The Power of Positive Reinforcement
I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this for a long time because it is the core principle of everything I believe in when it comes to training dogs.
I started All Things Pups as a community for not only dog training, but also as an honest resource for you, as owners, looking to learn more about your best friend.
More than ever, people are looking for the right style of training for their individual dog.
From my experience, I can confidently say that no matter your dog’s age, breed, temperament, background and behavioral issues—positive reinforcement training IS the right training method for your dog.
However, there are still a lot of people who say negative reinforcement works better on their dog, so I'm going to talk to those people briefly here.
The truth is, whether or not you believe positive reinforcement training is the "best" method", I think we can all agree on that the vast majority of dog owners would LIKE to be able to resort to using only positive reinforcement training methods with their dog.
The problem is that people think that positive reinforcement training will not work for THEIR dog and unique life situation for reasons XYZ, so they result to using negative reinforcement methods (prong collars, shock collars, etc) as a quick fix.
While this lack of commitment can largely be attributed to excuses, another large problem in this case can be attributed to the lack of education and patience surrounding dog training.
The more dog owners I talk with, the more I have come to realize that people who have “difficult” dogs think that their dog is one in a billion and that using positive methods will not work for their dog.
I 100% agree that every dog is one in a million and deserves an individual approach! There is no other dog with the exact same personality and behavior as your dog, and you should cherish their uniqueness.
With that being said, when it comes to training, the “best” macro-level method of training for every single dog is the same, end of story!
Let me explain..
My definition of “the best training method” is as follows:
The "best" method is one that is positive and fun, which allows you to form a strong bond with your dog, but at the same time, enables you to be firm and establish a relationship where your dog respects and listens to you at all times.
This is MY definition of positive reinforcement training.
It sounds pretty well balanced, right?
With this form of positive reinforcement training, there really is no need for negative reinforcement, or “balanced” training, as some may call it.
From the two-pound Yorkie puppies to the 150-pound mastiffs I work with, positive reinforcement training is the only training I use.
From the friendliest Pitbull to the most aggressive German Shepherd I work with, positive reinforcement training is the only training I use.
From the most fearful 10 year old shelter dog to the most outgoing and hyper puppy I work with, positive reinforcement training is the ONLY training I use.
For each and every single dog I work with, positive reinforcement training is the ONLY training I use and it has proven successful EVERY SINGLE TIME.
In fact, there are really only two factors that determine the success or failure of positive reinforcement training:
1. The Amount Of Reinforcement And Work The Owner Actually Puts Into The Training.
A huge tenant of my training method that I stress to every dog owner is that one session with me won’t magically turn your dog into a well-behaved dog.
You are going to have to put in the work to reinforce the tools and techniques that I give you.
There is no substitute or magic pill for hard work!
If you only reinforce the methods I give you half of the time, you should only expect to see half of the potential results.
Isn’t this something that applies to every area of life?
If you only put 50% into your workouts at the gym, you shouldn’t expect to be in the very best shape possible for you to be.
If you only study for half of the subjects on your test, you can’t expect to receive 100% on every subject.
We all know this life lesson and it is no different when applying it to training your dog. So why don't we follow this tried and true life lesson?
2. Patience When Working Through The Dog's Individual Learning Threshold.
Dogs do indeed have different intelligence levels and some catch on to different training concepts faster than others. When you combine this uncertainty with impatient owners in today's society, a lot of people end up quitting on their dogs!
However, if the owner is consistent in reinforcing the training, and patient with the process, the dog (no matter what intelligence level) WILL catch on—it may just take longer (or shorter) than it takes the neighbor dog to catch on.
The bottom line is, my clients who put in 100% effort and consistency, see 100% improvement and results with their dogs.
I can give you the best tools in the world, but it won’t matter if you aren’t willing to put in the consistent work over the long-term.
Another thing people always ask me is, “Has there ever been a dog you weren’t able to train?”
I love answering this question!
What I tell these people is that I have never worked with a dog who has not responded nor improved with my positive reinforcement training methods. There are, however, people who don’t see the results they want because of one of two reasons:
A. They don’t reinforce and build upon the foundation we set in our training sessions.
B. They aren’t patient enough to work with their dog’s cognitive ability to learn and develop new behavior.
That, my friends, is the only difference between my clients who succeed in raising a well-behaved and trained dog, and those who fall short.
Positive reinforcement training takes PATIENCE.
Patience will be your number one tool to fall back on when training your dog; it may also be the most challenging part of training.
This is where most people stumble, and where you, as the owner, have to work on keeping patience with your dog. Our society has taught us the false pretense that there is such thing as an “overnight success”; that you can become successful at something without working hard.
I think this is one of the main reasons why it’s so hard for most people to work through behavioral issues with our dogs.. Because 90% of us are impatient as hell and want an obedient dog without putting in the work that it requires!
Another reason why people think that positive reinforcement training will not work for their unique dog is due to misinformation from other dog trainers.
Lately, I’ve been working with a lot of new clients who are coming to me after working with other trainers whose methods they did not feel comfortable with.
Here are a couple of examples:
One of my clients, who has two sweet German Shepherds and has never owned dogs before them, was looking for help with some leash walking manners while her husband was traveling for work for a couple months.
She hired on a trainer who used negative reinforcement and fear tactics to get the dogs to listen.
Because my client had no idea about the different types of training, she put all of her trust into this man who was a professional trainer (I would too if I didn’t know where to start!).
Her husband arrived home to see this trainer using a prong collar on his dog while stepping on the leash so that the dog’s neck was down on the ground. (In what world would this be necessary to train basic leash walking manners?!?!)
Another one of my clients has a three month old Morkie who is a typical puppy and also barks when he wants attention.
The original trainer she hired told her that her dog was completely out of control and the only method that will work on him is a shock collar.
Again, she did not feel great about using this method but wanted her dog to be the best dog he could be, so she took the professional’s advice.
When she brought her puppy into the vet, they were in awe that she had a shock collar on her 5 pound pup and told her that it could seriously injure him.
There is nothing that infuriates me more than “professionals” misinforming and taking advantage of dog owners. Even writing these stories is making my blood boil!
In both of the above examples, both owners were completely devastated and felt so horrible for putting their precious fur babies through such negative experiences.
Obviously it was not the owners’ fault at all.
When someone is a professional in a certain field, you expect that they are going to give you all the right information to help you—hence why you hire them.
It is so, so, so upsetting to me that there are dog trainers who take advantage of people’s trust, and apply unnecessary and sometimes unethical training methods to their dogs.
If positive reinforcement training works for every dog, why do trainers use other methods?
This is a question I get a lot and one that I, myself, always wondered.
From my point of view, I couldn’t fathom why any dog trainer or dog owner would want to use any training method other than positive reinforcement.
I guess this comes from my undying passion for dogs and belief that they, being the innocent, sweet souls that they are, should only be treated kindly and positively.
But obviously it also comes from the fact that positive reinforcement has never failed me in training even the most aggressive dogs.
To figure out the answer to this question, I’ve had to look beyond my point of view.
The reason that some people resort to other training methods is because it is easier.
When I say easier, I’m not talking about how challenging the actual training methods are—my training methods are extremely simple.
I am talking about that patience factor we discussed earlier and putting in the work to achieve results. Like I mentioned, we live in a world where everyone wants instant gratification and fast results, while putting in the minimum amount of work required.
Anyone who is successful knows that this is the complete opposite of what will get you to success.
Nonetheless, using negative reinforcement techniques, such as using a shock collar, is a quick, band-aid fix to the issue. It's a shortcut attempt to stop behavior that requires hard work and persistence.
Shock collars are widely used to “fix” the issue of a dog barking.
A couple days ago actually, I saw an owner walking his dog utilizing a shock collar for this very issue. The dog was barking at other dogs across the street, so she was zapped.
When another dog passed by, the dog did not bark again. Instead of barking, however, she put her ears back and head down. Sure, she did not bark, but her entire demeanor changed in fear of being shocked.
This is the perfect example of how this negative reinforcement technique is simply a quick bandaid fix, and does not actually solve the root of the issue.
Using positive reinforcement to work through an issue does take practice, time, and patience.
Unlike negative reinforcement, however, positive reinforcement starts at the root cause of the issue and works to truly RESOLVE the issue, not by instilling fear on the dog.
Sometimes, negative reinforcement techniques can actually hurt a dog—physically and mentally.
Physical injuries can happen from misuse of negative reinforcement tools (like prong and shock collars).
Mental injuries can happen even from using the tool “correctly”.
Let’s use the above scenario again: When a dog barks at another dog, he is shocked. While this may make life easier on the owner, this does the complete opposite for the dog.
First of all, with any behavior you do not want exhibited by a dog, you have to think about WHY the dog is exhibiting this behavior.
Is the dog barking at another dog out of excitement?
If this is the case, he needs to work on self-control to contain his excitement when he sees another dog.
Shocking him may keep her from barking, but there’s no way it teaches him self-control.
Is he barking at another dog out of fear?
If this is the case, he needs to learn that there is no reason to fear other dogs.
Shocking him may keep him from barking, but it certainly will not take away his fear of other dogs.
In fact, it does just the reverse. If the dog is barking out of fear, he is associating other dogs with negativity.
When negative reinforcement is applied (the shock) the owner is adding MORE negativity to the situation. When more negativity is added, the dog will only add more negative associations with other dogs, which could hurt the dog immensely mentally.
Remember, positive reinforcement training takes practice, time, and patience. If you can grasp and embrace that, the rest is simple!
What are your experiences with positive vs. negative reinforcement training? I’d love to hear you stories in the comments section below :)