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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.