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What the Heck are "Positive" Training Methods?

You see it on every website advertising dog training - "We use only Positive Training Methods". What does that actually mean? Unfortunately, much like "natural" foods, there isn't an industry defined standard for what positive training means.


The science behind teaching dogs, or any animal or person, for that matter, is largely based on the research of B.F. Skinner. The term he coined was "Operant Conditioning", which is just a fancy work for the different ways we learn. He proposed that there are four main ways animals can be taught.


The first way is when we get a reward for doing something. For people, this could be a "good job!" when we do something right. It could be the A on an exam we studied hard for. It could be a raise at work for good performance. For dogs, it means getting something they want (treat, toy, sniffing grass) when they respond correctly to a cue word ("sit"). The scientific term for this type of learning is called Positive Reinforcement.


The second way is when we take something away that bugs the person or animal we're teaching in order to get an action. A prime example of this is parents who nag their kids to clean their room - when the room is clean, the nagging stops. A common example of this in dog training is when we repeatedly push on a dog's butt to make them sit - when they sit, we stop pushing. The scientific term for this type of learning is called Negative Reinforcement.


The third way animals or people can be taught is by adding something the learner doesn't like after they do an action or behavior. A prime example for this in teenagers is grounding. The teen learns when they break the rules, they will be grounded, and so they stop doing the wrong thing. While teaching dogs, common responses to unwanted behavior such as jumping is to yell at the dog, hit them with a newspaper, or kneeing them in the chest. The scientific term for this type of learning is called Punishment.


The fourth way is when we take something away that bugs the person or animal we're teaching in order to stop an action. Note this differs from Negative Reinforcement in that Negative Reinforcement creates an action, while this fourth method stops an action or behavior. The most common way this is used is by ignoring the behavior to make it stop. If you have a dog that begs at the table, and you never feed it from the table, the dog will eventually stop begging. The scientific term for this type of learning is called Extinction.


All of these four methods can and are used to teach dogs behaviors. B.F. Skinner opened our eyes to how creatures learn, and in the 20 years since his death, dog trainers have done research to find out the most effective method. Not surprisingly, each of the methods can be effective in different situations, but in general the most effective over time is using Positive Reinforcement. Negative Reinforcement and Punishment can elevate the stress response in dogs which inhibits their ability to learn. Extinction works but takes a lot of patience and dedication - feed that dog once from the table and you have to start all over again!


Positive Reinforcement - giving the dog something he values when he does something right - is the least stressful for the dog and the most fun for the person doing the training and the dog getting trained. No one wants to deliberately hurt or stress their dog just to make them do everyday behaviors. The vast majority of people and dogs really never need to use other training methods in order to have well behaved pets. At The Greater Dog, we believe that "Positive" training methods means Positive Reinforcement. Come take a class and see how much fun it can be to train your dog!




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Sheri Cassens
Sheri Cassens
Aug 11, 2022

Wonderful, easy to understand explanation of confusing and common dog training terms that are often misused!

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