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Why Positive Reinforcement?

Dog training is a highly unregulated industry in the U.S. Anyone, regardless of approach or experience, can call themselves a “professional dog trainer” or a “certified dog trainer.” In general, there are two overarching training philosophies: positive reinforcement and balanced training.

Positive reinforcement focuses on rewarding desired behaviors while reducing unwanted behaviors through prevention and management. A good positive reinforcement trainer will have an understanding of the animal’s emotional state, environment, body language, and the variables contributing to the animal’s behavior. When dealing with behavioral issues, the animal is kept under their stress threshold to facilitate learning new habits and more appropriate responses to their triggers. Positive reinforcement is actually extremely effective in reducing problem behaviors - even aggression and reactivity. 

Balanced Training typically includes positive reinforcement techniques but also uses techniques involving pain, fear, and intimidation to stop unwanted behaviors. If the consequence of an animal’s behavior is something unpleasant or painful, it is less likely to happen again. For example if a dog jumps on a human and is corrected with a leash pop or shock, the dog will learn that jumping hurts and likely won’t continue the behavior. Another example is calling a dog to “come” and then applying a consistent shock. The shock will remain on until the dog returns to the trainer, teaching the dog that until they run to the trainer, they will be subjected to pain.

Trying to control or teach your pet by using fear and pain does work, but so does punching your dog in the face- it damages any relationship you may have with your pet and the desired behavior change you see is usually going to be temporary. Aversive methods don’t actually teach your dog what you want him to do.

What the Science Says

Our understanding of how dogs think, feel, and learn is constantly evolving.

The more heavy-handed approaches that were so commonly used in dog training decades ago are now considered obsolete by the modern behavioral scientific community. As we have learned more about animal behavior, we now know that non pain-based training methods make our pets happier and help them learn better. 

Punishment based methods have numerous drawbacks that have been documented through extensive behavioral research. Not only are punishment-based training methods strongly influenced by outdated and disproven theories of canine behavior, but they are often done poorly or incorrectly by most trainers and owners.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states that “The adverse effects of punishment and the difficulties in administering punishment effectively have been well documented.” These negative side effects include, but are not limited to:

Avoidance: the animal may begin to avoid the person, place, or other aspects of the environment that were intentionally (or unintentionally) associated with the punishment.   

Aggression: animals may become aggressive in an attempt to remove the source of the punishment or the person delivering the punishment. They may also redirect their aggression towards other people, animals, or objects nearby. Balanced training should never be used for a dog exhibiting reactivity, aggression, or fear. 

Generalized fear, stress, and avoidance: the animal may begin to associate people, places, other animals, and other aspects of their environment (even furniture, vehicles, etc.) with the punishment. Dogs may exhibit fear and stress, even outside of training sessions. 

Learned helplessness: often mislabeled as “calm” or “submissive,” some dogs trained with punishment, particularly electric shock, become apathetic when there is no way to escape the punishment. 

Habituation: used frequently, animals can “get used to” a certain level of punishment, requiring the trainer to increase the intensity of punishment used.  this can and has led to injuries including collapsed tracheas, burns, and permanent injuries.

Overall, scientific research supports that positive reinforcement training approach is not only more effective, but comes with drastically fewer negative side effects. And, in order to make the most well-informed choices for our dog’s health and wellbeing, it’s important to consider the vast amount of scientific evidence that is available.

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