Positive Reinforcement Helps Dogs Behave Properly
Thu, April 22, 2021

Positive Reinforcement Helps Dogs Behave Properly


Prepare for a fight if you mention dog (or puppy) training methods to trainers, as those who use positive reinforcement are labeled as “cookie pushers” or “treat slingers,” said Pamela Babcock of WebMD, a health information website. On the other hand, those who resort to dominance-based techniques are deemed as inhumane or cruel.

Despite these differences, dog training methods do not have to be black and white. Cesar Millan, star of National Geographic Channel’s Dog Whisperer, emphasized that not everyone agrees with his “alpha dog” approach. He told WebMD, “If the dog people don’t know how to become submissive with each other, how can we lead by example?”

Survey On the Confrontational and Non-Confrontational Training Methods Used In Dogs Showing Undesired Behaviors

Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner of Science Direct, a leading source of scientific, medical, and technical research, gave a behavioral survey that included a 30-item survey of previous interventions to all dog owners making appointments at a referral behavioral service over a one year period. Between April 1 and July 31, 2007, 30 (28%) of 107 distributed surveys were completed and returned. 110 completed surveys were collected, totaling 140 completed surveys (64%).

Owners of 90 purebred and 50 mixed breed dogs participated in the research. The authors found that owners listed more than one pressing complaint such as aggression to familiar people (60, 43%), aggression to unfamiliar people (67, 48%), aggression to dogs (56, 40%), separation anxiety (28, 20%), specific fears or anxiety (45, 32%), and other problems (12, 9%) like being aggressive to cats, barking, house-soiling, and one presentation of cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

Many owners attempted to change their dog’s behavior using direct confrontation. The most frequently used direct confrontational interventions were leash corrections (105, 75%), the use of choke or pronged pinch collars (53, 38%), and the use of a muzzle (53, 38%). Other methods of intervention were the following: force release of item in dog’s mouth (39, 28%), “Alpha roll” (36; 26%), force down with leash (30, 21%), knee dog in chest for jumping (29, 21%), and hit or kick dog (28; 20%).

Hitting or kicking elicited an aggressive response in 43% of dogs, followed by forced release of item (38%), use of a muzzle (36%), “alpha roll” (31%), dominance down (29%), and grabbing the canine by the jowl or scruff (26%). 

Owners also attempted an indirect confrontational intervention to their dogs with 122 (87%) owners yelling “no,” 77 (55%) making the “Schhtt” sound, and 53 (38%) saying “stare-down.” Other methods include water pistol/spray bottle (51, 36%), verbal punishment for house-soiling (47, 34%), force exposure (25, 18%), and growling (22, 16%). Growling elicited an aggressive response in 41% of dogs, followed by “stare down” (30%), using a water pistol/spray bottle (20%), yelling “no” (15%), force exposure (12%), verbal punishment for house-soiling (6%), and saying “scchhtt” (3%).     

Meanwhile, reward-based methods used by dog owners were food rewards (124, 89%), sit for everything (101, 72%), food-stuffed toys (86, 61%), using food to trade for item (64, 46%), saying “look” or “watch me” (62, 44%), and clicker training (35, 25%). 2% of dogs elicited an aggressive response when provided with food rewards. Sit for everything triggered an aggressive response in 2% of dogs along with food-stuffed toys. 6% responded aggressively when used food to trade. Saying “look” or “watch me” and clicker training did not elicit an aggressive response.  

The researchers concluded that confrontational or aversive behavioral interventions used by dog owners were correlated with aggressive responses in most cases. Primary care veterinarians should advise owners about the risk of using aversive training methods despite their prevalence in popular media. Veterinarians should also provide materials to effectively and safely manage behavioral problems.



Positive Reinforcement Is the Key In Making Dogs Behave Properly

Positive reinforcement is the belief that dogs learn good behavior through the use of rewards. For dogs to do well, punishment does not have to involve physical force or a harsh reprimand.  Positive reinforcement trainers often use hand signals, verbal cues, clickers, toys, and games to modify behavior, change bad habits, and teach tricks. However, trainers use positive reinforcement along with punishment (taking away rewards) to instill good behavior.

Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, who trained the Obamas’ dog named Bo, noted that dominant training and techniques focus too much on the “bad” things a dog does. This forces it to figure out through trial and error on what it must do to prevent it from being punished.

The traditional method relies on waiting for your dog to commit a mistake and using leash-jerk corrections and physically positioning it, said Amy Shojai of The Spruce Pets, a website dedicated to publishing pet-related content. Dr. Ian Dunbar, a behaviorist in Berkeley, California, recommended owners to see the training from their pet dog’s perspective. He added, “Training should be efficient, effective, easy, and enjoyable, or pet owners and the dogs won’t do it.” It doesn’t have to involve punishment or to be cruel, Sylvia-Stasiewicz stated.



The Misuse of Training Methods

Bob Maida of Yonkers, N.Y., who trained Ronald Reagan’s dogs, said he considers breed-specific behaviors when training dogs. Is the dog bred to hunt or guard? Other factors include a pet dog’s behavior and training history, temperament, age, environment, and sensitivity level.  

He argued that there are no bad tools if they are done right. Rather, “It’s the misuse of the tool by a fool that is bad.” Some dogs are praised for merely existing or rewarded when it asks for it.  However, it is important to remember that dominance or punishment-based training programs can be potentially ineffective and dangerous, especially if your dog is trained by an unskilled professional.



Finding An Appropriate Trainer for Your Dog

It’s up to you to decide who you should hire to train your dog. But to get you started, Millan recommended asking yourself, “What do I want my pet to learn?” Good trainers assess the environment, your dog’s motivation, and your goals and expectations.

It is also recommended to think about your own philosophy and ethics. How many philosophies or training techniques have you heard or read? Which techniques are you most comfortable with? Be sure to check the trainer’s certifications and get referrals from friends or other owners before hiring them. Ensure that the trainer includes you in the training program. 

Your dog may need to be taken away from home for a while because some “need a vacation”, Millan stated. What if your dog was disobedient or did not exhibit proper behavior? Millan said the owner “was not into it,” was inconsistent in applying the trainer’s technique, or they did not like the training style and was not upfront about it.

Positive reinforcement reduces the likelihood of dogs eliciting an aggressive response, reinforcing the belief that training does not have to involve force or inhumane punishment. This technique should not be misused as some owners reward their dogs when they demand it. Balance and patience are needed to effectively correct a dog’s deviant behavior.