By Courtney Emken
co-written by Jen Larson, KPA-CTP, and Amanda Ott
Due to its popularization by the Monks of New Skete and The Dog Whisperer, dominance theory influenced training has often become pictured as the “traditional” or “old school” method of dog training. However, humans have actually been using positive reinforcement methods to train their canine companions for thousands of years.
Experts say that before they were domesticated, dogs would trail human tribes and scavenge their leftovers. The first “trainers” took note of this and began to personally feed the dogs to build trust. They would later use this same method to train advanced skills like nosework and herding.
Join us as we delve into the science and psychology behind positive reinforcement to see why it’s been the best training method available from the stone age to modern times.
The Science Behind Positive Reinforcement Training
The basic principle underlying positive training is simple: as you reward a behavior you increase the likelihood of its repetition. Dogs are intelligent and socially keen animals. They notice what types of actions, attitudes, and behaviors earn them highly-desired rewards like:
While the notion of rewards influencing behavior doesn’t seem all that revolutionary, this law of animal behavior opens up immense possibilities to trainers. For example, clicker training depends entirely on building a positive association to a clicker’s noise. Once properly reinforced, the clicker itself becomes a secondary reinforcer you can utilize for further training.
If you want to dive even deeper into the details of positive training, then take a look at our handout: The Science Behind Positive Reinforcement & How To Increase Good Behavior for further information.
Why Positive Training Beats Aversive Training Every Time
Supporters of aversive training will argue that certain behaviors don’t respond to positive training methods. They think that a negative stimulus needs to be applied in order to discourage deeply ingrained problems such as:
- Excessive barking
- Fence fighting
While this may seem understandable at first glance, the science just does not support this theory. These dogs behave due to the fear of punishment, and in the absence of their punisher they will often revert to their old ways. In fact, studies show that aversive corrections actually worsen reactivity instead of controlling it.
Furthermore, you’re also far more likely to damage your dog physically and emotionally when you use aversive tools like:
- Choke chains
- Prong collars
As we’ve shown in the past, these collars and their ilk pose significant health risks to your dog and do little other than confuse and frighten them. Luckily, there’s an alternative to the quick fixes offered by aversive and “balanced” trainers, and it’s entirely positive.
What positive trainers do to reduce unwanted behavior is redirect the dog’s attention by reinforcing positive replacement behaviors. For instance, if your dog has a bad habit of excitedly jumping on visitors, you can train them to “sit” or “come” to redirect their behavior.
However, issues like reactivity can be persistent and may never be entirely eliminated. For these behaviors, it’s up to owners to practice effective management and prevention to keep their dog out of trouble.
For example, instead of expecting a leash-reactive dog to calmly walk past another dog in the park, simply pull them to the side and distract them with a reward. Some dogs just aren’t the type to get friendly with strangers. Owners need to be aware and manage their dog’s environment to ensure that accidents are avoided and everyone stays safe.
If you have any questions about positive training, or want more in-depth information, please contact us today. Our trainers Jen and Amanda are certified in positive training with the titles of KPA-CPT and CPDT-KA respectively and would love to talk in greater detail!
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