Who is a Positive Reinforcement Trainer?

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I’m NOT a “Positive Reinforcement” Trainer (and neither are you). 

I’m fed up with being called a ‘positive’ or a ‘positive only’ dog trainer. It is usually in the form of an insult as in, “Them positive dog trainers with their clickers and their treats don’t understand what it is like to train a really dominant dog”. It is often used by the proponents of the ‘dominance’ theory of dog training who like to alpha roll and lead jerk to supposedly ‘show the dog who is boss’. 
 
The term is also used by the fluffier unenlightened to describe their own dog training methods, “Oh, I’m a positive dog trainer, I only use positive reinforcement in training.”
 
Well, let me tell you, you’re both wrong. I work with aggressive dogs all the time, none of which are trying to dominate people. They are usually bright, quick to learn and respond famously to some well reinforced rules – often with treats and sometimes with the clicker. But I also punish them.
 
Punishment is a fact of life
It happens to us all on a daily basis and our dogs are no different. Little rewards and little punishments are happening all the time.
 
For example: Ping! As I write this my inbox tells me I have mail. With a little surge of expectation I click on the icon to open the email and find… disappointment at the spam message inviting me to send off my bank details to some scammer. Why was it disappointing? Because I was expecting the latest pictures of my grandchildren’s’ visit to Chester Zoo.
 
For every upside in life there can be a downside. Not only do we know it, we expect it as well. We cope relatively well so long as the punishments don’t outweigh the rewards so much that we become depressed.
 
What’s this got to do with training dogs?
Everything. Every time I give a treat to a dog there is also the possibility that I won’t give them the treat. Every time I click I may also not click. If the dog is expecting a click or a treat and I do not fulfil that expectation I punish the dog. Taking away the possibility of earning a reward is negative punishment. It can be an extremely effective way of not only changing behaviour in dogs, but also of communicating that change.
 
Pushy dogs need rules – but how to teach these?
I have a little exercise that I use to quickly establish rules with pushy dogs, dogs that are used to getting their own way and dogs that other people might label ‘dominant’. I sit facing the dog and place a very tasty treat on the palm of my hand. The pushy dog usually grabs at it. I close my hand to prevent contact. I’m punishing the act of grabbing by taking away an expected treat. After ‘X’ number of attempts (X is directly related to the pushiness of the dog) the dog pauses to think (or for breath) and I reward the pause by popping the treat into the dog’s mouth. Then we start again. Initially the punishments outnumber the rewards, but, as the penny drops, the rewards start to outnumber the punishments and the dog learns that backing off is better than grabbing. Overall I’m punishing more than rewarding, but in a way that the dog understands.
 
Every time we prevent our dog doing something that it wanted to do we inflict a little punishment. Standing still to teach ‘no pulling on the lead’? Punishment. Painting “Chew-Stop” on the furniture legs so they taste bad? Punishment. Saying “No” when my toast drops on the floor to stop her eating it? Punishment. Put in the crate for jumping at visitors? Punishment.
 
Not all punishment is acceptable
True, I draw the line at punishments that might cause the breakdown of a relationship, or have welfare concerns for the dog, such as dragging around on the lead, digs in the ribs, hold downs, alpha rolls, scruffing and the like, because I have no desire to have a relationship based on fear (or be prosecuted for cruelty).
 
What I do want is a relationship based on mutual rules. No one gets everything they want. No one gets their way every time. Teaching a dog that they can earn rewards, be they treats, the chance for a game or our affection, for doing the right thing, has the consequence that when they do the wrong thing these opportunities disappear. Rewards and punishments go together.
 
Rules are necessary, consistency is vital, firmness can be appropriate, but brutality is not. No one who has a relationship with a dog is a ‘positive only’ trainer. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand dog training.
 
David Ryan
 

David has a postgraduate diploma in companion animal behaviour counselling and twenty six years experience of police dog training. For more information visit his website at www.dogsecrets.co.uk