There’s a lot of debate in the dog training world about positive reinforcement vs. aversive training. Most of us have been around long enough to know that aversive training methods were among the most prevalent training methods used until recently. As with corporal punishment and other forms of ‘teaching’ we’ve overcome in the human world, it’s equally important to be constantly reassessing and questioning our methods as we move towards a better understanding of dogs and how they learn. Tons of new evidence shows that canines learn fast with positive reinforcement. They also develop less behavioral problems associated with fear and anxiety and form healthier relationships with their people with positive reinforcement training.
When talking about punishment, we are most often referring to positive punishment in which the positive implies that something is being administered (as opposed to taken away) and punishment means that the desired effect is to minimize the behavior in the future. Therefore, whatever is being administered is undesirable by the dog (i.e. a pop on the collar). It is true that these methods can be successful, but at what cost? With aversive training, we run the risk of inducing fear and anxiety rather than an understanding of what behaviors we are looking for. Even if the dog seems to understand and ceases to exhibit the behavior, what effect has our punishment had on the relationship? Better yet, in simply punishing dogs for a behavior we don’t want to see, we lack the ability to show them what we’d like to see instead. Punishment can be confusing for a dog. Sometimes, the reaction that a dog may receive for a poor behavior choice has the opposite effect of reinforcing the behavior. Consider the fact that with aversive training, dogs tend to get a lot less positive attention overall so they may be more desperate for any form of attention. Another great risk with aversion techniques is that your dog will make negative associations with the environment in which it is punished. Lets use the example of a choke collar. You may have bought the choke collar for your dog because on walks, she gets overly excited about seeing other dogs and pulls strongly towards them. You’re worried your dog might pull your arm off, so you get a choke collar. Consider now what happens when your dog sees another dog on a walk and pulls. Granted, your dog cannot pull as hard without hurting herself, but the choke collar will cause some discomfort with any pulling. Every time that your dog feels this discomfort, she will be excitedly pulling towards another dog. It’s quite likely that the dog will make an association between the discomfort on her neck and the other dogs that she is staring at when this occurs. Now imagine if a form of punishment occurs only when your dog is looking at you! How horrible would it be for your relationship with your dog to be associated with such negativity? Negative associations happen far too often in the world of aversion training.
If given a choice between reacting with punishment and being proactive with positive attention, positivity is the overall better choice. In using positive reinforcement, you are able to direct your dog’s behavior and show them what you are and aren’t looking for. Positive reinforcement occurs when your dog is given a reward (positive) that has the effect of causing the dog to exhibit the behavior more often (reinforcing). When we talk about rewards, this doesn’t mean treats all of the time. Attention, toys, food, walks, sniffs, pets and even a ‘good dog’ can go a long way. By using all things that your dog finds rewarding as a response for positive behaviors, you’ll increase the probability of seeing those behaviors again. Withholding attention and all other rewards for poor behavior teaches your dog that those actions are not rewarding and they will start to exhibit them less and less. Training with positive reinforcement is not only fun and creative, but you get to maintain a healthy relationship with your dog. Overall, it is a better method to avoid stress, fear and anxiety. There are other important factors to make sure you are setting your dog up for success, such as managing the environment (see another blog post about that) and avoiding situations in which your dog is not ready to exhibit good behavior. Wouldn’t you rather set your dog up for success and be able to celebrate their good behaviors than constantly correct them and causing confusion or negative feelings? I find it best to avoid the frustration and negativity aversive techniques cause for both you and your dog… Instead, enjoy training your dog and use training for mental stimulation, an energy outlet and relationship building.