One of the biggest debates in the dog training world right now is this. Can dogs be fully and reliably trained using only purely positive dog training methods. These methods are also known as force free training. My answer to that is a resounding “No!” Purely positive dog training does not work.
Purely Positive Dog Training is a myth
I may upset a few people but it’s too important to me that dogs are properly trained to ignore the facts. Because the fact is, purely positive dog training is a myth. Because every dog is different trainers need to be able to use the method of training that works for the individual dog. Additionally, there are behavioral issues that simply cannot be corrected using purely positive training. The idea that every training issue can be addressed with purely positive training is misleading and can potentially be dangerous.
But not like the old days
This is not to say that I believe in the old style “yank and crank” way of training from way back in the 1970’s when I started training. Using brute force with a dog is not training. It’s little more than abuse for normal training purposes. I got into some trouble back when I just began my career when I told older, more experienced trainers that I thought their methods were much too harsh and were wrong. I believed that rewards and appropriate corrections worked far better and I’d proven it to myself with the dogs I trained. Without knowing it, and before trainers were aware of the method, I was a balanced trainer.
Purely positive dog training tells people that every dog, no matter the circumstances, can be trained using only positive reinforcement. In fact, some places, like Pet Smart, have fired trainers for even mentioning corrections during their classes. One Pet Smart trainer said, "Pet Smart is only interested in selling training courses and not in providing accurate training information."
Training aggressive dogs with clickers
Answer honestly. Would you try to train a 130-pound, human aggressive dog using only a clicker and treats? I’m talking about a dog who really, really wants to do serious damage to your tender body and all you have is a clicker and cookies to modify his behavior. I know you wouldn’t try it. No sane person would. Consequently, purely positive dog training methods will not work with a dog like that.
So what do purely positive trainers do in a situation where they have a dog who is either human or dog aggressive (or both)? The sensible ones tell their clients that they do not have the skill set to work with the dog and refer them to a balanced (LIMA) trainer. Sadly, too many purely positive trainers tell the clients that the dog cannot be rehabilitated and that it should be put to sleep.
And it’s not just aggression that cannot be managed with purely positive training. Many behavioral issues that dogs exhibit cannot be fixed with purely positive dog training. I wish every issue could be resolved that way. But I live in the real world and purely positive dog training simply cannot be used for every training issue.
While it may be true that dogs can and will learn some behaviors with only clickers and rewards the truth is that those dogs are never fully reliable. This means that, in spite of the number of times the dog performs in a controlled situation, the handler cannot trust that the dog will not react to distractions. A dog who has never been taught consequences will have no reason not to ignore you and rush into a busy road chasing a squirrel. He’s learned that he can do what he wants because there are no consequences to ignoring you.
Rewards and corrections
Balanced trainers use both rewards and corrections and they use them at the appropriate times and appropriate levels. Good, balanced trainers know that using high value food rewards is the best way to reward the dog when teaching new commands. I like using things like beef tongue, commercially prepared food rolls cut up into small pieces, and even hot dogs as treats. Dogs love these foods and will start to learn quickly when they realize they get these fabulous treats for doing something as simple as putting their butts on the floor when you say a certain word.
Making it fun!
Great food rewards, a happy voice, and making training feel like a fun game are the foundation, in my opinion, of balanced training. But once the dog truly knows a command and simply ignores you when you give it, he must learn that is unacceptable. It is the only way he will ever become completely reliable.
The idea of training is to teach the dog to follow commands and follow them consistently. If I have a dog off-lead and tell him to come I expect him to come instantly. It’s not just a matter of obedience. It can be life-saving. If the dog is running toward a busy road, I need to know without a doubt he will come to me (and out of harm’s way). And complete training requires corrections.
Police and Military Working Dogs
Police dogs, Military Working Dogs, and Personal Protection dogs are all trained using both reward and corrections. This is done because these dogs need to be 100% reliable when given a command.
No officer, soldier, or individual who has a protection dog would want a dog who simply refused to do its job because it didn't feel like it.
Instant and complete obedience is absolutely necessary for these dogs and you should expect no less when you train your dog. His life could depend on it if he's running toward a busy road, threatened by another dog, or approaching another dangerous situation. You owe it to your dog to train him with the methods that will ensure his obedience and safety!
Steering wheels and dog training
Because people think of corrections as being harsh, the idea of purely positive dog training is appealing. However, correction is not punishment. When you drive your car, you are constantly making tiny adjustments with the steering wheel to keep the car in the correct lane. No one would accuse you of being harsh because of this. In dog training corrections are the same thing; tiny adjustments to keep the dog on the right path.
Corrections done properly are kind
When I correct a dog, I’m not trying to punish it for behaving or not behaving in certain ways. I’m using the correction to guide the dog. I do not correct dogs (other than a simple “nope” or “uh uh”) until that dog is fluent in the behavior. Fluent means he knows what the word means and what behavior I expect. When he is fluent and doesn’t perform, I know it’s just stubbornness on his part. When a dog is fluent, I begin correcting the misbehavior. Corrections should not be overly harsh. Corrections, done properly are kind because they help the dog learn to do what he must to get the reward.
Types of corrections
No trainer should use harsh corrections for simple mistakes. I will never yank on a dog’s leash violently (unless that dog is about to be injured or is trying to really hurt me or someone else). Corrections should only be as strong as they need to be to get the behavior the dog should be performing. Consequently, most corrections are actually pretty gentle pops on the leash. It’s not pulling or yanking. It’s like a silent way of saying “This way.”
My philosophy is this: A prong collar is a steering wheel and it’s one that doesn’t allow injury to the trachea or vocal cords. An e collar is a cell phone to communicate when the dog is out of physical reach. The leash is the map that guides the dog along the right route.
A word about leashes
Every dog I train is always on leash at the beginning of training. It is unfair to expect a dog to perform totally new behaviors off leash. Using the leash, I can guide the dog. The leash is just a form of communication between dog and handler. When the dog has become fluent in a behavior, I use the leash (and collar) to correct unwanted behavior or refusal to perform (ignoring me). Leashes are basically nothing more than a form of communication between the dog and the handler. They should never be used to punish a dog whether through severe corrections or actually hitting a dog with one!
Purely Positive Dog Training is unfair
Attempting to train your dog using purely positive training is completely unfair to your dog. And it’s a waste of your time. Your dog will only learn that he can disobey whenever he wants with no consequences. This will frustrate you, leave you with a permanently untrained dog, and can even endanger your dog.
Just as you wouldn’t raise your child without ever correcting misbehavior, you shouldn’t try to have a completely trained dog without every correcting it. Learning that there are consequences, no matter how small, for misbehavior helps everyone, dog, child, and adult learn how to behave correctly.
Piano teachers don’t allow their students to bang on the keys any old way. Dance teachers don’t allow their classes to run around wildly. In any teaching situation, the teachers use corrections. Piano teachers correct poor posture and limp wrists. Dance teachers straighten arms or lift chins. Corrections don’t need to be rough. They just need to be used. If teachers never corrected students, the students would never become good at what they are trying to learn.
Try purely fair and positively balanced training!
Dogs, like people, want things to be fair. The purely positive dog training methods are not. Trainers using the methods allowed by purely positive ideology cannot effectively correct dogs. The dogs, therefore, cannot learn. Consequently, owners end up with dogs that do not understand that they are expected to always perform the commands the correct way.
Balanced training provides reward-based learning with corrections once the dog absolutely knows the behavior expected of him. It is fair. It gives the dog a real learning experience and builds trust and respect in the dog for the handler. Do yourself and your dog a favor and avoid the “purely positive” dog training fad.