The world of dog training has exploded in recent years, possibly because of access to viral internet videos and doggie TikTok stars like Bunny, the “talking” dog. On one hand, it’s great that ordinary people are expressing more interest in engaging their dogs with training and enrichment strategies. On the other hand, there is a lot of misinformation regarding dog behavior and different training techniques, which can lead even the most well-intentioned dog parents to use methods that many professional trainers would consider unethical.
For our most recent event, we talked about ethical dog training with two amazing positive reinforcement trainers, Dr. Valli-Laurente Fraser-Cellin and Don Hutton.
What is positive reinforcement training?
If you spend enough time listening to dog trainers, you’ll hear terms like force-free, R+, or positive reinforcement. These terms refer to training methods that don’t cause an aversive experience for the dog. Positive reinforcement, or R+ trainers, never punish a dog for behaving incorrectly. Instead, they shape and reward the behaviors they do want to see.
Most trainers use positive reinforcement because it is a very powerful tool, however, many consider themselves balanced trainers, meaning they use a mix of R+ and aversive methods like prong collars and e-collars. As new information and science emerge, more and more people are reconsidering aversive training methods and seeking out positive-reinforcement-only trainers. If you’re on the fence about what kind of trainer to work with, know that there is a pretty wide spectrum that a trainer can fall on.
There are trainers who consider themselves balanced but lean towards the R+ side, R+ only trainers, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are still old school trainers who rely on outdated methods and use debunked science to inform their aversive training methods.
An example of this is the “alpha-roll,” where you pin a dog down in order to display your dominance over them. This is an outdated method because dominance theory has long been debunked, as the science it was based on used captive wolves, who behave very differently than domesticated dogs and even wild wolves.
"We put this pressure on animals to understand these concepts of acting appropriately, being held accountable, respecting us, and these are human concepts that dogs just don't understand." -Dr. Valli
If positive reinforcement works, why do people still use punishment as a training technique?
The short answer is that punishment also works. But is this as effective as reinforcement? We’re inclined to believe that punishment is effective because it works quickly, sometimes more quickly than reinforcement. However, fear and punishment also lead to anxiety. When a dog is distressed there’s a possibility of “shutting down.”
A shut down dog is unresponsive, and this could be mistaken for calmness. But the reality is anything but calm, as the dog is experiencing extreme internal stress and anxiety. Today more than ever, people don’t just want obedient dogs, they want happy, healthy, resilient dogs that can thrive as much as any other member of the family.
Dr. Valli wrapped up our event with some great food for thought: **"welfare is not just the absence of suffering anymore, it's positive, effective states."
The Dos and Don’ts of finding the right trainer for your dog:
Want to dive in deeper? Listen to the entire event HERE!