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What The Heck IS Positive Reinforcement Dog Training?

Updated: Jan 1

There are a wide variety of methods, techniques, and philosophies when it comes to training our best friends. Some are based in science and some are based in what was thought to be science, but have since been debunked as having no long term effectiveness and bordering on being downright abusive to dogs. A lot of the dog training world just hasn’t caught up to these more humane and ethical methods. A lot of these traditional methods have been around for a LONG time and positive reinforcement training is still a bit of a baby in terms of its (more) recent emergence and integration into working with dogs.

It has commonly been thought (and is still believed by many) that dogs need to be dominated over and humans must demand their respect rather than work cooperatively with dogs and earn it. “You have to show them who is boss and put them in their place”, tends to be a popular phrase and mindset. “There is no way you can appropriately and effectively train a dog using kindness and compassion because dogs are basically wolves”. Nope. Not even close. They share common ancestors, but that’s another article.

The methods, tips, tricks, techniques, and philosophies that I believe and use in my work with dogs are based on Positive Reinforcement Training. Cool. What’s that? Where you use rewards (whatever your dog finds rewarding, so food, toys, verbal praise, physical touch, etc.) to bring about and repeat desired behaviors. I like to explain it like a trading or bartering system.

You do something I like (requested behavior), I will do something you like (provide a reward).

Whoa slow down! So you just use bribery to work with dogs then? Not so fast. It’s not bribery if both sides of the partnership are each getting what they want. Do you consider it bribery that because you go to work every day, your place of employment provides you with a paycheck? Would you be more likely or less likely to repeat the desired behavior of going to work every day if you didn’t receive your reward? Ah, that has a whole new meaning to it now!

So while yes, I do consider myself the “Treat Lady”, it’s not absolutely the only way that I work with dogs. Using food as a reward is only one way to work with dogs and I’ll share a secret with you: once a dog has “proofed” a behavior, meaning that they typically have more success with it than not, you can actually start phasing out food rewards. I wouldn’t necessarily discontinue them entirely, but eventually you will reach a place where your dog has practiced a certain behavior enough times that a food reward isn’t needed each time they successfully complete it. The only place that I would never be stingy with my food rewards is when you are working on recall/come. One can never positively reinforce or work too much on this behavior!

Positive reinforcement training also means that you collaborate and cooperate with your dog to bring out the desired behavior(s). Aversive methods and training tools are not used. Aversive methods can include displays of dominance or aggression towards your dog (scruffing, alpha rolling, kneeing in the chest, kicking, standing/sitting/laying on top of, physical corrections such as hitting, holding their mouth closed, or leash pops, etc.) and aversive tools can include Prong collars, choke collars, leashes, and chains, and electronic or shock collars. Of course any training tool, even a harness or a collar, can be turned into an aversive tool if not used correctly, effectively, appropriately, or humanely.

It also means that you always take your dogs thoughts, feelings, emotions, opinions, etc. into consideration in our every day living and working with them. Dogs are not something to be beaten or restrained into submission. They are feeling, thinking, intelligent, and sentient creatures that deserve our kindness and appropriate guidance in a world that hasn’t been designed for them. We are their guardians and caretakers and it is our job and duty to protect them, advocate for them, learn to understand and work with them, love them, and provide for all of their daily needs. Having them in our lives is an honor and a right and not a relationship that should be taken for granted or where we should abuse our power and status just because we can.

There are kinder, gentler, more compassionate ways to have a dog that trusts, respects, and cooperates with you. It’s a give and take system. But we can’t expect the dogs to always be giving and the humans to always be taking. It works best when it is reciprocal and dogs aren’t being forced or intimidated into things they are not comfortable doing. Compliance doesn’t always mean it’s okay. It’s how we arrive at compliance and in my experience, that comes when you take the time to learn how to communicate in a way that your dog can understand and I have found that one of the most important and effective communication tools is love.

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