appreciating the dog’s point of view when training

My work with police dogs has been hugely rewarding in many different ways, but it has also brought out the (usually incredibly vocal) traditional trainers who mislabel positive training as ‘purely positive’ and assume that it can’t or won’t work on high-drive dogs like police K9s. It can be threatening when something that you believe to your core is shaken and someone shows you that there’s another way. I know – I’ve been there myself at various times as a dog trainer. But what I find extremely exciting is sharing the opportunity to expand our knowledge of what drives (and indeed what negatively affects) these amazing creatures, both as household pets and as the ‘Ferraris of the dog world’, as police dogs are often called.

Believe me, I would be the first person to hold up my hand and say a working dog such as a police dog can’t be positively trained (using my definition of positive training and not ‘purely positive’) if it were true, but that’s simply not the case.  After nearly five years of filming with different k-9 units in different countries, I have seen all methods being used and that includes hundreds of high drive, top class, badass police dogs that have been trained without the use of chokes, shock /e-collars, prong collars or techniques that intimidate and suppress behavior. If it can be done successfully by these departments, then the argument that positive training doesn’t work on high drive working dogs is now debunked.

Moving Forward

So call me whatever you want – I’ve been called worse, I can assure you J - but stop calling me and other trainers like me ‘purely positive’. It doesn’t make any sense and betrays a lack of either interest or understanding in what progressive positive dog trainers do every day. We’re living in a golden age when our collective understanding of animal behavior (specifically dogs) is exploding, and as a positive trainer, it’s a beautiful thing to see how effectively, quickly, safely and humanely we can learn from and with our dogs to help make our world a bit better for all of us.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


10 thoughts on “Why I’m Not (and never have been) a Purely Positive Dog Trainer

  1. Lisa Elias

    I'm curious about what you think of the term 'correction'. I've worked with a trainer who, if you've put the dog into position (like a sit), and you repeat it and praise it and it seems to understand it... then later the dog just doesn't do the command, they would have you give a quick upward tug to the collar to apply a correction. After the dog then sits, follow with praise again. Never was the tug supposed to be hard enough to cause pain or induce fear. Is that out of the realm of positive training from your view? I'm asking because I respect your methods and opinions, but also in the class I was in, I didn't see any negative reaction from the dogs receiving the corrections. This trainer was also very big on ignoring the behavior you don't want and praising those you did.

  2. orfan

    I think the key to your question is your statement: "seems to understand it." If hypothesize the dog doesn't understand it as well as he is being asked to. It could be that he needs more repititions, it could be that the environment is different, a lot of things could be at play. Once he knows it there are ways to improve performance but I think that's another question.

    Remember language is foreign to dogs, visual signals will get you much further faster and will help the foreign word ("sit" in this case) be linked with an action or behavior.

    I'm a big believer in hands off in training - if the dog learns that the pull up of the leash or collar means sit, you're essentially doing his homework for him, or teaching him that the collar touch is the signal. I don't always have a leash in my hand, or my dogs at arms' length, so why on earth would I train that way?

  3. LZS

    I recently met a trainer who uses E-collars with a range of 1-100 different settings. This Trainer claims not to use this tool as an aversive technique but rather as an attention-getting technique, which he describes as akin to a "tap on the shoulder." He uses the lowest setting that the dog responds to (may be a subtle response like flick of the ear- requires paying close attention to the dog's body language). Initially until the dog is more reliable, he stimulates with every command and removes the stimulation immediately when the dog "pays attention." Heather then gives positive reinforcement such as a treat or toy when the dog complies. Do you think this technique would be ok to use? I need to get two 9-month old Malamutes trained but I certainly don't want them to become fearful. I am very pro-positive training in general but the argument this trainer makes is that this is not used as a punishment in his technique.

  4. Jasmine Molloy

    Tugging up on the lead counts as "aversive" and "physical punishment". Even if not intended to hurt, it is still intended to be unpleasant enough for the dog that they'll want to avoid the correction next time. Actual positive trainers will never pop dogs on the lead to train them, this is physical correction and goes against the philosophy.

  5. Sue Wright

    I guess until we all agree on definitions for these, often emotive, words that get thrown around in this industry, no one will ever see eye to eye and this damaging 'training war' will rage on, confusing yet more owners and their poor dogs.

    The primary reason I believe in using a balanced approach with my dog, not just for training but for every aspect of living with and communicating with him, is because I can see clear justification for why it makes sense to dogs. They may not understand the reasoning behind the rules, but they instinctively know that actions create consequences because, during the first few weeks of their lives, puppies are taught by their Mother how to understand and interact with the world around them. The Mother dog teaches the rules, and she also teaches that there are consequences for breaking those rules. When they are ready to leave her, pups know that they should trust and respect the one in charge – the pack leader – and that, in return they will be protected, provided for and kept safe.

    To me, it makes perfect sense that the most logical and least stressful approach when we introduce that pup into our human family is to take over the role of the Mother dog, teach the pup the new or extra rules required in his new pack and provide clear consequences for breaking them. What doesn’t make sense to me is to suddenly start giving the pup loads of treats, fuss and attention for doing what is expected and just ignoring him, or re-directing his attention, when rules are not followed, both things his Mother never did.

    Even if you are taking an older dog into your home, perhaps one whose history you do not know, it surely still makes better sense to treat that dog in a way that will be instinctively familiar to him and thus provide the assurance he will need that you are now his new leader, guardian and provider. All he has to do is to learn and follow your rules and he can trust you to look out for him and keep him safe. Simple, natural. Why complicate things?

  6. Tom Aaron-Linda Aaron

    Awesome awesome article. It's high time the positive training world stops using such dishonest and uneducated terms as "R+ Only."

  7. Emma Judson

    That would be well beyond the remit of 'positive training' for me - for me, if a dog does not comply with what I have asked then I need to double check ive put in the work, that the dog understands what I am asking AND that the dog has generalised this understanding to a variety of contexts, ie, different locations and different levels of distraction.

    Then I'll ask is the motivation to do as I ask sufficient - and is it clear?

    When you use corrections the two things that really stand out to me are these:

    1. To apply a correction, you have to wait until the unwanted behaviour occurs - which means you missed the opportunity to apply a positive reinforcement - doesn't that seem sloppy or inefficient?

    2. Seeking to earn reward involves being open minded and willing to try new behaviours, secure in the knowledge that getting it wrong isn't a big deal.
    Seeking to avoid punishment involves being pretty close minded and NOT willing to try new behaviours because the dog is aware that getting it wrong IS a big deal.

    If you try to mix positive reinforcement with positive punishment (which is what any correction actually is), the potential outcomes are:

    - the aversive applied is not sufficient to reduce or eliminate the behaviour - you are just doing something unpleasant to your dog with no beneficial effect.
    - the aversive applied IS sufficient to reduce or eliminate the behaviour - but you risk fall-out, unwanted associations with the aversive
    - the aversive applied is sufficient, but is so powerful the dog is now working for the relief of knowing hes successfully avoided a punishment, to the point where any positive reinforcers are meaningless to the dog!

    Basically, you can try using positive reinforcement AND positive punishment together, but no matter what you do only one of those things will actually be having an effect and its likely to be the punishment, not the reinforcement.

  8. emmalee72

    The problem is that if you start using shock collars - and let's not call them E-collars - you will find yourself at points where your dog is ignoring that 'tap on the shoulder' and what then? You turn it up. And when they habituate to that level of shock, you turn it up. If you start at 1, you have to be prepared to go to 100 or to have another tactic in your bag.

    Punishments or 'attention getters' if that's what you want to call them, may work in the short term. But they stop. I rehab dogs that have been 'trained' with shock collars and then surrendered because, guess what, there are dogs who'll take 100 on that shock collar and it still won't deter them from whatever they are doing.

    Ham gets a dog's attention. A squeaky toy gets a dog's attention. A kissy noise gets a dog's attention. Calling their name gets a dog's attention. The only dog I have to tap on the shoulder to get their attention is my deaf one, and then I do it infrequently because it'll be my fault if I frighten him and he bites me in shock. If you need to use a shock collar to tap your dog on the shoulder, surely there are other methods you can think of that do the same?

    I'd argue that it is not a tap on the shoulder. I call my dogs' names and they respond. I don't need to buzz them with even a number 1 on a shock collar to do that. In the times when they're fixated on something, even shouting won't get their attention. So do I shock them at 100 to get it? Or do I move away and know that I'm asking my dog to do something that is too challenging?

  9. Nadine Owen

    I couldn't have put it better myself the way you explain it makes complete sense, thanku x

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