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The Problem With Positive Only Dog Training.

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

There's obviously a lot of misconceptions and varying opinions in the world of dog training.

So, let's break it down.

While there are plenty of training styles, most people seem to flock towards 'Positive Reinforcement.' Also known as R+ dog training.

Why? Humans project emotions onto dogs and anything other than pure positivity is considered cruel and unusual punishment by said humans.


Punishment doesn't mean abuse.

Positive reinforcement dog training

*Disclaimer: this is one of the most honest and uncensored posts I've written so far...😉

Is this style of positive only training too good to be true?

Does shoving food in a dog's face and never giving him consequences actually work?

Let's think for a minute:

  • You speed, you get a speeding ticket.

  • You assault someone, you get arrested.

  • You rob a store; you go to jail.

Guess what? Poor behavior and bad decisions = unpleasant aftermath!


Now, imagine:

You only get rewarded for good behavior and there are zero consequences for bad behavior.

No slap on the wrist, no tickets, no jail, not even a verbal warning.

❌ Nothing.

😳 Sounds crazy, huh?

Well, this is what many dog trainers would have you believe is the only acceptable way to train dogs.

That consequences of any kind = animal cruelty.


I got another big fat newsflash for ya:

Life isn't all freaking sunshine and rainbows!

There's a reason your dog is acting like a jackass to begin with... And it's not because his life isn't 'positive enough.' It's because you are a weak leader, give no reprimand and he knows he gets away with whatever he wants.

Look at this momma dog correcting her puppies, for example. The puppies are being pushy, rude and annoying... Mom has had enough and gives a sharp correction to everyone. They understand, and quickly change their behavior!

We all know it's fun to be naughty... It might even feel rewarding to be defiant and disobey... (c'mon, I know you remember what it was like to be a teenager)!

You want to see changed behavior in your dog? Then you first need to change your mindset and beliefs.

You need to be firm and know that life isn't fair for any species.

Naturally, dogs show each other what is acceptable by using their teeth, so your small reprimand is doing less damage than the next dog who yours might piss off the wrong way by his rude behavior.


What Style of Training or Method Should I Use?

Well, that depends on the dog, your level of knowledge, anf your dog's learning style.

There are actually 4 main quadrants of training:

  • Positive Reinforcement

  • Positive Punishment

  • Negative Reinforcement

  • Negative Punishment

Now, some of these can get confusing and even overlap in similarities so I'll just give a quick example of one way I choose to train based on my experience, my own dog's individual learning style, and her personality.

A Negative Punishment style of training would include this:

You pick up the leash to take your dog for a walk, and your dog starts jumping, barking and generally just going bonkers. Yes, my dog does this!

You say "Nope!"

You set the leash down and turn your back or walk away (considered a no reward marker, just like a clicker is a yes reward marker). This will cause the bad behavior to go away as your dog will realize barking and jumping takes away the good stuff (solely giving treats for good behavior does not teach them the consequences of the wrong behavior).

Tell your dog to sit, and wait for them sit. Do NOT keep repeating yourself, and do NOT bribe them with food. I like to wait until they sit, make eye contact, and then I'll move onto a reward like using the word "Yes" and giving a small pat on the head only once the dog is calm. Occasionally I will use treats initially and then phase them out.

Repeat this exercise until the dog no longer gets to an amped state when you grab the leash (he should default to a sit every time you grab the leash). When he figures this out, and settles, proceed for a walk!

This teaches the dog that calm gets rewards (walkies!), and excited/ amped up behaviors get punishment (no walkies!).

When Maddie gets overly excited as I grab her E-Collar, I make sure she is sitting and calm before I even attempt to put it on. She knows that crazy behavior gets no freedom to run and I'll put the collar away! This, of course, doesn't end her excitement, it just takes her a second to collect herself!

off-leash freedom dog training with e-collar

*Note, when I brought up this example method at a seminar with a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist, I was completely discredited with "That isn't showing the dog what he SHOULD be doing, that is just punishment, and you should never punish a dog!"

Sound ridiculous? Well it's true! Here's a photo from the presentation:

She followed that statement by comparing this method of training to an electric fence.

Now, of course you need to teach the dog an alternative behavior. But this doesn't mean you cannot also correct the wrong behavior.

Dogs most definitely do understand cause and effect.

If my dog is running toward a squirrel, who is headed for a busy road, I WILL tell her what not to do, followed by what she should be doing. Example: Giving a sharp and loud "No! Come!" This way, she understands that this behavior is not allowed, and she better be heading back. I'm not baby-talking her into coming to get treats... because clearly that squirrel is far more interesting!


What Consequences Mean

Training a dog via a balanced method of positive and negative not only teaches the dog what he shouldn't be doing, but it also teaches them what they should be doing.

In the case of other poor behaviors such as anxiety, barking, over-excitement, etc... you are helping your dog work through his triggers, emotions and ultimately the behaviors.

In the scenario that we discussed above, the trigger was EXCITEMENT FOR A WALK!

Your dog was triggered by something he loves (grabbing the leash), which created en emotion (excitement), which turned into a behavior (barking & spinning).

Leaving your dog to figure out his own world does nothing but set him up for failure.

A balanced method translates into training for life.

No matter what your dog is triggered by:

Punishment and reward go hand-in-hand.

By helping your dog work through their triggers via rewarding the good behavior, and letting them know there are unpleasant outcomes for the bad behavior... you are setting them up for success.

Remember, just because they know they will get rewards for being good, doesn't mean they won't want to be naughty for the 'fun of it' or when they get too overwhelmed to deal with their emotions.

You, as the owner, need to teach your dog what decisions are okay to make, and which ones are not acceptable.


Choosing a Trainer

When choosing to hire a trainer, you need to do your research and find someone who is experienced, knowledgeable, and open minded.

If your trainer only believes in positive reinforcement, just know that their beliefs are likely as limiting as their training methods. For training to be successful, trainers need to acknowledge that learning is not a one-size-fits-all.

Just as some of us humans learn better by reading, others learn better by watching a demonstration, while another learns better by doing it on their own.

If you expect a dog to learn in a box, they will fail.

If you expect treats to solve your dog's horrible behavior, leash pulling, and anxiety, they will fail.

If you believe that telling a dog no is abuse, you have failed to see any view of your dog's from any eye but your own.

This is why aggressive, anxious, and fearful dogs cannot often be fully rehabilitated. Because their success is limited by the beliefs of the trainer.

For these dogs to be successful, they need balance.

Balance of good and bad.

Balance of reward and ramification.

In order to push past the uncomfortable feelings of 'punishing' a dog .... We need to understand that life will punish the dog far worse for poor behavior than we ever would.

Sometimes, these punishments include death. And I don't say that lightly.

This may be from a fight with another dog, running away and getting hit by a car, or even euthanasia for biting/ aggression.


The Downside to Poor Behavior

I've read countless stories on how certain dogs are 'un-trainable' or 'broken' or 'wired wrong' and while that can be true in a few cases, I'm sure the number is incredibly inflated due to the fact that many trainers and rescues fail these dogs by not training in a way that the dog can succeed by.

Not only can poor behaviors lead to running away, getting hit by a car, or being attacked and mangled in a dog fight... They can also land your dog in a very sticky situation with a trainer or behaviorist when you DO decide to try and get help.

In the case of poor behaviors, biting, and growling around children... Dogs are almost always considered to be re-homed or euthanized. Is this the answer? Maybe in some cases, but I can tell you that strong leadership, proper training and giving consequences is probably a better route to take, even proactively.

When I attended the seminar I mentioned above, the veterinary behaviorist who gave this irritating 8-hour lecture specifically stated that positive reinforcement training is the only style of training that should be used. BUT, openly admitted that it doesn't work for every dog. Those dogs would need to be on some type of medication, and if the combination of the 2 doesn't work, then euthanasia may need to be considered for the safety of the dog and others.

*She also talked about how cats who urine mark need to be on mediation, while failing to address any underlying cause of the issue.

This woman had the audacity to say that if the dog (who is struggling with life and emotions and had no coping skills) didn't fit into her tiny box of beliefs, he was better off dead.

Rather than trying different methods of training, he was better off on mind altering pharmaceuticals. I can't even begin to tell you how many Prozac prescriptions I have filled for neurotic, anxious dogs at the clinic.

It baffles me how these veterinary behaviorist professionals get paid upwards of $500 per hour to tell pet owners "He just needs more treats and happiness in his life, if that doesn't work.. Alter his brain chemistry with these drugs. Then if he is still un-trainable with medication and said treats that didn't work the first time, his life should be ended."


How Does This Sound to You?

No emotion. No compassion. No critical thinking. No ability to think outside that tiny box.

Wouldn't you rather work with a trainer who can see all sides of the situation and view the dog's full emotional state and trigger(s)? Then, provides an unpleasant outcome to alter his method of thinking in order to make a better decision based on that outcome??

Now, am I saying that no dog should ever be trained with Positive Reinforcement?

Absolutely not!

I use positive reinforcement in all my trainings. But it's not the only way I train.

I use what's called a balanced method, as we've talked about here.

My dog is trained on an E-Collar, and walked on a prong collar. And she LOVES it.

Does she look miserable and abused to you?!

dog training with treats reward and punishment

Heck no, she gets FAR more freedom than most dogs I've met! She has been off-leash trained since she was under a year old.

Staying fit at 10 years young, running, exploring, rolling in poop in the woods, swimming through ponds, romping through fields and so much more. She just knows to be good in order to keep her freedom!

I rarely use treats as a reward. Her reward for making good choices is inclusion almost anywhere we go and the freedom to run and explore. If she makes bad choices, she may experience no walks, kennel time, a buzz on her collar, or have her freedom restricted to a leash (she hates that)!

Let me tell you from experience, 90% of the time, she makes awesome choices! 10% of the time, she is still a dog and has instincts and desires of her own which I'll let slide to a certain extent or give a verbal warning.


Conditional Listening

Almost all dogs that I've worked with who were trained with R+/ treat training, NEED a constant flow of treats in order to listen. That. Is. Not. Training. That is bribing! And that's also not real life.

More often than not, I've run into dogs who were solely trained with 'treats and positivity' and these dogs often have conditional rules of their own on when/ if they will listen.

Is the treat 'good enough?'

Is the reward worth abandoning the other fun thing (chasing a squirrel)?

Is there something more interesting than the treat that I'd rather have?

All of these situations make listening conditional. The dog gets to decide. And he knows that either way, he gets rewarded. Because punishment doesn't exist.

Worst of all... what if you forget to bring treats?!.... What is the incentive to listen then?

This is creating entitled, spoiled, and bratty dogs.


What Does This All Mean?!

Remember, if you speed, you get a ticket.

Your car insurance company doesn't ignore your speeding and reckless behavior and only reward you with discounts for the days you decide you want to drive good.

Life is a game of reward and ramifications.


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