What to choose: Positive Training or Reliable Training?

What Type of Dog Training Is Best for Your Pet?

In the hands of masters of the art, dog training through the use of the principles of operant conditioning looks gloriously effective and deceptively easy.

So how come all of our dogs are not getting high scores in competitions or have the best manners out in public? Why do some dogs train with nothing but positive motivation and positive reinforcement refuse to obey their handler at a trial? How come some dogs trained using only positive motivation obedience classes would come when called, or down stay reliably and others do not?

We are firm believers in the powers of positive thinking. But like any training tool, misuse can cause more problems than you originally started with, and you can find very quickly find yourself in a huge hole. We want to present some theories on the nature of positive failures and suggest techniques to help you out of that hole.

Let’s start with human factors. Many people’s training attitudes become factors in their dog’s training. People become devotees of the positive approach after surviving traumas associated with poorly-used or abusive negative techniques. They vow never to “hurt” their dogs again in the name of the sport of obedience. By God, they will stick to operant conditioning rules, ignore an unwanted behavior, and wait to reward the correct behavior.

This militant attitude puts a lot of limitations on the trainer’s options for methods of communication while offering no limits to the dog. This method is not as good for the dog as you might think, especially if the trainer has a particular behavior in mind at the time of the training session, and the dog has no clue what that behavior might be. The trainer may have to wait for a long time for the dog to offer the correct behavior, and the dog may get frustrated and quit before the happy accident occurs.

Then you have both dog and trainer immobilized. This part of the syndrome can be worse with a previously trained dog than with a new puppy who is more than thrilled to offer random behaviors at high speed. With no negative for the unwanted behavior, you may inadvertently be shaping an unwanted behavior.

Our suggestion is to take the word “rules” out of your association with operant conditioning techniques. Operant conditioning is a broad science based on generalizations about behavior patterns that have been observed. For example, “behaviors that a subject finds rewarding will tend to be repeated.” It’s an informative generalization, but it is not a rule.

You can tell it is not a rule by the number of dogs that have been repeatedly rewarded for a behavior but that don’t repeat the behavior. There is a reason for that, found in another part of operant conditioning theory, that is a rule. It tends to be perceived as a definition. This is the part that says that a positive reinforcer is something the subject finds rewarding enough to cause the behavior associated with it to tend to be repeated.

The unspoken part of this little rule is that the hot dog that your subject finds rewarding enough to cause repetition of behavior in your back yard does not compare with the rewards of gopher hunting in the grass at the park. This is where your fanatic devotion to purely positive reinforcement will be severely challenged because you will have to either make yourself and the behavior you desire the dog to perform be associated with something more rewarding than gopher hunting. Or you will have to find a way to make gopher hunting less rewarding than the reward you are prepared to produce.

Now you could go the distance and put a gopher down the front of your shirt so that your dog will directly associate you with hunting gophers. Or you could consider applying enough negative reinforcers or punishment to lessen the attractiveness of gopher hunting for the dog and make heeling seem like a great deal of fun by comparison.