These days, everyone wants positive dog training—science-based dog training. That's what's best for your dog, right? Are you sure, it's that simple? There is a lot more to good dog training than you've been told. Find out what actual, peer-reviewed learning science has to say on the best way to train your dog.
But why wouldn’t you want positive dog training? Negative training doesn’t sound like a good idea. Or “force-based training”? Even worse, “pain-based training”? Or my favorite, “outdated, dominance-based theories”. The list of meaningless and ridiculous phrases goes on and on.
The Problem in the Dog Training World
Dog owners today are being brain-washed. Organizations like PETA, the ASPCA, and the Humane Society of America tell us that all dog training must be positive and force-free. Anything else is outdated, not science-based, doesn’t work, and is morally reprehensible. What kind of monsters are dog trainers using anything other than solid, positive science? That must be the way to go. Science says so. That's settled then ... or, well, maybe not so fast. Is that really what science says?
Here is the problem. What is being sold, as force-free and science-based is neither. A lot of the "positive only" training approaches fail on many challenges dog owners face. In addition, science says something quite different than we are being sold. Too many well-intentioned people and organizations have opinions on dog training, but no actual knowledge. Many of their opinions are simply ignorant. Sounds harsh? It has to be. They have caused too much damage, to hold back. Too often, they steer desperate dog owners down a path of disaster. All in pursuit of their misguided ideology, while lacking even the most basic understanding of learning science and application.
Science is the Weapon
To make their points, these activists cherry-pick from studies that support their beliefs. Even when the studies themselves show different findings overall. In addition, some studies are biased. When their findings run counter to what they wanted to find, they bury those pesky facts in the details. Of course, they also leave them out of the conclusion and abstract. Further, they don't share how key elements of their study were conducted. It seems pretty obvious, they don't want anyone to be able to test their 'data'. If they didn't their peers would expose them for what they did. To be considered valid, studies must meet certain standards. Studies must be peer-reviewed and reproducible. They must provide all necessary detail to validate the findings. Meaningful studies are also cross-referenced in other peer-reviewed studies. Reaffirming the findings in dozens—and some cases hundreds—of subsequent papers.
Ideology Isn't Science
The positive dog training ideologues argue their unsubstantiated opinions quite well. But, they count on no one actually validating their statements. They are hiding their agenda behind a wall of unverifiable research findings. Their defense to any challenge is: "Science says so." Even when that is not the case.
It's time to fight this disinformation campaign. It hurts dogs and their owners too much to stand on the sidelines. This article is my contribution. I want to help dog owners make sound decisions and help them create the best possible relationship with their dogs. All studies listed in this article are peer-reviewed. They are cross-validated many times over. They are also cross-referenced in hundreds of other papers. Here you find the actual research on many aspects of relevant learning science and psychology.
Let's enter the minefield.
One Clarification Before We Begin
Before we go any further, I want to be very clear on one thing. None of what you are going to read here should be in any way interpreted or used to justify animal abuse. There are plenty of poor examples on social media who show off their dog abuse with prong or e-collars. All in the name of behavior training. They have large online followings and are quite proud of themselves. I despise these dog abusers more than you can possibly imagine. These are not dog trainers. They are a disgrace to our profession.
When I talk about punishment and reinforcement in this article, I am talking about the proper application of learning science. Making dogs scream in pain, cower, shut down, or fear the trainer is not part of that. Naturally, punishment never sounds like a good thing. But it technically means to make a behavior less likely to occur in the future. That is definitely necessary at times. Anyone who has ever had a dog that needed to stop doing something understands that. It just matters a lot HOW we go about stopping unacceptable (i.e. dangerous or destructive) behaviors. In contrast, reinforcement means to make a behavior more likely to occur in the future.
Those definitions should make it clear. Reinforcement is used to create or encourage behaviors. Punishment is used to stop or discourage behaviors.
However, good dog training is not about being positive or negative. It is about having a dog happily perform the desired behaviors. It's about using sound methods.
When the dog enjoys itself, the training is good.
How I Train Personally
My own training approach is relationship-based, motivational, and engaging. However, I strategically apply punishments and negative reinforcements when they are fair to the dog and appropriate in the context. Anyone who sees me working with dogs knows, they love seeing me. In addition, they don't take it personally when I have to say 'no' to something. I have a wide range of high-level certifications as a dog trainer. Further, I have extensive knowledge of learning science. I know what science actually says. In this article, you find over 100 links to peer-reviewed and validated studies. You can check for yourself. The positive dog training apostles have been lying to you.
The Presented Research
The presented studies are grouped into the four components of operant conditioning. Above each study list, is a short summary of what the listed studies found or confirmed. Often it is just one sentence, so it is easy to skim. You'll find that many things you have been told, were proven incorrect decades ago.
In addition, dog training enthusiasts find full references (and in most cases free download links) to all studies. These studies form the foundation of modern learning science. So, in case you want to geek-out on reviewing the actual science behind everything, you can.
I promise, I will keep it as light as possible, but illustrate my points, I must be a little bit “sciency" ... and I mean, actual science.
What Being Positive Means
First, in dog training, the term “positive” is thrown around like there is no tomorrow. When we say something is positive, we usually mean it’s good. And we call something negative when we consider it bad. So, positive dog training naturally sounds good. But how does an electrician view positive and negative? They are just different wires. You need both to turn the light on. The negative wire is not the bad guy. It’s part of the equation. Relax! I am not going to compare dog training to electrical wiring. The point I want to illustrate is this: words have meaning based on context.
In dog training, many terms come from a scientific model called Operant Conditioning. This model is used in psychology and behavioral work. It was developed by the scientist Burrhus Frederic Skinner; usually referred to as B. F. Skinner. He used four words: positive, negative, reinforcement, and punishment. The first two words are paired with the second two words, to describe cause-and-effect relationships. A cause-and-effect example would be: you make that big sale (cause) and get a bonus (effect). In his model, B. F. Skinner created the following groupings:
- Positive Reinforcement
- Negative Reinforcement
- Positive Punishment
- Negative Punishment
Here is the thing, all of these are scientific terms. None of them mean, what you may assume they mean, from every-day language.
In this model, positive refers to adding something while negative means taking something away. These don’t mean good and bad. Knowing this, positive dog training takes on a whole new meaning, doesn't it?
Reinforcement refers to making a behavior more likely to occur in the future. In our example, the bonus should be reinforcement for more big sales and the hard work to make them happen.
Punishment refers to making a behavior less likely to occur in the future. For example, you become lazy at work and get fired (punishment). You will probably not be lazy in your next job, to avoid that from happening again. The punishment changed your behavior for the better.
Transitioning this to dogs, here are a few examples to illustrate.
You ask your dog to sit, he does, and you give him a reward. You are adding something (e.g. treat, play, affection, etc.) to increase the likelihood of future command compliance with “sit”. This is called Positive Reinforcement. This is what positive dog training enthusiasts want to focus on as the only thing required. But, this is not so.
Positive Reinforcement is wonderful for teaching new skills. One would have to be an idiot to not use that. But it's important to understand its limitations. Trainers who limit themselves to this sub-section of learning science will not be able to work effectively in many areas. Their limits become especially apparent when dealing with behavioral challenges or competing reinforcers (e.g. squirrels in trees, etc.).
Here a quote from an important study: While positive reinforcement can be used exclusively for the training of certain behaviors, in the context of instinctive behaviors like herding, chasing, or stalking, negative reinforcement and punishment are usually desirable and necessary additions to positive reinforcement techniques. (in 'Modification of instinctive herding dog behavior using reinforcement and punishment' by Eve D. Marschark and Ronald Baenninger, 2002)
So far this was probably easy enough, but now it gets interesting. Next, we use all the other groupings and you will see, they don’t describe evil things either. They are all part of learning and they are all necessary. Effective dog training doesn't only consist of 'positive' things.
Relevant Studies on Positive Reinforcement(click to expand)
Let’s say you ask your dog to sit again and now he doesn’t. Are you still going to give him a reward? Of course not, that would be silly. You may try again, but you are not rewarding him for not listening. So, what did you do by withholding the reward? You took the reward away (negative) to reduce the likelihood of non-compliance with “sit” in the future. That is called Negative Punishment. Was that mean? No. Was that cruel? No. Interesting what these words really mean in their context, isn’t it?
But guess what, we know from cortisol (stress hormone) studies that the withholding of a reward (Negative Punishment) is far more stressful to a dog than a Positive Punishment like a pop on a prong collar or an e-collar stimulation (see Salgirli, 2008 below). Have you heard that before? That doesn't mean, we should reward for non-compliance. Clearly, that would be unproductive. The point is, all learning causes stress. Learning stress is normal and unavoidable. Anyone, who has ever learned anything, understands that. It's fact of life. But if we want to keep the stress on our dog lower during training (and we should), science can guide us, and science has clearly determined that training tools such as prong and e-collars keep stress significantly lower than withholding rewards; despite what you may have heard.
The Stress is Higher
Trainers focused only on positive dog training, usually have no problem withholding rewards. But, that is negative punishment and quite stressful to dogs. One has to wonder why that 'negative' is okay with them but less stressful measures aren't. It's inconsistent.
Relevant Studies on Negative Punishment(click to expand)
Now, let’s assume your dog loves chasing squirrels. If he starts looking at or even chasing one and you can stop him by saying "no", great! You have done a lot of training with your dog. However, if your dog always wants to go chase the squirrel, the quickest and most successful approach to stop that would be to give your dog a penalty of some kind. Proper punishment reduces the likelihood of this behavior in the future. This could be a pop on a training collar. This is referred to as Positive Punishment because you're adding something (the collar pop or saying "no") to reduce the odds of the behavior from reoccurring.
This is what many animal rights activists take issue with and I won't pretend there aren't abusive trainers and owners out there. But at the end of the day, it is all about the execution, and HOW you go about it. It can be good training or animal cruelty. When a good dog trainer teaches you how to punish undesirable behavior appropriately, your dog's stress will be minimal. It shouldn't be hard to watch.
Why does positive dog training not include positive punishment when all positive is good? Good question. Easy answer. Positive doesn't mean 'good', but that was the sales pitch.
Relevant Studies on Positive Punishment(click to expand)
Please don't take away from these studies that just punishing harder or longer is better. There are many nuances to proper punishment when all these scientific findings are considered together. Especially the importance of recovery after punishment can't be overstated. The details and nuances are what the positive dog training people don't understand or don't want to understand.
Next one, let’s say your dog doesn’t like other dogs and you want him to look at you when another dog shows up instead of barking his head off. We could set up a training scenario, where we control the other dog (through another person) and every time your dog looks at you (reinforcement) we have that other dog leave the area (negative). In this example, removing the other dog is the reward for looking at you. Once your dog gets the idea that looking at you makes that other dog go away. He will look at you more readily and easily. That is Negative Reinforcement. Oh, your tortured and beaten dog. We are such monsters. Or maybe that wasn’t evil either. What do you think?
Let me add another, more straight-forward, example, as Negative Reinforcement is escape and avoidance training. That means teaching our dog how to first escape undesirable consequences and then avoid them altogether. Think of the first time you touched a hot oven plate; most kids do at some point. I doubt you did that twice in a row. You probably learned to avoid that rather quickly and unless you were careless, never repeated that mistake again. We can learn to avoid something from one or two events.
When we use this principle in dog training, we are obviously going to be much gentler. No one needs to get hurt for this to work. E. g. you are teaching your dog to go to his place and he doesn't want to. You could nudge him to his place with a few taps on a prong collar. As resisting those is unpleasant (plus unsuccessful), your dog will go to his place to escape the collar taps. If your training process is sound, your dog will start avoiding the collar taps and by going to his place when asked. It often only takes a few repetitions. Your dog may never feel the collar taps again. He learned to avoid them.
Negative reinforcement is much milder on a dog's stress levels than negative punishment. Why is this not part of positive dog training but the other negative component is?
Relevant Studies on Negative Reinforcement(click to expand)
I hope these examples highlight that terms like negative and punishment mean nothing bad. They mean something very different in dog training than you were made to believe by ideologically biased ignoramuses. So-called positive dog training doesn't look so positive any more once you understand the complete picture.
One of the most important things to understand about dog training is this: You can’t stop behaviors with positive reinforcement. You could make an alternative behavior more desirable for a dog. If successful, he will choose it over what you want him to stop doing—that's differential reinforcement. But this is not guaranteed to work. It may work, it may not. It will take weeks or months to find out. If you just need something to stop, punishment is the only way to accomplish that with certainty. Especially, when behaviors are dangerous or harmful, time can be of the essence.
Dog Training Tools
I want to add a few words on dog training tools. This is obviously a related topic. Tools like prong collars or e-collars get vilified by animal rights groups as barbaric and painful. Just like I said before, this is ignorance.
Obviously, you can injure a dog with these tools. But that is not what they were designed for. One picture has been floating around on Facebook for years. It shows a dog with injuries all around his neck from an embedded prong collar. I assume it was on too tight, for too long. That is, of course, horrible, but not common, nor the norm. Otherwise, there would be way more pictures like that. Not just that same one.
The Proper Use of Tools
If we judge tools—or anything—by the most inappropriate use, by the most unskilled people, we won’t have anything left. It may be a teaspoon to you, but I see a perfect eyeball carving tool … no more teaspoons! Clearly, that can’t be the standard. Observing a skilled trainer work a dog on a prong collar or an e-collar won't be hard to watch. You will see how much the dog enjoys the training, doesn’t suffer, is not being injured, and learns beautifully. Obviously, not all dogs need to be trained with these tools, but for some, they are the best option. It is never about inflicting pain, it is always about safety (for dog and owner) and speed of learning. Don't make it harder on your dog—and yourself—than necessary.
No Time to Waste
Imagine your dog is chasing kids on skateboards or destroying your home or yard on a daily basis. Are you up for trying a differential reinforcement protocol for the next six months with no guarantee of success? Can you risk or afford that gamble? If you can, go for it. It might work. It might not. But know, there are faster, more effective, and scientifically sound approaches to these kinds of problems when time matters. 100+ years of learning science has established how to deal with these sorts of things effectively and quickly. It's not an open question. We know. Even if far too many dog trainers fail to understand the actual science of learning.
Please always judge tools only by the appropriate use by skilled people. Because we all need to keep teaspoons available to us. Judge training by how the dog looks like. Is he enjoying the training? Is he making progress? Does he like the trainer? The last one can, of course, take a few hours in the beginning. But a skilled, patient trainer will make a dog come out of its shell.
On the other hand, if the dog is obedient but looks depressed, he was trained using too much pressure. You can find plenty of examples on YouTube showcasing quick results that killed the dog’s spirit. Stand against that. I do. But please don’t vilify effective tools in the right hands, used with skill and compassion.
Picking a Dog Trainer
Before picking a dog trainer, interview them. Below are some marketing labels you will encounter with dog trainers and here are my thoughts.
Trainers who call themselves positive only or force-free, don’t understand the terminology of dog training. How likely will they be skilled in training your dog? Don’t get me wrong, there are some great trainers out there who market themselves as positive trainers. But they know their label is a marketing scheme and doesn’t describe their work based on dog training terminology. Ask questions. Their answers will help you find the good ones.
The same applies to trainers calling themselves "balanced". Find out what that means to them. There are many force-centric trainers who have adopted that label, but also a large number of good trainers using it. Are they using 95% motivation and 5% aversives, or the other way around? Both would be considered balanced under that label. However, there is a huge difference between those opposite sides of the spectrum. Just one reason why "balanced" really means nothing these days. You must drill deeper to get a coherent picture. Again, we have many amazing trainers, calling themselves "balanced", just understand what that means for their work before you hire them. Ask questions.
Generally, choose trainers who emphasize relationship-building, a partnership approach, and view and treat dogs as fellow creatures instead of opponents. They are usually more enjoyable for you and your dog to work with. The most skilled in the business are in this group.
I hope the next time you hear the phrase Positive Dog Training, you know what to make of it. You can now look at it with more nuance and insight, rather than just taking it at face value. Good dog trainers understand learning science and don't use meaningless platitudes.
Podcasts on Learning Science with Highly Respected Scientists
TWC Podcast 1: John E. R. Staddon
Ivan Balabanov interviews a lifelong hero, John E.R. Staddon. Ivan and John explore the role of behaviorism in the animal world. Further, they discuss the impact of B.F. Skinner on modern-day dog training.
John did his graduate work at the famous Skinner Lab at Harvard in the early 1960s. He was supervised by Richard Herrnstein, who did his doctoral work with B. F. Skinner. John has devoted his long and distinguished career to the study of the adaptive function and mechanisms of learning. He has performed research at MIT, The University of Oxford, York University, and many more. John E.R. Staddon's credentials include:
- James B. Duke Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.
- Ph.D in Experimental Psychology from Harvard University, 1964
- B.S. from University College of London, 1960
- Honorary visiting professor at the University of York.
TWC Podcast 2: Dr. Mark Plonsky
In this episode, Ivan Balabanov has a conversation with his good friend Dr. Mark Plonsky. At the University of Wisconsin, Mark taught courses on Canine Behavior, Psychology of Learning, and Psychology of Motivation and Emotion. He currently operates as a K9 Behavior Consultant. Mark has had a long history of working with many different types of animals. The animals in his studies ranged from laboratory rats to stump-tailed macaques.
In addition, Mark has been involved in dog sports ranging from AKC Obedience, Noseworks, AKC Agility, and Schutzhund/IGP. Further, he handled a dog co-starring in the film "Nonames" (2010). You can find Dr. Plonksy’s articles and studies at https://www4.uwsp.edu/psych/dog/index.htm. Mark Plonsky's credentials include:
- Retired Professor Emeritus of Experimental Biopsychology (University of Wisconsin).
- Ph.D. in Experimental Biopsychology, 1984 (University of Albany).
- M.A. in General Psychology, 1980 (State University of New York at New Paltz).
TWC Podcast 3: Clive D. L. Wynne, Ph.D.
In this episode, Ivan and Clive discuss the issues surrounding animal studies, the problem with banning training tools, and how to bridge the gap between dog trainers and scientists to create a better future for dog training.
Clive Wynne is the founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. Previously, he was founding director of the Canine Cognition and Behavior Laboratory at the University of Florida, the first lab of its kind in the United States. He is currently a professor of Psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
Clive has written several books: The Mental Lives of Animals (2002). Do Animals Think? (2004). Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior, and Cognition (2013). His most recent work Dog Is Love: How and Why Your Dog Loves You (2020). Clive D. L. Wynne's credentials include:
- Professor of Psychology at the Arizona State University, 2013.
- Psychology Professor at the University of Florida.
- Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Australia.
- Ph. D. from the University of Edinburgh, 1986.
- Bachelor of Science from the University College London, 1983.