Why Positive Dog Training Fails
You may have picked up on the fact that I don’t like so-called positive dog training.
For the record, I call it so-called positive because … it’s not. The tools many of these trainers recommend are like medieval torture devices from a dog’s perspective. Positive? Not so much. If their approach fails with aggressive or reactive dogs, they will often recommend that it be put down. This boggles my mind, but it’s because their methods simply do not work in the long or short term and are even less reliable with REAL behavioral issues like anxiety, aggression, etc.
I also really resent the fact that the purely positive folks have created a monopoly on the term positive. Like the rest of us don’t use positive reinforcement? Please. Every time I tell a dog, “Good sit!” that’s positive. Praise is positive and is all your dog truly wants or needs.
The fact is, I have never seen a “positively trained” dog that has good obedience, yet these people repeatedly tell you that this is the only scientifically-proven dog training. The reality is a bit different. If you’re a reasonably educated person that includes actual evidence (i.e., the dogs), it has been scientifically disproven time and time again and it doesn’t work in the real world. But they keep on talking.
Over the years I have come to believe that these so-called trainers hide the fact that they can’t train dogs with a bunch of pseudo-science. They spout off about Operant Conditioning (that’s OC in shorthand), and Classical Conditioning, quadrants, Skinner, cite a whole bunch of purportedly scientific studies (that aren’t), and tell you about dolphin training. Meanwhile, their dogs are pulling them down the street and refuse to come when called.
When you point this out, they tell you that you’re stupid, cruel, and hurting your dog. Then they tell you that you don’t understand the science. Nonsense.
I understand the science just fine.
Two key concepts here:
Classical Conditioning. The Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov is credited for the discovery of Classical Conditioning, which is what happens when a conditioned stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus. I’m sure you know of his dog experiment, in which he noticed that dogs salivated in the presence of food (unconditioned stimulus). He found that ringing a bell before giving the dog food also made the dog salivate. The bell is the conditioned stimulus.
Operant conditioning. Operant Conditioning forms an association between a behavior and a consequence. (It is also known as response-stimulus or RS conditioning.) When positive people talk about Operant Conditioning, you’ll hear all about BF Skinner, and the four quadrants:
- Positive reinforcement (something is given to the dog)
- Negative reinforcement (something is taken away)
- Positive punishment (consequence)
- Negative punishment (reward is taken away)
The positive indicates that an event is started. The negative indicates that the event is ended.
Clicker (or marker) training is based on Operant Conditioning. Skinner believed that you can get any behavior that you want with the correct stimulus. He believed this was true for rats, for dogs, and for people. In fact, he said that ALL behavior could be boiled down to stimulus and response—to the point that humans don’t have free will.
You can believe whatever you want, but I have a problem with someone telling me that I don’t have free will. Ditto with dogs. Dogs make choices every day, and they will make the choices YOU prepare them to make.
The “science” doesn’t work in the real world.
It’s not that OC has no place in dog training. It does. The problem is that it cannot account for all behaviors or learning. Any positive trainer who tells you that it can is delusional and ignorant, and needs to do some reading and study outside the prescribed “positive training” coursework. (Actually training dogs to a standard would help too.)
The first problem is that it simplifies all behavior and learning to a simple formula: stimulus and response. This works fine in a room where there’s nothing else going on. (And you’ll see that this is how most positive trainers conduct their training.) But go out into the real world, and it’s not just one stimulus and one response. There are hundreds of stimuli. The real world is filled with distractions. This has been found over and over again when people try to apply the Skinnerian model outside the lab. It just doesn’t work, not by itself. It never has.
There’s also the problem of other learning and behaviors that OC can’t account for. Drive is a big one. I see many German Shepherds whose owners come to me because they cannot control their dogs, and leash reactivity or anxiety are becoming impossible to manage. These wonderful people did everything they were told. They took a police- or military-quality German shepherd, strapped on the treat bag, and went to work. But starting at about six months old (a pivotal time in development), their dog starts developing certain drives—they focus on sounds, smells, how people and dogs look. Food? Meh. A tug toy? Whatever. Now what? You have a big fat FAIL, that’s what. The senses and the developing drive of the dog cannot be “lured” away from the wonders of the world. Positive people will acknowledge this by spouting off about ethology–but for the most part, ethology doesn’t actually make it into the actual dog training. Everything is about food and then managing the behaviors they can’t train.
Have you ever wondered why a huge number of so-called positive trainers only offer puppy classes? It’s because their approach starts failing at the super important six-month mark.
It gets even worse.
The so-called positive people start with a flawed model that says your dog is a rat that will do anything you want for the right reward. And then they guarantee failure because THEY DON’T EVEN USE THEIR OWN MODEL CORRECTLY.
That’s right. They’ve deleted an entire quadrant. They feel that positive punishment or consequences—which even Skinner, the god of their cult, said was necessary—is cruel and abusive. So POOF, they’ve made it go away, in some deluded attempt to, I don’t know, make themselves feel like dog lovers or something.
Yet if you ask about it, they will say something like, “It is a fallacy to assume that all positive trainers are positive all the time, because we do use the P- quadrant of the Skinnerian model. We just think P+ has no place in modern dog training.”
Here we go again, trying to use fancy language to hide the fact that they can’t train dogs. In plain English, this means positive trainers attempt to discipline a dog by not giving the dog something it wants. This sounds okay in theory, but in practical application it’s a mess. You have a dog. It won’t sit because it’s having an awesome time barking up a tree at a squirrel. You “discipline” the dog by not giving it a treat.
You think the dog cares? There is nothing more rewarding for a predator (yes, that would be Fluffy) going after its prey, the squirrel.
And this is where it all starts falling apart. There will always come a time at which something else is far more rewarding than the treat the dog is (not) getting. The positive people will then tell you that you need to up the ante with a better treat to get the response you want. The problem here is that you stop positively rewarding a behavior, and start distracting and bribing the dog. There’s a big difference. (Or they will tell you that you haven’t distraction-proofed your dog enough. That’s code for only training in areas where there aren’t any distractions.)
It’s for this reason you will never be able to get as good, as reliable results with positive dog training. Yes, dogs love food and will do amazing things for it. But this training will only take you so far. If you’re working with a trainer that tells you otherwise, please do yourself and your dog a favor … find another trainer.
Let’s talk consequences.
The positive people will have you believe that putting a prong collar on a dog is an act of cruelty. This frankly makes me angry. There should not be pain in dog training. We do not hurt dogs, and we use prong collars all the time.
Have you ever watched dogs at a dog park or on a TV show? They nip and they use body language. Dogs communicate primarily by using their mouths. The mama dog teaches the baby pups the first concept of “No” by picking the pups up by the scruff. A dog will correct another dog with a quick, light nip to the neck.
A prong collar does the same thing. Properly used, it does not hurt. It says, “Hey, you’re not paying attention!” or “Hey, you didn’t do that right.” (In the hands of an expert, a prong collar can communicate a lot of things.) This is the consequence. That’s it. It’s not abusive, it’s not causing pain, it’s not beating a dog into submission. IT DOES NOT HURT THE DOG.
Many so-called positive trainers will go to incredible lengths to avoid “P+” or “positive punishment” (i.e., a prong collar). The real irony is that they often end up using far more aversive tools. And these tools don’t help you train your dog; they only help manage certain behaviors.
To be fair, there are trainers who do use more violent techniques, and I am opposed to them too. There are entire schools of dog training using an e-collar from a puppy all through life, which makes me very sad, because the dogs will learn to respect the e-collar quickly but likely not behave without it, and not respect their owners. There are also entire schools of dog training based on choke chains. Choking a dog is disgusting, and the hard violent pulls necessary to get a dog to mind with a choke chain are absolutely foolish. Steer away from these trainers too.
Please note that Cesar Millan is one of the very few people who know how to use a choke chain properly. Don’t copy him. He can read a dog like nobody’s business and his timing is impeccable. By the way, he’s taken a huge beating in the press largely due to positive people who don’t have a clue about what they’re seeing.
The consequences of NO consequences.
What a no-brainer, right? I can think of about a dozen kids off the top of my head that show the problem with no consequences.
Here’s what’s brainless: positive trainers claim you can change any behavior with “love.” The truth is those who work to make their dogs better without food are the ones who understand love how dogs define it.
Your dog wants you to be a leader and guide through this world. He wants to know what he’s doing right. She wants to know what she shouldn’t do. The dog that has self-discipline is well-loved because those are the dogs that have had reasonable boundaries and expectations set forth.
A dog with no self-discipline is a dog that will do whatever it wants. A dog that is trained solely with food or other rewards has never been challenged to develop self-discipline because it is always getting something that it wants. Sometimes a kid needs to eat her vegetables because you told her so, not because she’ll get a trip to Disneyland afterwards.
I see these dogs all the time. (The kids too.) The first session, I ask to see what the dogs know. Most of the time, we can’t get a simple sit without a treat. These people have been guilted into positive training, brainwashed into thinking no correction equals love. Hundreds of dollars and months later, they have zero to show for it. Yet at the end of our session, their dog is performing a heel and auto-sit.
A dog that continues the same behavior over and over and over—and the owner holds this strange hope that food or treats will work this time—is totally lost. This dog will eventually be completely out of control. It may even bite its owner out of fear or anxiety. At this point, does a treat matter? Who is training who here?
The positive folks get very defensive about all this. The standard response is that if people aren’t getting results, they’re not doing it right. Can this be more insulting to people and their dogs? What’s unbelievable is that they fail over and over again, and never seem to ask why. They never question their own model. Instead, they just lower their standards. How is this scientific?
Ask again to see a positively trained dog heeling. (I still haven’t seen one.) Because these people have never successfully taught a heel, they’ll bring up examples of other positive trainers. Let’s think about this for a second. They’re saying, “I can’t positively train a dog to heel, and none of my clients are doing it right—but I can prove it can be done by other people.”
Wow. Just … wow.
And if you look at these other people, they’re mainly teaching tricks or things like agility. Clicker training can be good for those. But tricks aren’t obedience. It’s not stopping your dog from pulling, chasing cats, running out into the street. It’s not helping you deal with an aggressive dog.
The clicker training scam
Humans have been training dogs for 15,000 years. We have trained them to hunt, to retrieve birds, to herd sheep. You name it, we’ve trained them for it. In the grand scheme of things, “positive” training is a brief blip in human-dog history. Yet it’s the “only method scientifically proven to work”?
If it works so well, why have I never seen a single positive trainer post videos of the results of their obedience training? This is a sincere question. There are tons of how-to videos—but nothing showing a clicker-trained dog in action. I would love to see some.
If it works so well, why do most positive trainers spend more time bashing traditional trainers than showing people their results or even laying out clear goals?
More to the point—if it works so well, why is 90 percent of my business fixing the damage positive trainers cause? I’m not just talking about the fact that my clients have spent hundreds, even thousands of dollars, getting no results. I’m also talking about the depressed, aggressive, fearful dogs that positive trainers have failed (and, in many cases, created).
The big players in positive training are laughing themselves to the bank. They won’t show you a single dog that can perform reliably. (I won’t say they can’t, just that they choose not to. It’s pretty much the same thing to me, but go ahead, prove me wrong.) What they will do, however, is take your money.
They’ll take your money for videos, books, and services. They will sell you clickers and high value food rewards and bags to put them in. They will extort huge amounts of money from would-be dog trainers for an incomplete education (and put an army of mindless missionaries on the street too). Then, when training fails, they will tell you you’re not doing it right, and sell you a harness to manage brattiness and pulling and “behavior and calming aids” to soothe your fearful or neurotic dog.
It’s a big fat scam. And it’s the dogs who pay the price.
Choosing a dog trainer
My average client has been to six or more other trainers, all pushing the fanny pack, the clicker, and being unwilling to actually listen to their clients’ fears and concerns. I have even had clients who came to me after food trainers told them they should euthanize a dog with aggression rather than try a different approach. We have saved literally thousands of dogs from depression, anxiety, aggression, and much more. And we have saved many from the death chamber the “positive” trainers recommended.
The sad thing is that people come to me as a final resort. They’ve had failure after failure because they were SHAMED into doing it the “positive” way. They were told that using a prong collar is cruel and inhumane and will make their dogs aggressive. Many feel like they’re terrible people for giving up on the “positive” approach. Yet at the end of our training, these dogs are transformed—happy, well-adjusted, and with an incredible bond with their owners. We fix the problems.
I am sick and tired of the tyranny exercised by the so-called positive trainers. Their bullying tactics blackmail people into thinking any other dog training method is cruel. They use words like fear, force, intimidation, and pain. I have been cursed at, called vile and filthy names doing nothing other than helping a scared dog—all from badly educated people who have no idea how to correctly interpret what they’re seeing.
Ultimately, you need to do what is right for you and your dog. The simple truth is that you are NOT hurting your dog and that learning to use a prong collar under supervision is a life changing experience for you and your dog. Whether you need basic obedience, or you’ve been taken for a “positive” ride, give us a call.
If, for whatever reason, you choose not to use us, that’s okay too. There are other great trainers out there. But please, always ask questions. Ask about methodology and their training philosophy. What kind of results you will see. Ask to see videos of trained dogs, and if those aren’t available, ask if they will put you in contact with one or more of their clients. If you are dealing with specific issues, ask what kind of experience they’ve had and ask for videos/references. If they can’t answer any of these, find someone else.
And above all remember, you are NOT a bad person for saying no to the positive scam.