Watching a modern trainer in action is a very different experience from watching old school traditionalists.
Gone are the barked commands, the emphasis on ‘respect’ or ‘dominance’ and even intimidation.
In many cases the use of punishment has been entirely replaced by the use of food and games.
Is the move to positive dog training a good thing?
But hang on a moment. Aren’t we being swept along in the latest ‘fad’ or ‘craze’.
Isn’t this just a passing fashion? How are we going to control our dogs when we run out of treats?
And what if we don’t want to wave food around or to ‘beg’ or ‘plead’ with our dogs to come when we call them?
In fact, let’s lay it on the line.
Do these new fangled methods of dog training even work?
Dog training in the real world
Training a dog in a living environment is not the same as studying rats in a laboratory.
So how do we know that these modern science based methods work in the real world?
This is important, and it’s a question that comes up again and again.
This isn’t just about what I think, or what you think.
It’s about getting at the truth.
So, let’s take a look at the evidence.
We’ll start by looking at dogs that are carrying out important jobs in distracting environments.
Guide dog training methods
When you see a guide dog leading his blind handler safely across a busy road, threading his way through a crowded street or along a woodland path, ignoring squirrels, ball games, friendly dogs and all kinds of other distractions, you are watching a dog trained using positive reinforcement.
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association did not embrace positive reinforcement training to be a part of the ‘in crowd’ or to be ‘cool’, they did so because it works.
In fact, it works so well that the USA guide dogs organisation reported an increase in pass rate from 50% (the old rate) to 80% in their dogs after switching to modern methods in 2005. In addition to a significant decrease in handler training time.
Bomb disposal dog training methods
What about explosives detection dogs? One false move could be fatal for handler and dog. How are these dogs trained?
Once again, these dogs are trained to carry out their important jobs using positive reinforcement. You can read more about them here: education of a bomb dog
Search and rescue dog training methods
You will have seen search and rescue dogs on TV attending earthquake zones and the aftermath of terrible natural disasters.
These dogs have to work in often appalling conditions under all kinds of distraction. And how are they trained? The answer is with toys, games, and food.
Are we starting to see a bit of a pattern here?
The fact is, almost all service industries that utilise trained dogs, now train their dogs with positive reinforcement. From the military, to the police, from medical detection dogs to dogs that hunt down bed bugs or drugs.
Getting great results from your dog training method
Many of these services are run by charities, small businesses, government agencies or large commercial corporations.
These organisations are not interested in ‘fads’ and the latest fashion. They are interested in results.
The same pattern of changing to science based training methods has taken place throughout the world of dog sports, from the obedience ring, to working trials and agility. With one notable exception. And we’ll look at that in a moment.
So what prompted this change in training methods?
The reason that these organisations leading the way in dog training all switched to positive reinforcement training is because they ran trials or pilot schemes and found that the new training methods worked faster, were more effective, and saved money.
Positive reinforcement training is not new, and has been studied in laboratories for the best part of a century.
It is based on operant conditioning, or the way in which animals learn through the consequences of their behaviour.
Moving from laboratory to field, or real world training took some time.
Several leading behaviourists and animal trainers, like Bob Bailey, and Karen Pryor were involved in pioneering positive reinforcement training in animals outside of laboratory conditions.
Sophia Yin has some excellent information on this topic on her website.
Scientific studies on dog training
If you are interested in science, you might like to look at some of the up to date scientific studies that have been influential in the movement towards positive reinforcement training.
Whilst much of our original evidence on positive reinforcement training is now quite old, more recently more studies focusing specifically on dogs have become available.
A study from 2004 showed that dogs trained with more rewards showed higher levels of obedience, and that dogs trained with more punishment exhibited more problem behaviours.
More recently in 2008. Emily Blackwell’s study showed that dogs trained using positive reinforcement were less likely to show aggression and fear than dogs trained using punitive methods.
Meghan Herron’s study in the same year, showed that all punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression and fear, even what many of us might consider mild aversives like ‘staring at a dog’ or making a growling noise at him.
A study in 2010 found a correlation between more frequent use of punishment and excitement/aggression
Obviously aggression in dogs is undesirable but fear is a problem too, as it is associated with reduced ability to learn. So it’s not surprising that a 2011 study that looked at dogs in their own homes, found that positive reinforcement trained dogs were better at learning new skills and more interactive with their owners.
How does positive dog training work?
Positive reinforcement training focuses on reinforcing behaviours through the delivery of desirable consequences – rewards like toys and games.
It avoids the use of punishment or what more gentle traditional trainers call corrections (consequences that the dog finds undesirable)
This may seem counterintuitive at first. Why not use rewards (for good behaviour) and punishment (for bad behaviour) and get the job done in half the time?
Why we don’t include punishment in modern dog training
Well, as we have seen, the evidence all points to punishment slowing down the learning process, and we can speculate on why that is.
It is clear from the studies available so far the fear is closely associated with punitive training methods, even when non physical punishment is involved.
One of the main reasons that aversive free training probably works so well is that it prevents dogs from ‘freezing up’ through fear of consequences.
Mixing the two types of training (punishment and reward) might seem like a good idea, but as some of these studies have shown the history of the way the handler has treated the dog at any given point in time, will affect the way that the dog responds in the future (thus punishment in the past has an adverse effect in the future, even if the handler is now using rewards)
Gun dog training methods
I talked earlier about an exception to the widespread uptake of positive reinforcement training, and that exception is gundog training, my own particular interest and hobby.
The reasons for this are complex.
The gundog community has a long history of passing down skills as a ‘craft’ from one generation to the next and until recently has lacked the kind of structured training and grading system found in almost every other sport.
New gundog owners kind of muddled along, with no clear path to follow.
In addition, gun dogs work in particularly distracting environments with period of boredom interspersed with periods of great excitement.
Unlike many service dogs, gundogs work entirely off lead and in close contact with live game. This means that control of the consequences available to the dog (an essential part of positive reinforcement training) is more challenging.
However, forward thinking gundog trainers are now beginning to realise the opportunities and benefits offered by positive reinforcement training, especially in basic training and working with puppies.
They are increasingly keen to work on the unique challenges facing positive reinforcement gundog trainers in the field. One by one, the stumbling blocks are being removed.
I mentioned earlier that learning theory gave us the ground rules for positive reinforcement training many years ago. Why has it only recently become popular?
The pace of change in dog training
Change does take time. Especially when many diverse groups of people are involved. And many of the actual studies done on dogs, like the ones mentioned above, are fairly recent.
It takes a while for information to filter down from researchers to field workers, and longer still for new techniques and principles to become widely adopted.
But positive reinforcement training is here now, to stay. It isn’t some cliquey minority that are teaching their dogs this way. There is a consensus amongst all canine behaviourists educated to degree level and beyond, that positive reinforcement training is the best, and most effective system for training our dogs.
The American Small Animal Veterinary Association has placed a ‘position statement’ on dog training on its website, and positive reinforcement training has been widely adopted by mainstream dog trainers, in sports and canine service industries worldwide.
The last bastions of resistance are crumbling.
Making the change from traditional to modern dog training
Most dog trainers/handlers/owners that have been training dogs for 20 years or more will have started out using punitive training methods.
This is not something to beat yourself up over, or contemplate with regret.
It was what it was.
This is how dogs were trained.
The evidence now is convincing.
There is a better way.
And making the change has never been easier.
How about you? Have you made the switch yet? Share your thoughts below.
I am happy to update this page as more research is published, so let me know if you think I have missed anything.