Positive reinforcement dog training is basically teaching behaviors using a reward system as opposed to employing force and physical correction. This method is much more than a cultural movement of the times. It’s based on science and the study of animal behavior and learning theory which has come to the forefront these past decades.
Those of us who have been involved with dog training for years and years have witnessed the evolution toward kinder animal training. Becoming aware, many have acted on their instinctive love for dogs and taken the challenge to change while others remain in the past. This is not to disparage all those who still use aversive methods, as perhaps they just haven’t been converted yet! You hear over and over the confessions of long time trainers such as myself. One of the greats, Dr. Sophia Yin, who sadly passed recently, tearfully admitted that when learning how to train she had been a good student and followed the instructions to a T, not realizing that she was damaging her own dog!
There are of course some trainers who see the whole picture and hold fast to their antiquated methods. The answer to this dilemma is not criticizing individuals, but the conversions, one trainer at a time and owner education. As “pet parents” become more knowledgeable and seek positive based instruction for their furry family members, the profession of training dogs will eventually exclude all those not committed to the necessary continuous study.
So, what scientific proof serves to back up this belief that positive is better? After all, for decades dogs were trained for the police, military, service dogs, hunting, and more using corrective techniques. The answer is the study of behaviorism which flourished in the 1900’s. Nowadays even the police, military and guide dogs are being taught with positive methods. There is a huge overlap between human and animal behavior. I have a son who is a board certified behavior analyst and we can talk for hours and you wouldn’t know if you overheard us if we were discussing children or dogs.
Why use positive reinforcement dog training?
Science has thus proven that we (and dogs) learn best through the use of positive reinforcement. Think about it… would you be more motivated to do good work for a boss who praised your efforts or one who you feared would be overly critical? And, we’re assuming that your boss would be giving orders in a language you understood! Our poor dogs do not know our language except for what we effectively teach them. Imagine the confusion and potential for fear at the hand of an impatient master!
When evaluating a dog as to how best approach its training, I always try to put myself into the mind of the dog in a compassionate way. Perhaps an out of control dog is genetically wired wrong due to poor breeding choices made by guess who… the humans. Or, maybe the dog displays serious fear and reactivity issues or has been in and out of rescues. Who is to blame for this? Who didn’t socialize and train them when needed? And who then abandoned them at the local shelter? I see many dogs who have had three or more homes.
Imagine, then, a poor dog who has received nothing but confusion and mixed signals falling into the hand of an owner or trainer who believes the solution is to make them submit and be even less confident!
Thank goodness the tide is turning due to people seeking a better way through education. Veterinary schools even now include behavior as part of their required coursework and major universities include programs that cover this topic in great detail. Brian Hare and Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center are paving the way for an even better understanding of the workings of our dogs’ minds.
Ken Ramirez, a biologist and animal behaviorist is another very highly respected authority on animal studies. He is an expert with over thirty five years of animal care and training. He is famous for his work with wildlife, marine mammals, and primates. He brings his expertise to the world of dog training. After watching a video of Ken handling a huge and deadly Komodo Dragon Lizard using positive reinforcement, I figured I could train a Labrador!
For those who want to learn, grow, and succeed with their dogs… the news is good! There is an abundance of information to share with you and it is all POSITIVE! As a trainer, I am now liberated to help dogs learn rather than command them to obey. I used to “work” with dogs. Now I understand dogs and apply techniques that will assist them to happily progress in their training. It used to be a job, now it is play. It feels so much healthier for all of us!