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No One Way To Train Dogs.

Positive Training Myth
Positive Training is not “one type”.

Dog owners, and even novice trainers are often befuddled by all the information about on dog training.  The Science is Misdirected, obfuscated or misunderstood.  Some professionals doll out the misinformation as fact.  A lot of solid, scientifically sound information often getting overrun by the din of the poor.  One of these misunderstandings is over one single line; “There is no one way to train dogs.”  The implication being one group of trainers uses only one method to train dogs, while the other side uses all methods.   While Force Free and/or Positive Training (FF/PT) methods suggest only use of one method available in modern dog training, in practice and theory, Balanced Training seems to use only a small sliver of available tools used in 21st century dog training.

Modern Dog Training

Previous centuries did use the science of Training, but not with the nomenclature of the science.  Folk knowledge was passed from generation to generation.  Modern dog training uses Operant Conditioning (“If I do X, then I get/avoid Y.”) and Classical Conditioning (“If X happens, then Y follows”).  Also available and understood by good practitioners is management (enuring dogs can’t rehearse undesired behaviours) and antecedent arrangement (ie. ensuring the environment isn’t overpowering training).  They are not always mutually exclusive.

Management and Antecedent arrangement are often fundamental to make Operant conditioning work well.  Not removing chances to perform old “bad” behaviours and not dealing with competing motivations sets the dog up for failure.  Asking compulsive gamblers to attend gamblers anonymous meetings in the middle of a crowded casino is a recipe for failure.  Asking a chronic shoe chewer to play with a different toy while a flock of shoes is around is also a recipe for failure.  Throwing an arachnophe into a dense, spider filled jungle, without preparation before hand, is a recipe for failure.  Making a dog encounter a stressor to stop a reaction is a recipe for failure.

Classical conditioning always occurrs in the background of operant conditioning – (“Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder.” – Bob Bailey).    Ask a dog to do something; they get it right, and get a good thing starts adjusting emotional states positively.  They begin to think the asking means something good will happen.  The opposite is aslo true.  If asked, they don’t perform, and something bad happens, association with that bad thing can occur (or sometimes with the person asking, or some other thing in the environment – fear is fickle!).  Understanding science helps counter these effects or use them advantageously.

The Divide

Good, competent Force Free/Positive Reinforcement practitioners use all of these mentioned and understand when to use one over another.  They do not rely on just one portion or method.  They do however, avoid the use of aversives in operant conditioning.  Meaning they do not employ or avoid fear, intimidation or pain.  Mostly this is an ethical choice, and increasingly is being backed by solid, current science; although pain and fear may work, the side effects can be to detrimental, and are avoided.

Balanced training uses operant conditioning.  Whether just by the use of the associated language, misunderstanding of scientific fact, or from lack of knowledge,  little outward acknowledgement of other  modern training principles.  When dealing with most aggression, the answer is “deal with the behaviour.”  “If we don’t do X, the dog will die”/”If we don’t use X, we won’t get a good recall”  In order to fix the behaviour, they need the behaviour to happen.  This means putting the dog into stressful situations, then correcting the dog;  corrections often of an aversive, punitive nature.  “Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder” here means dogs can potentially associate  aversives with the trainer, the stressful trigger, or something completely unrelated instead of the actual behaviour.  This does not mean that balanced trainers do not use food, fun, play to achieve some of their goals.  They seem to use operant conditioning without apparent consideration of the possible side effects.  Arguments against management and antecedent arrangements  are often prevalent in balanced training.


“You can’t arrange real life” is sometimes true; but as much as possible practitioners can seek out situations where arrangement is possible until the dog understands – then the situations become manageable by the dog in time.  Learning how to deal with a problem with more than one tool available is what any good trainer in the future will do.  There are times when management is necessary, and sometimes the only recourse such as walking a truly aggressive dog with a poor mouth only with a muzzle.  Trying to deal with just the aggression, with no management is poor, and dangerous, practice.  Arrangement ensures success is more likely with both operant and classical methods.

Eliminating aversives does not make operant conditioning weaker, but increases the potential welfare of the animal by eliminating negative shifts in emotional states.

What does it all mean then?

You take yourself to the doctor.  She mentions that the cut in your arm is infected.  She elects and strongly encourages amputation!  This will ensure that the infection doesn’t spread.  You will be back at work in a few days with no other physical harm.  Antibiotics or possible psychological effects are mentioned. We all know that this is silly, but the analogy is not far off from what some people experience.

A broad base approach proves there is only one way to train dogs – Force Free and Positive Reinforcement Training currently, while a narrower approach encompasses dangers and potential negative welfare states for dogs.  Systematic, scientifically sound training with standard procedures for the most common behaviour modification is essential.  Eliminating, or managing potentially harmful outcomes increases positive welfare states.

Trainers become trainers partly because they want to be good to dogs.  Lacking correct, science based learning though, this can be corrupted or misused.  When this happens, welfare can  suffer; counter to what was actually intended in the first place!

So what are owners to do?  Ask questions.  Make sure clear, concise answers are given.   Something akin to this.    Currently no legal regulatory body governing exists for dog trainers; anyone can hang out a shingle and do nearly anything to your dog.  Advocate for your dog; if you don’t like what is happening, or you wouldn’t practice that way yourself or on any other animal or child, stop the training.

Dog Training Consumer Rights

Dog Training Consumer Rights

Our society is filled with intelligent, thoughtful people….until an expert comes along, then we fall apart in abject wonder.  Consumer Rights help protect people from charlatans and those who mislead.  Dog Training Consumer rights appear to be weak compared to other established corners of the market.

Consider a thought experiment:  Your car is sluggish, you are loosing power; you’ve had the car for 100K km (~60K mi.).  Which of the following three mechanics would you prefer to service your car for a tune-up?

1. “I can get you that in a day or two, every car is different so it might take some extra time for yours.  A few tweaks under the hood and I’ll whip it right into shape for you no problem.  It’ll be running like new in no time!”

2. “I can recondition the electrical pulse devices within your internal combustion engine and ensure an adequate air-fuel ratio so that combustion via the electrical discharge ignites the mixture within the chamber providing sufficient exothermic reactions to provide kinetic energy needed to propel you’re vehicle.”

3. “I can change your spark plugs, if required, otherwise I’ll clean them to ensure that no built up soot or carbon is causing the power loss you’re feeling.  I’ll also check the wires to make sure that the electrics are reaching the plugs properly.  If needed, I’ll adjust the fuel injectors as well.”

The first mechanic is a bit vague; the second uses very technical almost scientific jargon difficult to understand; the third is easily  understood, and seems to convey what is required.  The third would seem the best choice.

Now, consider some Dog Trainers; what language might be best providing Informed Consent – a key to any type of treatment plan and improved consumer rights:

Case 1 – The dog needs some training on leash for pulling:

1a — “I’m going to get down to the dogs level and make him understand that I’m the boss and that he can’t be dominant over me.  He’ll learn to be calm, because I have a special energy that works with dogs.”

1b — “I’m going to use Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement and perhaps some Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment, on your dog.  he will find the first two aversive – that is in their definition and to avoid the aversive he will seek a behaviour to stop the application of the aversive.”

1c — “I’m going to use this device, which will cause the dog to feel annoyance at the very least, but possibly pain – these reactions are what the device was made for.  When he does what I want, I will stop using the device and the dog may do the behaviour faster next time.  Problems associated with this device and technique are that he may come to associate me, you or something else nearby with the discomfort or pain caused, and he may lash out or become fearful.   We may also need to keep using the device in order to continue to achieve the behaviour.”

Case 2: The dog is scared of things on a walk:

2a — “I’m going to talk to the dog in a gentle manner so that he understands that he is not alone in this world and together we can get him to a happy and emotionally calm state.  In time, he will understand that the spirits around him mean him no harm.”

2b — “I’m going to use Desensitization and Counter Conditioning to achieve a shift in the emotional state of the dog when he sees the stimulus that is causing his amygdala to cause him to have his reactions.  We could also try some Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible behaviour.

2c — “We’ll use super treats right after he sees the scary thing.  We’ll start at a distance first, when he notices it, but isn’t reacting; then move closer as long as he is still comfortable.  What we’re doing is slowly changing his associations with the scary thing -he’ll learn to associate it with a good thing, the super yummy treats.  Working to closely to the scary thing might make matters worse, so we’ll keep an eye on how the dog is doing.  Let’s try this first, before we try another approach.”

Out of those 6, which do the best job at  providing enough information to achieve Informed Consent?  Hopefully 1c and 2c.  1c may sound horrific but provides the information needed.  Both explain, in simple, understandable language what is going to happen AND what fallout might occur.

Dog Training Consumer Rights are vague at best and have no specific legislative backing.  Dog trainers should be using clear, easy to understand language so the public understands what is being done to their dogs.

People need to be aware of risks.  Consumers put faith in experts of all sorts.  Consumers should expect Trainers to disclose what may cause harm to their dog or might make the dog worse.   Not doing so is akin to a surgeon not telling you that you have a chance of dieing if he cracks open your chest and stops your heart to preform a bypass.  Informed Consent should be standard practice.

As of this writing a Current initiative on Facebook is setting a challenge to all trainers across the world to disclose what their techniques will accomplish.

The Dominant Dog

A dominant dog?

People say all the time “My Dog is Dominant!”  But what do they mean by dominant dog?  Lets get a definition first.  Dominant = Having power or influence over others. (Oxford Dictionary).  This is more of an idea than an action though.

Can ideas be measured?  Ideas don’t have anything empirical that can readily to measured.  Counting how many times something has power or influence over another is hopeless without first understanding what power or influence might mean.  The parts of power and influence might be measurable but how do we measure those?

Something we can measure, can be changed.  Pasta can be measured; to much, you take some away; not enough, you add.  A dog sits, count the number of sits.  Apply some training, and the dog sits more or less often; change is achieved.  What behaviours are said to denote power or influence in dogs?

Behaviours are often associated with a dominant dog:

  • Jumping up
  • humping
  • guarding a toy/food/person/spot etc
  • demanding (affection/attention)
  • etc (some lists are extensive and label everything a dog does as dominant)

All these behaviours can be measured and changed.  Dogs do what works.  Dogs will not waste energy on behaviours that are ineffective at achieving a goal (goals = getting/keeping good things or avoiding bad things).

Jumping up is a pro-social behaviour; something puppies do for greeting or for getting food (out of mothers mouth combined with licking the dams lips to make her regurgitate).  Puppies couldn’t be dominant over a dam any more than a baby is dominant while breast feeding.  Training – Jumping up can be mitigated by waiting for more human centric appropriate behaviour and rewarding that — “better to sit and not jump and getting food/attention than waste energy on jumping up and getting nothing.”

Humping is a misfiring sexual instinct (inappropriate timing or stimulation).  Dogs are not dominating each other.  Training – a good “off” or redirection usually works -humping is usually fun for humpers so the redirect must be stronger than the humping.  For an avid humper, this may take time.  “I’d rather come and get a tasty cookie than hump this lab!” [ed. Labs seem to be very hump worthy]

Guarding resources is necessary for wild canine survival – ie. another (probably misfiring) instinct.  Something we discourage in our dogs — humans don’t like sharp teeth pointed at them.  Trainingapproaching a guarding dog and providing better stuff can change the guarding to anticipation [ed. Mine! by Jean Donaldson is an excellent resource]. “Oh Boy, here they come again with bonus cookies while I have my bone again, I love it when they do that!”

Demanding attention/affection.  Dogs are social animals.  Social animals seek attention and affection – being pushy about it merely means the behaviour has worked in the past.  Training – wait for a lull in the pushy behaviour then reward for a lack of pushiness.  Increase duration before rewarding, or reward when there is no demanding.  “if I pester, I get nothing; if I wait, or don’t push, I get attention.”

Each dominant behaviour associated with a “dominant dog” can be dissected in this way.

Let me assume for a moment that I am incorrect in my argument and that there is such a thing as a dominant dog.  Living with this dog, I have the ability to stop feeding; stop watering; stop providing shelter; stop the ability for reproduction; stop social interaction with other dogs; even take life from the dominant dog.  Who is dominant?  That the dog is, or could be dominant in this situation is spurious.  Perhaps a better question is why do we ascribe the ‘dominant dog’ label?

Human culture abounds with dominant humans.  We have clear social hierarchies extending well beyond family bounds.  Organizations of commerce and the military have clear order;  who is on top; who is on bottom.  Humans project these structures to other animals because they make sense to us even when there is clear evidence to the contrary.  Dogs only spend energy continuing strategies that get them stuff, or keep away pain (and injury).

That all the behaviours of a ‘dominant dog’ are modifiable without force or intimidation, suggests that even if geared toward a dominant goal, dogs would rather spend their energy not being dominant.

Should Dogs argue?

Dog Arguements
Dogs should be allowed to have arguments

Myth: Dogs who argue are dangerous and will always escalate to do more damage!

Fact: Dogs seem to be the only domesticated animal not permitted by humans to tell other dogs when they are being obnoxious.  Growling, snarling, and air snapping all tell others to back off.  Suggesting these behaviours should be corrected or punished out of a dog is akin to “taking the timer [display] off a time-bomb” (Dr Ian Dunbar) – they are warning signs.


Humans argue; rarely leading to assault, damage or death.  Dogs argue but they are flashy, loud and trigger primal instincts in humans (sharp pointy teeth directed at someone you care about is scary).

Arguing (no intent to cause real harm) is EXPENSIVE for the dogEnergy is required for barking/snarling, posturing and pulled/attenuated bites.  Human equivalent is yelling and possibly shoving.  Arguing dogs can argue for an extended time usually causing little damage.  Full fights take even more energy.

Fights (full force, no attenuation – intent to cause harm) endangers one or both parties.  Fight damage usually happens within the first few seconds; additional duration can make damage worse.

What causes damage in a fight or argument?

Poor Bite Inhibition (ABI – Acquired Bite Inhibition) during an argument.  Puppies learn to play with soft mouths.  Adult dogs are capable of breaking bones yet rarely do.  Damage to tender parts of dogs may not be always mean a poor ABI; muzzles, ears and face have thinner skin and bleed profusely making injuries look worse.  Repetitive, severe damage during an argument should be taken as a sign of a poor ABI.

note: teething puppies can cover their playmates with blood.

Dogs with fight history (causing damage needing stitches or worse) should  be strictly managed.  Using a muzzle prevents future damage if an argument or fight happens.  Muzzles need not be a sign of shame; they are a sign of owner responsibility.   An excellent resource  for misunderstood dogs needing a muzzle is The Muzzle Up Project.

Other Qualifiers:

Attacks “Out of the Blue!” never really happen.  Signals may not be seen or have been punished (“corrected”) to a point that attacks seem to occur with no warning.  Proactively intercede before an argument if known triggers are present.  (Triggers are things that cause the dog to react).

Socially inept dogs (poor body language readers and / or those with poor force attenuation) can be trained to understand potential playmates.  Keep them from escalating into rough play and teach them not to harass an unwilling dog.

Bullies like to pick on one dog in the park (socially inept dogs will play with anyone).  Bullies can be trained as well.  For both Bullies and Socially inept dogs seek out a competent Positive / Force Free Trainer.

Using force, pain or intimidation can potentially backfire and make a dog worse; remember, don’t “take the ticker off the time bomb”.


FIGHT! by Jean Donaldson is another excellent resource on how to manage and train these type of dogs.