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Pet Column: Pros and cons of different dog training methods

Photo by Elle Williams

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

There is a war being fought in the dog training community. I would like to address what’s going on since this will affect those of you seeking a dog trainer or any dog training advice. This is important because the average dog owner may not be aware there are differences when it comes to training methods. I hope to educate the public so you can make your own decisions while searching for a dog trainer.

I will start off as transparent as possible. I am a positive reinforcement trainer or +R. Force-free and +R trainers can be grouped together since they share the same values when training. This means force-free and +R do not knowingly use any adverse or forceful training methods or tools.

Methods not used include, but are not limited to, the use of physical punishment, leash pops, yelling, threatening, fear, force, or anything a dog considers unpleasant. Tools not used include, but are not limited to, slip leads, prong collars, shock/E-collars, pinch collars, choke collars, sounds aversive machines, or electronic fence collars. Force-free and +R training methods are based on positive reinforcement and negative punishment.

Negative punishment? You may think, “How is punishment not adverse to a dog?” To understand what punishment means in dog training, you’ll need to know the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Negative means to take away, positive means to add, punishment means to decrease the likelihood of a behavior and reinforcement means to increase the probability of a behavior. So negative punishment translates to taking something away, to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. For example, if I don’t like my dog jumping on a counter, I’ll take the food off the countertop. 

Force-free and +R training uses rewards to increase the probability of good behaviors. For example, when a dog greets me standing up or sitting down, it gets my attention as the reward, increasing the likelihood it will greet me the same in the future rather than jump. If it jumps on me during a greeting, I remove the attention. That’s how I correct the dogs I train.

While learning a new behavior, like “stay,” I use a reward to let a dog know what it did was right and the likelihood of it staying again increases. If it breaks the “stay,” there’s no reward, decreasing the likelihood it will break the “stay” again.

You might ask, “What do you do about hard behaviors like aggression, reactivity, or separation anxiety?” That’s where a +R and force-free trainer would use counter-conditioning and teach an incompatible behavior. Let me make clear that all trainers use this, it’s the tools we use that differ.

For aggression, I would first counter-condition the emotional response to what’s causing the aggression. In most cases, it’s fear. For example, I paired good treats with seeing people when I trained my own “human aggressive” dog. She learned people yield good things happening. And with my reactive dog, I taught her an incompatible behavior to reacting, which is watching me. 

Let’s move on to what adverse and balanced mean. Adverse means the use of pain, discomfort, fear, intimidation, force, or anything a dog finds displeasing in order to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. Although purely adverse training is a rarity, there are still trainers who never reward good behavior, only correct bad behavior. 

Balanced trainers use all four of the quadrants. For example, they will use a leash pop when the dog pulls and give a treat when the dog doesn’t pull. Some balanced trainers will use LIMA (least intrusive, minimally adverse) in training.

For example, if a trainer has tried everything to stop a dog from pulling then they resort to using a prong collar. This also takes time and patience, which means more money is spent on the trainer’s time and more time is put into training the dog. Be aware that some balanced trainers will resort to adverse tools and methods from the start for fast results. 

And that brings me to the pros and cons. Adverse tools and methods appear to work rather fast, although, people often mistake a dog shutting down (learned helplessness) as compliance. The cons of adverse tools and training are the piling evidence of side effects: increased aggression, mistrust, fear, learned helplessness, and tolerance to the adverse tool or method. So if you choose adverse or balanced training, understand the risks you’re taking.

With force-free and +R, the pros are there are rarely negative side effects. Often relationships become stronger, trust increases, and a happier relationship between dog and human. The cons being some behaviors take more time to train, modify, or eliminate. So when choosing a force-free or +R trainer, understand that it may take more time and patience. 

In the last five years, highly established organizations that set the industry standards for training practices have put out public statements that support the transition away from adverse or balanced training and towards positive reinforcement training. The big one is from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior which states, “There is no evidence that adverse training is necessary for dog training and behavior modification.” The piling scientific evidence is what’s driving the change.

Other recognizable organizations that support the transition away from adverse and balanced training include the American Animal Hospital Association, ASPCA, American Behavior and Training Council, Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Companion Animal Welfare Council, Pet Professional Guild, Pacific Assistance Dog Society, and the RSPCA, to name a few.

So be careful about whom you’re getting your dog training information from. Make sure their methods are the right fit for your dog. It always helps to know what the trainer’s credentials are, what experience they have, and if they have credible sources to back what they teach.

Anyone can be a dog trainer, as of now there is no degree or certification required in the USA to start up your own dog training business. Look for CPDT in a dog trainer’s title. This means they completed a formal education to acquire the title of certified professional dog trainer.

I truly believe the majority of dog trainers go into the business with their hearts in the right place, and with the goal of being better-behaved, happier, and fulfilled dogs. I believe most trainers aim to help all dogs avoid being re-homed, abandoned, or put down due to behavioral issues. 

To me, it’s pretty clear. We took on the responsibility of a dog, a sentient being capable of feeling complex emotions. Please consider how your dog responds to training methods and choose what makes them live a happier, healthier life.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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