Positive Dog Training: Simple Solutions for Remarkable Results

Why should you use Positive Dog Training for your dog?

I’ll give you two reasons:

  1. It works.
  2. It’s enjoyable for your dog.

So what is it?

Positive Dog Training, or Positive Reinforcement Training for Dogs to give it it’s full title, makes use of rewards to encourage your dog to repeat behaviours that are desirable.

“But what about dominance?” you may be thinking. “Don’t I need to be the ‘Alpha’ in the pack and show my dog who is boss?”

The Dog Training War

You may not have realised it but there has been a dog training war raging for many years now.

On the one side, there are the proponents of Positive Dog Training. On the other, we have the advocates of Dominance Theory.

If you watch TV you may well have seen shows by the current TV Generals for the two sides:

I’ll discuss each of the techniques later in the post.

1 Terminology

Before we move on to Positive Dog Training solutions, let’s start by making sure that we understand the various terms used when discussing dog training.

1.1 Classical Conditioning

You’ve heard about Ivan Pavlov and his dogs haven’t you?

He was the Russian physiologist who first observed what we now refer to as Classical Conditioning. (Not to be confused with Anna Pavlova the Russian ballerina in whose honour the Pavlova dessert was named!)

Pavlov’s findings in his experiments with dogs may be summarised like this:

  • The dogs had an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus. The dogs salivated when they were about to receive food.
  • The dogs had no response to a neutral stimulus. The dogs did not salivate when a bell was ringing.
  • The dogs had an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus accompanied by a neutral stimulus. The dogs continued to salivate when they were about to receive food and when a bell was ringing.
  • The dogs had a conditioned response to a conditioned stimulus. The dogs salivated when a bell was ringing even when there was no food.

You may not realise it but, you’ve probably already used Classical Conditioning with your dog.

For example, if you pick up your dog’s lead ready to go for a walk and he goes a little crazy, that’s Classical Conditioning at work.

1.2 Operant Conditioning

In essence, Operant Conditioning states that conditioning is determined by the consequences of behaviour.

When a behaviour is followed by a pleasant consequence it is more likely to be repeated and, conversely, a behaviour followed by an unpleasant consequence is less likely to be repeated.

Much of the early work on Operant Conditioning was undertaken by Burrhus Frederic Skinner.

Skinner suggested that there were 3 possible types of response to a behaviour:

  • Neutrals – responses that have no effect on the probability of the behaviour being repeated.
  • Reinforcers – responses that increase the probability of a behaviour being repeated. These reinforcers can be positive or negative.
  • Punishers – responses that decrease the probability of a behaviour being repeated.

1.3 Reinforcement and Punishment

So, reinforcement means that a behaviour will happen more often.

For example, if your dog really loves freshly cooked, warm, chicken and you give him a piece after he sits neatly at your side, and he then sits at your side more often then you have used reinforcement.

And, punishment means that a behaviour will happen less often.

For example, if you have a young puppy that is going through a nipping stage and you turn away and deny giving him any attention for a short period when he bites you, and he then bites less often, then you have used punishment.

Note that in the context of dog training, punishment does not necessarily mean something that is bad or painful.

1.4 Positive and Negative

Similarly, in the context of dog training, positive and negative do not necessarily mean things that are good and bad.

Positive training means that something is added or given in relation to a behaviour.

In the reinforcement example given above we gave warm chicken to our dog. So, that was a positive action.

Negative training means that something is subtracted or taken in relation to a behaviour.

In the punishment example given above we took away our attention from the puppy. So, that was a negative action.

1.5 Putting it all Together – Training Grid

OK, that’s our basic terminology outlined.

I know that images, rather than walls of text, are far easier for most of us to remember.

After all, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

So here is a simple grid layout summarising the points that we’ve covered.

Postive dog training - training methods grid

Let’s just consider a few more examples, one for dogs and one for humans, to make sure that we really understand the four areas before we move on.

Positive Reinforcement

  • When your dog races back to you after you use your recall cue you play his favourite game with a tug toy. (see the Rock-Steady Recall post for more on recall and rewards)
  • When your child performs well in some school exams you give him the PS4 game that he has been raving about for weeks.

Negative Reinforcement

  • To encourage your dog to sit you use your hand to push on his hindquarters – you remove the pressure when he has sat.
  • You take away your child’s PS4 until his exam results improve.

Positive Punishment

  • You hit your puppy on the nose after he relieves himself on the lounge carpet.
  • Your child kicks his teacher and is given detention and extra study to do.

Negative Punishment

  • When your dog jumps up you turn your back to him, removing the attention that he craves.
  • If your child doesn’t eat his vegetables at mealtime you take away the dessert that he was looking forward to eating.

2 Research: Positive Dog Training Works

In the introduction I told you that positive dog training works.

The positive dog training solutions and techniques that I’m referring to fall within the Positive Reinforcement (+R, sometimes also shown as R+) section above.

In a study titled “Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare” the authors (EF Hiby, NJ Rooney, and JWS Bradshaw) compared positive dog training with traditional (negative reinforcement or negative punishment) dog training.

The study concluded that :

“Because reward-based methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviours, we suggest that their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible alternative to punishment for the average dog owner.”

EF Hiby, NJ Rooney, and JWS Bradshaw

And a study by EJ Blackwell, C Twells, A Seawright, and RA Casey, looking at the relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems, found that:

“… there is an association between a lower number of potentially undesirable behaviours reported in dogs trained without the use of punishment-based techniques.”

EJ Blackwell, C Twells, A Seawright, and RA Casey

And in another study, by ME Herron, FS Shofer, and IR Reisner, the impact of using confrontational and non-confrontational training methods on behaviours was examined. They concluded that:

“… confrontational or aversive behavioural interventions applied by dog owners … were associated with aggressive responses in many cases.”

and

“Ultimately, reward-based training is less stressful or painful for the dog, and, hence, safer for the owner.”

ME Herron, FS Shofer, and IR Reisner

Furthermore, G Ziv undertook a review of 17 different studies concerning “The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs“. The review noted that:

“… using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs. In addition, although positive punishment can be effective, there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement–based training. In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite is true.”

and

” In conclusion, those working with or handling dogs should rely on positive reinforcement methods and avoid using positive punishment and negative reinforcement as much as possible.”

G Ziv

So, positive dog training is more effective than punishment-based training and results in fewer behavioural problems.

Win, win!

3 Key Advocates

If positive dog training is so good then it must be used by those organisations well known for their use of dogs, right?

Absolutely!

Guide Dogs

If you were to think about the most important role for a trained dog what would it be?

It’s got to be as a guide dog for a blind person hasn’t it?

Imagine a world where you can’t see anything. Scary enough in your own home but what about going outside? Unable to see obstacles in your way. Or vehicles heading towards you when you attempt to cross the road.

Now imagine that same world but with a canine companion that will act as your guide. The difference is enormous.

Being a guide dog takes a lot of hard work.

Not only does the dog need to ‘steer’ his blind handler he needs to have immense self-control and concentration. No getting distracted by other dogs (friendly or not), cats, badly-behaved children, well-intentioned adults, ball games, traffic noise, construction noise, and endless other distractions.

So, the training undertaken by Guide Dogs for the Blind is vital in producing suitable dogs.

Some years ago (2006, to be precise) they made the switch to positive dog training. And the results have been impressive:

  • Traditional methods resulted in around 45-50% of dogs being trained to a sufficiently high standard to be a guide dog.
  • Positive reinforcement training resulted in a 60-85% success rate.

That’s a substantial improvement!

Not only that, but they also found that the dogs actually enjoyed the training – becoming more enthusiastic and being better thinkers and problem solvers.

Police Dogs

Police forces around the world now make use of positive dog training methods, both for their patrol dogs and for their sniffer dogs.

And do you know what the secret weapon is in training many of these dogs?

Balls!

Tennis balls, to be precise.

These have been found to be excellent rewards for a great many dogs that are trained used positive reinforcement techniques.

Why?

They have dual appeal:

  • Dogs love to chase balls! It brings them great enjoyment. Simple as that.
  • It’s a texture thing. The feel of a tennis ball in their mouth seems to appeal to dogs.

And positive dog training, as we’ve seen from the research above, has an added benefit – it makes the dogs more reliable.

A dog that is stressed by abusive training methods is less reliable than one that has forged a true bond with his handler. And is more likely to actually bite it’s handler (and other unintended targets)!

A dog that benefits from positive reinforcement dog training, on the other hand, isn’t worrying about what abuse may be coming his way – he’s wondering what he can do to make his handler happy and earn a reward.

Bomb Detection Dogs

Many law enforcement agencies make use of dogs for detecting the presence of bombs.

One of those agencies is the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) in the USA. And the CIA actually issued some useful dog training tips based upon their findings.

You can follow this link to read the CIA’s Top 10 Dog Training Tips in full but they can be summarised as follows:

  1. Make it fun. The key is getting your dog to want to do a behaviour rather than forcing him to do it. Compulsion on a dog does not work.
  2. Use what motivates your dog. Different dogs take different ‘currency’ for their rewards and you need to establish what this is. For many Labradors, food is an excellent reward. Whereas, for many German Shepherds a toy (like a tennis ball!) is highly motivational.
  3. A small change is a big moment. Look for the slightest of changes in your dog’s behaviour that indicate that he may be ‘getting’ what you are trying to teach … and reward it. These changes vary from dog to dog so find what works with your dog.
  4. Work hard, play hard. Training should be fun, challenging, and rewarding – for both you and your dog. Don’t transmit your ‘I’ve had a shit day!’ feeling to your dog! Do find time to play with your dog – dogs need downtime too.
  5. Watch for patterns. Dogs are excellent observers of patterns. If, for example, you always ask your dog to sit before eating his food he may start to anticipate this and sit before you give him a cue. So, change things up a little and ask for a down or some other behaviour.
  6. Introduce challenges. Performing a nice sit when there are no distractions is one thing. What about if there is another dog nearby? Or a cat? Or a gun being fired? Once you have a basic cue mastered look to strengthen it by adding challenges.
  7. Consistency is key. One of the biggest mistakes that people make when training their dog is to teach the dog something and then abandon the training plan. Familiarisation and repetition are key factors in a dog learning new behaviours.
  8. Take breaks. Not every training session will go according to plan. It’s okay to take a break and return to the task if either you or your dog gets frustrated. Taking a break aids focus (for people and dogs).
  9. Utilise your dog’s natural energy level. Just like people, dogs have energy levels that vary throughout the day. And each dog will have a different base energy level (compare the ball obsessed Border Collie that races around like Taz of Tazmania after overloading on caffeine-infused energy drinks with the chilled Bulldog who moves with all the speed of a geriatric sloth skating uphill!). Know your dog – do you need to burn some energy off first or can you move straight to training?
  10. Always end on a positive. If you are finding a particular training area to be really difficult it’s okay to stop the session early. However, ensure that you finish on a positive note – even if it’s something that you know your dog can do easily, it’s important for both dog and trainer to finish while feeling good.

The fact of the matter is that pretty much all organisations that make use of dogs now make use of positive dog training techniques.

Now, much as we may like to think otherwise, it’s likely that for at least some of these organisations the change was not motivated by dog welfare but by what produces the most well-trained dogs in the shortest amount of time.

So, if positive dog training solutions produce better-trained dogs AND are kinder to dogs, why are so many people still using traditional dog training methods?

  • Die-hards who genuinely believe that the old ways are the best. They don’t get out much for fear of falling off the edge of the world (it’s flat you know!) and don’t believe that this inter-web thingy will ever catch on so they don’t use it.
  • Bullies who believe that ‘bad dogs need to be punished’. They don’t care what training method is most effective. They just want to play the disciplinarian role and inflict pain and suffering on the dog.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Some people get a new dog and genuinely want to do the right thing. They do some research, happen upon a traditional training source of information or trainer, and take things no further believing this to be the only way.

4 Dominance is Dead

Let’s start by having a closer look at what we mean when we talk about traditional dog training methods.

Yes, I know, you thought that you were done with terminology for today. Stick with it, we’re nearly done.

It’s the Wolf!

Positive dog training - wolf

Well, we all know that the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) is descended from the wolf (Canis lupus) don’t we?

Those studying the behaviour of wolves suggested that within a wolf pack there would be an alpha male and an alpha female within a group hierarchy. These individuals having fought their way to the ‘top dog’ position through pure aggression and dominance.

The original proponent of this theory was Rudolph Schenkel, a Swiss animal behaviourist in the 1930s and 1940s. Other theorists subsequently confirmed his findings.

This was then transferred to the dog training world with the following logic: Wolves live in packs with a hierarchical structure in which an aggressive alpha male rules over all the other wolves. Therefore, humans need to dominate their pet dogs to get them to behave.

This logic was seized upon (Cesar’ed upon?) by various people in the training profession and is still being advocated now.

The trouble is, this theory was based upon observation of an unnatural scenario – captive wolves. Not wolves in the wild.

And guess what?

When wolves were studied in their natural habitat the alpha theory was found to be incorrect! Wolves live in nuclear families where it is the mother and father that are the pack leaders and their offspring’s status is determined by birth order.

There is no fighting for position as the alpha dog. Just as with a human family, children follow their parents’ lead.

So, Dominance is Dead!

WDD – Weapons of Dog Destruction

I hope that you have already concluded that positive dog training is preferable to traditional training methods just based on what you have read so far. If you haven’t, brace yourself!

Let’s take a look at some of the tools enlisted by traditional trainers in achieving their objectives.

Prong collars (also called pinch collars)

Take a look at the photo in this RSPCA knowledge-base article.

It’s like some medieval instrument of torture!

The rationale for their use is that it will stop dogs from pulling on their lead by causing the dog pain when the prongs pinch the skin of their neck. Nice!

Take a look at the video below regarding the use of prong collars.

Choke collars

Well, the clue is in the name. These work by choking your dog into submission!

Effectively, a choke collar is like a noose around your dog’s neck and it pulls tighter when your dog pulls (or if you do).

The added ‘features’ of choke collars include:

  • Whiplash
  • Fainting
  • Spinal cord injuries leading to paralysis
  • Crushing of the trachea with partial or complete asphyxiation
  • Crushing and/or fracture of the bones in the larynx
  • Dislocated neck bones
  • Brain damage and prolapsed eyes caused by sharp increases in pressure in the head
Shock collars

Yes, that’s right. Somebody thought it was a good idea to come up with a way of electrocuting your dog into submission!

Your dog fails to sit on cue – ZAP!

Your dog fails to recall immediately – ZAP!

Your dog dares to bark – ZAP!

These things are horrendous and have been outlawed in many countries around the world.

For further video guidance on their use … Nando is back:

So, if you are:

  • A die-hard. Yeah, right. No way you are reading this.
  • A bully. I hope you’ve seen enough to change your ways but, sadly, I doubt it.
  • Someone with a little knowledge. If you are somebody who has undertaken some initial research and had the misfortune to watch a Cesar Millan TV show, read an out-dated training article or book, or meet with an old-school trainer, I sincerely hope that I’ve given you some food for thought and that you will at least contemplate trying something different. Your dog will thank you for it.

5 Positive Dog Training Solutions in Practice

Our dog, Harvey, is our first dog. Neither my wife nor I had any previous experience of training dogs.

Before getting him I did lots of research and was fortunate enough to discover the existence of the Dog Training War and pick the side that I wanted to join – Positive Dog Training.

Now, Harvey isn’t perfectly trained by any means – we still have areas that need further work. But for first-time owners I’ve been amazed at the success that we have had in his training.

So, moving on from all of the theory and the examples of organisations that utilise positive dog training, what have I found in practice?

Find what reward works for your dog:

One of the early training classes that we attended had secured the services of a police dog handler. He had a huge amount of experience and was the first person to suggest to us that there were things more valuable than treats to use as rewards.

He told us how in his workplace training they had a secret weapon … tennis balls!

Apparently, a great many police dogs prefer a quick game with a tennis ball and their handler rather than having a food treat.

We found that Harvey loves playing with toys (especially tennis balls although we have had to moderate this due to his arthritis!).

Positive dog training - Harv focus on ball
Harvey transfixed by a toy

The whole concept of positive dog training is based around rewarding the behaviour that you want to encourage – and the better the reward, the stronger the reinforcement.

So strong is the appeal of certain toys, and the associated prospect of some fun and games, as a reward that Harv becomes totally focussed on what is being asked of him.

Positive dog training - Harv attentive
Harv demonstrates complete focus (a toy is held out of shot!)

So, boost the effectiveness of your training by investing some time in establishing what really motivates your dog.

Not just something that he likes. Something that he loves. Something that he would sell his soul for!

Beware the naysayers

While out and about training you’ll find many traditional training ‘experts’ who can’t resist telling you that you are ‘doing it wrong’.

Often giving you a demonstration by inflicting some form of punishment on their own unfortunate dog.

As soon as you hear the words ‘Alpha’, ‘dominance’, ‘punishment’, ‘show him you’re the boss’ – smile politely, thank them for their time, … and get the hell out of there!

It’s all just a game

It’s very easy to take training too seriously.

I don’t mean that it isn’t important. It is – hugely.

I mean that it is very easy to become so focussed on a particular area of training, especially if it isn’t going well, that you don’t spot where you are going wrong.

That’s right. If something isn’t working I can pretty much guarantee that it is ‘handler error’ rather than a problem with your dog.

If you find yourself in that scenario – stop. Take a break. Have some play time with your dog for a while to help you both get rid of any tension.

Then try again. If it still isn’t working then put it aside for another day and finish by doing something that you know that your dog can do well.

Positive dog training - Harv focus on smiley
Harv at play – I think Mr Smiley Face may be in trouble!

Build a strong bond with your dog

Domestic dogs are social animals.

They form strong bonds with the humans that they share their lives with. The desire to form these bonds and to please their humans is so strong that, sadly, they will often even tolerate abuse from these humans.

Make it a two-way street – look to make a strong bond with your dog. Become the centre of his world.

If you do this then you will enhance your training success because your dog will be keen to please you.

Positive dog training - Harv with toy
Yes, it’s my favourite toy but you can have it

6 Frequently Asked Questions

What is positive dog training?

Positive dog training solutions make use of rewards to encourage a dog to repeat the desired behaviour.

For example, if your dog sits when you give the ‘Sit’ cue and you reward that behaviour by giving him something that he really likes, like throwing a tennis ball for him, then he is more likely to successfully repeat the sit action the next time that the cue is given.

In essence, “What gets rewarded, gets repeated”.

Does positive dog training work?

Yes, it does. Numerous studies have confirmed that not only does it produce better-trained dogs than traditional training methods but it is also far less likely to create behavioural issues (a common problem with traditional training where the methods used cause stress in the dog that subsequently manifests in problem behaviours).

If you want further proof – look at the organisations that make use of dogs. Guide Dogs for the Blind, Police, Armed Forces, Search and Rescue, government agencies like the CIA – they all now use positive dog training. Why? Because it works!

How do you show your dog you’re the Alpha?

Please don’t! The whole “your dog is a wolf, you have to show him that you are the alpha, eat your meals first, mount him! , ‘alpha roll’ him onto his side or back and make him submit” notion has been disproved.

The tension observed in the wolf packs that gave rise to this theory in the 1940s was as a result of observing wolves from different families that had been brought together in captivity. More recent studies on wolves in the wild show that the ‘Alpha’ concept doesn’t apply. Not only that, but the behaviour of domestic dogs is now recognised as being vastly different to wolves anyway.

How do I punish my puppy?

Your puppy doesn’t need to be punished. He may well have behavioural issues or training difficulties but punishing him will not help with either. In fact, it is likely to make the situation much worse.

For training issues, you would be well advised to look at using positive dog training techniques. Basically, rewarding desired behaviours in order to encourage the dog to repeat them.

If your puppy has behavioural issues then you should consult with professionals. Firstly, check with your vet to make sure that there are no underlying health issues. If there aren’t then the next step is to seek out a dog behaviourist. Make sure that you do your research first and check the qualifications and experience of the behaviourist.

7 Acknowledgements

Image acknowledgements:

Content image of wolf provided courtesy of steffiheufelder

8 The End

Richie's Room - Harv leaving
Time to go!

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36 thoughts on “Positive Dog Training: Simple Solutions for Remarkable Results”

  1. Wow, this is such a detailed post! We have two dogs and one is pretty well-behaved but the other one seems to know how to wait until our backs are turned to be naughty. Not exactly sure how to undo that. But these are some great tips to try!

    Reply
    • Thanks Rebecca, much appreciated.

      Dogs are excellent opportunists, that’s for sure. Often, it’s a matter of trying to anticipate what the naughty act might be and take some pre-emptive steps. If you have any specific issues I’d be happy to offer my thoughts.

      Reply
  2. Love the reinforcement of kind, positive dog training! There so many better options for teaching your dog good behavior besides painful collars, its nice to see some good advice being shared. Great post!

    Reply
  3. As a fellow dog lover, i think your site is great! Some excellent suggestions here. Like the way you’ve organized your article

    Reply
    • Hi Ffion. Thank you. Glad to hear you are going to give it a go. Let me know if you have any problems.

      Reply
  4. Amazing post and very informative. Every time I read your posts it makes me want to get a puppy 😩.

    Very insightful post that brought me back to all those psychology courses I have taken on classical and operant condition.

    These tools and tips that you give are so good because it helps dog owners to know that reinforcements goes a long way in determining positive or negative behaviors. Consistency and patience is key also.

    Reply
    • Hi Cathrin, thank you for letting me have your thoughts. I’m glad that your dog remembers everything that you have taught him (they really are very clever!).

      Reply
  5. What a fantastic post – brilliant detail, and clearly very well researched! I never knew that there was such a clear battle between the different schools of thought on how to train a dog.

    I still remember getting a rescue dog when I was a kid – it was 2/3 years old, and hadn’t been trained at all. That took a LOT of work, and I’m pretty sure my parents went through the whole spectrum of training techniques.

    I’d put this down as a must-read for anyone considering getting their first dog. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Reply
  6. Hi Richie, thanks for such an in depth article about dog training and the importance of focusing on the positive side of reinforcement! We have a 9 month old Corgi puppy and he listens very well in our house (sit, stay, come, paw, stop, get a toy) but outside he gets distracted very easily, mostly by ducks and other dogs. We have been working on training him outside with treats when he comes or stays but it is certainly a process. Really great info and tips that we will use going forward!

    Rebecca

    Reply
    • Hi Rebecca. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope that you find it useful with your Corgi puppy. With most training, we have to ‘proof it’ by gradually increasing the 3 ‘D’s – duration, distance, and distraction (only increase one at a time). Clearly your boy is having fun when outside and that is trumping the value of the cue reward. Try to find the ‘safe distance’ before the distractions have any impact. Then gradually reduce the distance as your boy successfully performs the cue. Don’t be in a rush – pick distances that you think he will be successful at. And don’t be disheartened, those are major distractions to work with – if you can crack that you’ll be set to crack pretty much anything 🙂

      Reply
  7. Wow. This is such a thorough post. We currently have a puppy in the house and I am glad to see we are training him in a positive manner. It really does work because he has learned so much already.

    Reply
    • Hi Brooke. Thank you for your comment. I’m glad that you’ve found positive dog training to be successful with your puppy – keep up the good work.

      Reply
  8. This is a great post, so detailed and I’m sure it will help many dog owners! I may get a dog one day so I know I’d have to do some reading into the training side of things. It makes me sad that people might use those shock collars and the other things that hurt the dogs. Great post, thanks for sharing all the information!

    Reply
    • Hey Chloe. Many thanks for your feedback. It is sad what some owners will do to their dogs – I just hope that by continuing to talk about it we can persuade them that there is another, better, way.

      Reply
  9. I know this is a post about dogs but positive reinforcement works equally well for cats too. There’s never any need to be overbearing or overly forceful wirh any animal. Great post, Richie!

    Reply

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