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The Power of Positive Training

Nurturing Your Dog’s Mind, Body and Spirit

BY REBEKAH OLSEN

Originally published in the Aug 2015 issue of Nashville Paw magazine

Let’s be honest. As pet guardians, we sometimes make mistakes.

Our mistakes may be harmless, well meaning or infrequent, and it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re bad pet guardians. However, like any type of parent, each day should be a new learning experience and an opportunity to improve our bond and relationship with our pet.

When I reflect back on my experiences as a new pet guardian, there was one particular moment when I realized I needed to make a change—and fast.

In 2011, my husband, Matt, and I brought home a twelve-week-old Cane Corso named Midas. He quickly became our best friend. He was our first pup, so we spent months researching how to care for him. We thought we had it down. We bought puppy-training books and chose a trainer in our area, whose website was convincing.

At our first training session, Midas was given a remote training collar. The trainer said the collar would take the stress out of the process. According to him, it was humane and only used to get our dog’s attention by putting out a low-level intensity pulse (much like a tap on the shoulder).

Midas was progressing with training so we continued. But deep down, we knew something was wrong and Midas wasn’t the same. Our energetic, fun-loving puppy seemed, well, defeated. He languished around the house, and when we gave him a command, he obediently followed it, but with a seemingly discouraged spirit.

One day, I brought out the collar to take Midas on a walk. Instead of running excitedly to the door, he turned away from me. I realized then that Midas was afraid of the collar. It wasn’t taking the stress out of training—it was adding to it! We soon agreed that aversive training methods seemed to have broken Midas’s trust in us, was damaging our friendship, and that a highly obedient dog wasn’t worth the trade.

We had to make a change, and thanks to positive training, we were able to rebuild our friendship and trust with Midas. Over time, we got the best of both worlds: an obedient and happy dog.

What is Aversive Training?

Matt and I aren’t the only pet guardians to make this mistake. In fact, many pet lovers and celebrity trainers commonly use aversive, punishment or dominance based training methods today.

Aversive or punishment training uses force, coercion or physical corrections to change an animal’s behavior. It applies a type of punishment that pet finds unpleasant (such as electrical pulse collars, choke collars, pinch collars and bark collars) to correct the behavior, then removes that punishment once the undesired behavior ceases.

Of course, a device like these is not required to use aversive techniques. Squirting your pet with a water bottle, shouting “no”, shoving his nose in urine, staring him down and “pops” on the leash all fall under that umbrella, too.

Aversive methods use two principles: negative reinforcement and positive punishment. Negative reinforcement is removing or withholding an aversive when the dog responds correctly to the command. For example, you want to teach your dog to sit. You hold the leash upwards into the air and push your dog’s backend down to force him into the position as you say sit. Once your dog sits, you release the pressure and reward. Your dog learns that in order to stop the pressure then he must place his tail on the ground when you say sit.

The problem is that your dog hasn’t been taught the association between sitting and the word sit, but merely how to avoid the pressure when he hears the word. “It’s just not fair to the dog,” explains Kat Martin Ray, owner and trainer at Dogs and Kat in Nashville. “I say to my clients, dogs are foreign exchange students. They don’t understand the word [command] until we give them the meaning. It isn’t fair to be punitive to them when they don’t understand the behavior.”

Positive punishment applies an aversive to decrease the chance a behavior will be repeated. If you spray your cat with water when he claws the furniture, you’re using positive punishment.

“We know that punishment works; that’s not the issue at hand. But it has both negative emotional and physical consequences,” says Dr. Amy Pike, a veterinarian in Mt. Washington, KY and member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). The AVSAB is a group of veterinarians and research scientists that aim to improve the lives of animals through understanding animal behavior.

For starters, aversive training techniques are difficult to execute correctly. “When you are using force or punishment, the timing is not something that is easy to get right—even for really well trained professionals,” says Ray. If you administer a correction too soon or too late, your dog will only become confused; your pup will be unable to connect the action to the consequence, and you end up causing your dog pain or stress.

Risks of Punishment-Based Training

Central to many of these aversive training techniques is the theory of dominance, or that pet guardians must be dominant leaders of our “packs”. However, says Ray, “If you look at all the research and talk to any veterinary behaviorist they are going to tell you that the science doesn’t back it up.”

According to the late Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM of San Francisco, CA (who served on the executive board of the AVSAB) when it comes to animal behavior, dominance is defined as a relationship between individuals which is established through force, aggression or submission in order to establish priority access to food, resting spots and the opposite sex.

However, dogs have evolved over the last ten to fifteen thousand years and do not operate on this system. Take your dog for example. What does she do all day? Eat the food you give her, play when you play and sleep in the bed you provide. We’ve taught our dogs to depend on us for shelter, food and companionship. And they do not exist in packs or have pack mentality. Feral and domestic dogs don’t need to compete to mate; in fact, many mate with multiple members of the opposite sex. Likewise, they tend to roam alone rather than in groups.  

“Dominance is not something that dogs equate with people,” explains Dr. Pike. “No species of animals, other than humans, create dominance with other species.”

Our dogs don’t need to gain a higher rank over us to have priority access to resources. In general, our pets perform undesirable behaviors simply because they’ve been rewarded in the past. Dr. Pike gives the example of when your dog paws your hand. He isn’t trying to dominate you. In contrast, “Barking could be attention-seeking behavior, or he could be anxious. ‘I put my paw on you’ just means ‘can you pay attention to me?’ It’s just a way to garner attention.”

Dogs learn through trial-and-error, or operant conditioning. When a dog makes a choice to do something, they associate that behavior with what comes next, a reward or a consequence. They continue behaviors that are rewarding and cease behaviors that have consequences.

“Negative attention is the same as positive attention. That behavior will be repeated because it worked in the past,” says Dr. Pike. For example, when you tell your dog “no” or push your dog down when she jumps on you, you’re still giving her your attention, and to a dog, that’s rewarding, even if it’s meant to be negative. To decrease undesirable behavior, you have to remove the rewards and instead only reward desirable behaviors. In other words, when your dog jumps, simply ignore him and turn away, removing what he wants: your attention. You can praise him once all feet hit the floor. No punishment required.

She adds, “We are becoming more aware of the fact that animals are feeling beings and they are family, and if we wouldn’t treat our children [with aversive methods] then why treat our dogs that way?” In fact, our pets are somewhat like toddlers—their brains are full of adoration, wonder, desire and limited knowledge. When you add stress or punishment to a dog that’s learning to navigate the world, you may solve one problem, such as barking, but create even more troubling problems.

According to Nikki Ivey, owner and behavior consultant at DogSpeak in Nashville, “[It] lowers confidence and creates behavior issues such as phobias and aggression. We teach them to avoid the correction, not to actually do the behavior.”

Negative side effects of punishment based methods include inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors and injury to animals and people interacting with those animals.

For instance, electrical pulse collars can cause burn marks on your dog’s neck and choke chains can damage the trachea and nerves.

And, according to a veterinary study published in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (2009), if you're aggressive to your dog, your dog may become aggressive, too. Participants of the study reported adverse effects of using punishment-based methods: 38% reported aggression after forcing a dog to release an item from its mouth, 31% after forcing a dog onto its back (alpha roll) and 30% after staring the dog down until it looked away.”

Most importantly of all, aversive training techniques damage the relationship with your pet and can dampen her spirit. “Using aversive training on dogs is teaching them that when you make choices and you make the wrong choice, you’re going to be punished. Therefore, don’t make choices. So you shut them down on that,” explains Ivey, when instead you can simply teach them to make the right choices.

According to the AVSAB, regardless of the strength of the punishment, your pet will eventually develop a negative association with the person or the environment in which the punishment is used. In other words, the sight of you, your hand or a training device that’s typically followed by punishment will ultimately cause your dog to be fearful of you on some level.

Fortunately for us, dogs are forgiving of our mistakes and according to Ray, Ivey and Dr. Pike, it’s never too late to change your training methods.

“You can get improvement on every dog,” says Ivey. “How much you can reverse [the damage]… depends on how aversive you’ve been and how long it has taken place. I’ve seen some dogs that will never become what they should have been, but they will become better than what they are.”

Benefits of Positive Reinforcement Training

So how do you train, or retrain, your dog in a way that’s effective but safe for your dog’s mind, body and spirit?

“The general rule of thumb is to make sure you’re using methods that are humane and are force free or aversive free. Meaning nothing that would physically punish the dog in anyway,” says Dr. Pike. According to the AVSAB, positive reinforcement has been universally endorsed by the behavioral scientific community as the most effective, long-lasting, humane and safest method in dog training. Your goal is to allow your dog to learn, problem solve and think while setting him up for success.

The AVSAB focuses on the use of positive reinforcement combined with negative punishment. Positive reinforcement follows the principle that by adding something your pet wants, you increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. For dogs, this is pretty easy.

“Every dog is food motivated, however, that type of food is going to vary by dog,” explains Ivey. In other words, one dog may do anything for a few bites of kibble, while it might take a chunk of cheese or meat to entice another. Meanwhile, some dogs respond best to a toy or praise. Whatever your pup’s high-reward may be, it’s the only tool you need to train your dog using positive reinforcement.

For instance, you reward your dog with a treat every time he eliminates outside, but never when he does it inside. Your dog learns that eliminating outside is rewarding and he will want to go outside rather than in your home in order to receive the treat. Over time, the reward can be used intermittingly as the desired behavior increases.

Meanwhile, negative punishment removes something your dog wants, which decreases the likelihood that the behavior will happen again. If we return to our example of a dog jumping up for attention, removing your attention by turning away denies your pup want she wants. As soon as she sits or puts all fours on the ground, you pet and praise her, showing her that not jumping on you is the desired behavior that will receive the reward.

“It’s such a quick, clear way to communicate with the dog,” says Ray. “Watching [the dog] think it through… they get excited about it. I want them to trust me.”

And positive reinforcement doesn’t mean permissive; you can and should still create boundaries and interrupt undesirable behaviors by redirecting your pup’s behavior to a desired action. For example, if your dog is pulling on the leash, turn around and walk him in the other direction. He will return to your side and you can reward for heeling. You’ve redirected his attention back to you instead of what he was pulling after. Then, repeat. Consistency and repetition is key.

Unlike aversive techniques, positive training methods are easy to execute. Ray explains, “That’s one of the best things about positive reinforcement training: anyone can do it. You’re not going to hurt the dog. It’s hard to mess up, so to speak.”

When asked what our dogs would tell us if they could, Ivey replies, “Train me with confidence. Train me with understanding. Train me with love and respect.”

To learn how to implement positive training with your pet, contact Kat Martin Ray, Nikki Ivey or another positive reinforcement trainer in your area by using the tips in our sidebar. You’ll also find resources at two great training sites, positively.com and drsophiayin.com.

BONUS CONTENT:

How to Choose the Right Trainer

Here are some tips from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior:

Reward-based training. Look for a trainer who only uses reward-based training with treats, toys and play. Clicker training is great, too! Avoid trainers that use choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars or other punishment-based methods.

Good teacher. Find a trainer, behaviorist or instructor that can explain what behavior they’re training, why it is important and then demonstrate it. A good trainer will be able to adapt to any dog’s learning style or needs. Dr. Amy Pike with AVSAB suggests observing a class before signing up.

Class Size. The class size should be small or private to ensure individual attention.

Continual Education. A trainer will keep up-to-date on new training methods and theories.

Respectful. Your trainer should be personable and respectful to both you and your dog.

Do you feel truly comfortable? Ultimately, you should feel totally comfortable doing whatever it is the trainer asks you to do. If you don’t, explain why and ask for an alternative. If the trainer is not willing to work with you, find another trainer.

Vaccinations. A good trainer will require vaccines for the dogs and discourage pet guardians from bringing sick dogs to the class.

Visit avsabonline.org to find a behavior consultant in your area, or contact Ray or Ivey below. Happy training!

Nikki Ivey, DogSpeak
615-207-5932
dogspeak101.com

Kat Martin Ray, Dogs and Kat
615-482-0910
dogsandkat.com

Rebekah Olsen lives in Southaven, Miss. with her husband, Matt, and their Cane Corso, Midas. She is a pet and lifestyle freelance writer and blogger as well as a regular contributor to Nashville Paw. You can find her at TheRebarkableBlog.com. 

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