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When "Positive Reinforcement Training" Doesn't Necessarily Mean That It's "Good" Dog Training

At some point in my career as a behaviorist, I had the experience of attending a training class with one of my own dogs at a facility (that shall remain nameless) which claims to use only positive reinforcement-based (R+) training. However, within 10 minutes of being there, it was painfully obvious that although they claim to be only positive, they didn’t really understand the full scope of what that truly means. Sure, they used all the appropriate “catch phrases” on their website that I look for when trying to find out if a trainer is R+ or punishment-based (P+) and they even go to the extent of having clients read and sign a statement saying you agree to not use shock collars and prong collars for training your dog.

Unfortunately, despite these claims, they used both physical pressure and social pressure into a dog’s personal space to achieve certain behaviors, and they used verbal scolding/yelling, and leash corrections or “pops” to diminish unwanted behaviors. As if that wasn’t enough, they also did not recognize when a dog was fearful and scolded the dog’s owner (ME!) for attempting to counter-condition the dog during the fear inducing stimulus (approach of people).

Let’s take a look at why each of the things they did and proposed should not be a part of any R+ training program and they are even potentially harmful to the dog, the owner or the dog-owner relationship.

Physical pressure- A great example of physical pressure used in dog training is using your hand to push the dog’s hind end down in order to make the dog sit. While this does often result in the dog’s rump hitting the floor (the desired outcome), your hand on their hind quarters then becomes a cue for the behavior. Meaning, in order to get them to sit again, you will need the physical prompt of touching their rump. Of course, you can fade that prompt just like you would fade a food lure held over the dog’s nose, but that’s an extra step and one that most owners will not be able to accomplish without the help of a qualified trainer.

Social pressure- All mammals have a bubble of personal space that they like to maintain for safety and comfort. Some of us have a bigger one than others (like me!!) and so do many of our pets as well! When your personal space is invaded beyond your comfort level, you naturally back up in an attempt to maintain the desired bubble size. An example of using social pressure in training is placing the dog in front of you, in a corner of a room and walking forward into the dog’s personal space to get them to back up, thus pushing them directly into the corner, which forces them to have no other choice but to sit. The problem with this technique is you are relying on the dog’s fear to induce a behavior. So now you have the dog fearing an owner’s approach, thus breaking the trust the dog has with their training partner.

Verbal scolding, yelling, leash pops and corrections- Dog training has come a long way into the 21st century. Those of us who have been around long enough (sigh…) know how we used to regularly do things. Shock collars, prong collars, and choke chains were part of most dog trainer’s repertoire. I admit to being a “cross-over trainer”- my first 2 dogs as an adult both had the unfortunate experience of wearing shock collars and being walked on prong collars (I’m sorry Jackson and Nick- I didn’t know any better). But as Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better”. We now know through countless studies on punishment in both children and dogs, that there are long-standing repercussions to using punishment, even if it does not physically hurt. Punishment and confrontational methods can increase fear and anxiety, put the human user at risk of being the target of aggression and can definitely break the human-animal bond and trust. While verbal scolding, yelling, and leash pops likely do not physically hurt the dog (like shock, prong and choke collars can and do), if they stop the undesired behavior, that’s the very definition of punishment in learning theory. So, to be truly positive, none of these methods and techniques should be used.

Can you reinforce a fear-based response? (Hint- the answer is a definitive NO)- The claim from the trainer was that my attempts at counter-conditioning the dog (shoving hotdogs in his face when he was frightened) were simply rewarding the dog’s response of barking and backing away (and thus increasing the likelihood of the behavior being repeated in the future). However, his behavior was rooted in fear. Emotional reactions do not arise from the same portions of the brain that cognition and learning do. So, when a dog is rewarded for the behavior of sitting, the front part of the brain (the cortex) essentially says “Great, I like hot dogs, so in order to get more, Im gonna sit more”. Alternatively, fear stems from the emotional center of the amygdala and a fight or flight reaction comes from the oldest (or reptilian) portion of our brains- the brain stem. So no learning or cognitive function are taking place. His body is reacting to the scary stimulus of a person approaching. The ONLY thing those hotdogs shoved in his face can do at that moment is act as a distraction from the scary stimulus, and change that emotion from one of fear, to one of neutrality or desire. In other words… stranger danger becomes “Halleluiah, bring on more strangers, because I get hot dogs!” To the lay-person who doesn’t have the appropriate knowledge of this mechanism, the trainers explanation may have made perfect sense and the results could have been disastrous. So, at worst the ignores the reactivity behavior and thus the dog goes on living its life in a constant state of fear when approached by strangers, OR, even worse, the owner attempts to stop the “unwanted” behavior of barking and backing away by punishing the dog (remember- a leash pop or a verbal scold are punishment!) which would not only serve to increase the fear and anxiety, but it may place them as the target of aggression from the dog.

So how do we find a well-qualified trainer beside looking on their website for those key phrases about using only positive reinforcement?? You could actually attend a class like I did. I only lasted 2 classes until I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was sad to me to lose the money I paid, but it was worth it for me to be out of that environment completely and save my poor dog from that experience.

Or, find out the trainers credentials (training for them!) and any continuing education they may have taken. Unfortunately the training world is very unregulated. There is no certifying body or oversight and anyone can call themselves a trainer (or, WORSE, a behaviorist!) without any education.

So who are the trust-worthy trainers that you know you can count on? Those you know with the education level needed to help you and your pet?

Are there others you could trust? Sure! Any member of the Pet Professional Guild (website) has signed a contract stating that they will never use any form of punishment to train animals. But without knowing each trainer’s individual skill level or certifications and continuing education, I wouldn’t be able to tell you if they are “good” or not.

There you have it- don’t be duped into thinking that just because the website contains all the key phrases about being positive, that the trainers use NO punishment or know what they heck they are even doing or saying! Hopefully my own loss of money (ARGH! Still made about that!) will help you choose a trainer and avoid the heartache I felt having to part ways with a respected facility in my community.