What to choose… Positive Training or Reliable Training?

What Type of Training Should You Choose?


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? Why do some dogs that are trained 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 very large hole. We´d like to present some theories on the nature of positive failures, and suggest some things that might 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, and by God, they will stick to the rules of operant conditioning, and simply ignore unwanted behavior, and wait to reward 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 is not as good for the dog as you might think, especially if the trainer actually has a very specific 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 correct behavior to be offered, 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 it is 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 which is based on some generalizations about behavior patterns that have been observed. For example, “behaviors that a subject finds rewarding will tend to be repeated” (our italics). 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. Ah, but there is a reason for that, found in another part of operant conditioning theory, that is a rule, but is usually perceived as a definition. This is the part that says, a positive reinforcer is something which the subject finds rewarding enough to cause the behavior associated with it to tend 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 that 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 now associate you with hunting gophers. Or you could consider applying enough negative reinforcers and/or punishment to lessen the attractiveness of gopher hunting for the dog, and make heeling seem like a great deal of fun by comparison.