There is a lot of information out there for people to find about training dogs. There are a ton of different methods, ideologies, and techniques. In this article I’m going to take a minute to explain some of the science behind dog training and how different methods and tools work.
To start off with there are two types of learning behavior we are going to talk about here, classical conditioning and operant conditioning. You may have heard of Pavlov’s dogs. If so you already have an understanding on what classical conditioning is. It is a learning procedure where a primary reinforcer is paired with something that was previously neutral to the animal whereby the previously neutral stimulus elicits the same response as the primary reinforcer. In the well known example of Pavlov’s dogs he paired the sound of a bell with the dogs receiving their food. After a few repetitions Pavlov’s experimental dogs would begin to salivate at the sound of the bell.
The second type of learning behavior is the one we utilize most frequently in dog training. Operant conditioning has four quadrants Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, and Negative Punishment. The first thing you need to do is get rid of any preconceived notions about positive meaning good and negative meaning bad. When we are talking about the quadrants of operant conditioning we are using these terms in a different way than many people often do in normal day to day conversation.
The term positive means we are adding some kind of stimulus and the term negative means we are removing some kind of stimulus. The term reinforcement means it increases the likelihood of the behavior to occur again and punishment means we are decreasing the likelihood of the behavior to occur again.
Whenever you are teaching a new behavior to your dog you will almost always be utilizing at least two of the four quadrants, possibly all four. There are also two other terms that are commonly utilized in the dog training world, rewards and aversives. I’m going to give you a run through on what we mean when we talk about rewards and what we mean when we talk about aversives.
Rewards- A reward in this context means anything your dog finds enjoyable. For most pet dog training rewards are treats, praise, petting, or a toy.
Aversives- An aversive in anything your dog finds unpleasant. This includes Haltis, Gentle Leaders, No-Pull Harnesses, Front Clip Harnesses, Slip Collars, Pinch Collars, Pet Correctors, Water Squirt Bottles, and E-Collars.
Example: So let’s say you have a new puppy and you are trying to teach that puppy to walk politely on a leash. You talked to a trainer and they recommended a Halti, treats, and a clicker. So whenever your puppy pulls they receiving an aversive stimulus by having their face jerked by the Halti. When the puppy walks next to you the trainer will have you click to mark the behavior and then supply a reward which is most often a treat. This is utilizing all four quadrants of operant conditioning.
Whenever the puppy goes to pull and has their face jerked by the Halti you are using Positive Punishment. You have added something, the unpleasant feeling that comes when the Halti tightens around their muzzle and jerks their head around, that helps to decrease the likelihood the behavior will occur again.
When the puppy stops pulling against the Halti the unpleasant stimulus stops. This is negative reinforcement. You have removed something, the unpleasant feeling of the Halti, to increase the likelihood your puppy will no longer pull on the leash.
When the puppy is walking politely and not pulling you will click and then reward the puppy with a treat. It is positive because you have added something, the treat, and it is reinforcement because it will increase the likelihood the behavior will happen again.
When the puppy is pulling on the leash you will take the treats away and not continue to offer them. This is negative because you have removed something, the treat, and punishment because it will decrease the likelihood of the behavior happening.
Similar examples could be given for no-pull harnesses that tighten around your dog’s chest and alter their gate as well as pinch collars and e-collars.
Example: Now let’s look at this from a human perspective to help you understand it a little bit better. Let’s say the person in our example is an insurance agent and let’s say this agent is paid a $500 bonus from their boss for every package they sell in addition to the two minimum requirement. Their boss is trying to get this agent to sell at least 4 new packages each month and if this employee sells less than 2 packages a month they are fired.
The boss threatening to fire the agent is adding something, an aversive, and the agent is less likely to sell less that 2 packages a month because of it.
If the agent sells at least two packages a month he won’t be fired. It is a negative because we have removed the threat of the agent being fired and it is reinforcement because you are increasing the likelihood the agent will sell at least two packages.
The boss offers the agent a $500 bonus for selling more than two packages a month. It is positive because we are adding something and it is reinforcement because we are increasing the likelihood of the behavior happening.
If the agent does not sell at least 3 packages a month he will not get the $500 bonus. It is negative because we are removing something, the bonus, and punishment because the behavior of not selling enough packages will be less likely to occur.
Now how does this information help you and your dog?
#1 It will help you to understand things from a different perspective. In the big picture, to successfully train behaviors in dogs you must utilize multiple quadrants. What this means is there is no such thing as a purely positive reinforcement trainer. It’s not possible.
#2 Many dog trainers like to utilize this terminology to belittle their students and make them feel like they don’t know anything about dogs. This is simply not true. Just because you don’t utilize the same terminology doesn’t mean you can’t train your dog.
#3 It helps people to understand that utilizing punishment is just as scientifically effective as reinforcement. They are just different quadrants in how behaviors are learned or extinguished.
Now here is where I really want to get into the heart of the matter, and something many trainers don’t want to talk about. If you really want your dog to be reliable there needs to be consequences. Let’s face it, if you knew that you would keep getting a paycheck for the same amount whether you showed up for work or not, you probably wouldn’t go most of the time. You go to work when you don’t feel like it due to an aversive, or consequence, for that behavior. This same principle applies to your dog. Even the best of dogs are going to have an off day where they don’t want to listen. Making sure your dog understands they have to listen, even if they don’t feel like it, is the only way to have truly reliable obedience training.
Why is reliability important?
Because we don’t live in a perfect cookie-cutter world. It is quite possible, and even likely, one day your dog is going to run off after something. If your dog doesn’t understand they HAVE TO come back when you call them, it’s possible your dog could run out in the road, be struck by a car, and lost forever. You can teach your dog to come back when called by offering them a treat, praise, or a toy each time they come back to you. However, there will come a point in time when what is going on in the environment is much more desirable to your dog than anything you can offer. At that point if you don’t have reliable obedience, your dog is going to be gone and you’re off on the chase hoping you can catch him before something happens.
Just to recap, Haltis, Gentle Leaders, No-Pull Harnesses, Front Clip Harnesses, Slip Collars, Martingales, Pinch Collars, and E-Collars are all aversives. Don’t let any trainer try and tell you otherwise. Every single one of these tools works because a dog finds it unpleasant. Which one is the most aversive often has much more to due with the personality of the dog. Many dogs despise Haltis and Head Collars and some dogs dislike harnesses. The one least likely to cause physical damage to your dog is an e-collar. When used correctly e-collars cause the least amount of stress of all tools listed.
Rewards are anything your dog finds pleasant, Treats, Toys, Praise, Play, and Affection can all be different forms of reward. What your dog finds most rewarding is again based on your individual dog. Do not let a trainer force you to use whatever reward they think your dog needs. Not all dogs work well for treats and that’s okay. Find a trainer who will help you find a reward your dog does enjoy.
I want to touch on one more important thing here. When trainers get really into the scientific aspects of behavior learning they tend to forget and leave out something that is very important. Dogs have emotions. They are not robots. You cannot just type out some pre-planned approach and expect it to work on all dogs in every situation. If you cannot read dogs, and I don’t mean just looking for signs of things you read in some book in an online school, you probably aren’t qualified to be training aggression cases. There is so much that goes into reading a dog that has to be learned hands-on in the real world. Taking course after course over the internet does not teach you this. Experiencing real problem dogs teaches you this. Spending countless hours with dogs who have had a terrible past and bad genetics on top of that, and bringing those dogs back from the brink of being euthanized, teaches you how to read a dog. There are some trainers that will never learn how to read a dog, but because they took some online classes they now feel like they are an authority on how to deal with very serious problems people are experiencing.
I know this because we get these clients everyday. Clients that have tried other trainer’s methods and feel like they have no other hope. There are trainers out there who would rather see your dog put to sleep than admit a tool they don’t like could help your dog. They believe in their ideology so much they refuse to look at the facts. These people want to ban the very tools that we use to save dog’s lives everyday. There are trainers out there that claim to care so much about the well-being of dogs, and yet they fail so many dog owners each and every day by refusing to admit that maybe there’s a better way.
Dogs are not robots, and just because one method didn’t work, doesn’t mean there aren’t other options out there. Don’t let a trainer tell you your dog’s problems aren’t fixable, because they are. Some trainers just don’t have the knowledge and experience to do it. These same trainers won’t offer you any kind of guarantee on their training because they already know there’s a pretty good chance it won’t work. But that’s a topic for another day. I’m just going to leave the end of this by stating that any trainer that would rather recommend euthanasia than admitting that they simply aren’t qualified to help are not someone I would trust with a dog.