Ten Myths of Positive Training Dispelled

Ten Myths of Positive Training Dispelled
Pamela Dennison (c) 2002 (excerpt from my book “You Can Train Your Dog; Mastering the Art & Science of Modern Dog Training”

Why do myths, such as the ones that follow, spring up out of nowhere? Primarily due to the general lack of understanding of how classical and operant conditioning work, and its use in modern training. Here are my favorite responses to these misconceptions. It’s hard to change old habits and old mind-sets; however, you’ll see that modern training isn’t so difficult after all. Going against the “old school” way may be difficult at times, but will be worth it in the end when you achieve a wonderful relationship with your well-mannered dog.

Myth #1: The Clicker Is a Fad or Gimmick
Marker training has been used for many decades in marine mammals, wild life and exotic animals as well as by competition and pet dog trainers. It is not new, and certainly not a fad. Using conditioned reinforcers (such as a clicker) is a training method based on sound, scientifically proven psychological principles, as discussed in Chapter 1. Skinner and others have conducted extensive research on the effectiveness of conditioned reinforcers in training with stable, unwavering results.

As with anything, if you use the clicker or positive training improperly, it won’t work. Put your car into neutral gear and it won’t move forward when you step on the gas pedal. Give your dog a treat for barking, “to shut him up,” and he’ll continue to bark.
I’ve seen ill-informed trainers use the clicker as a recall signal, as a sound with no meaning (in other words, no reward follows the sound), or just randomly, with no thought of what they were actually reinforcing. Use it incorrectly (marking the wrong behavior) and you can easily create confusion, fear, and avoidance.

Myth #2: The Principles Are Too Difficult to Learn and to Understand
This is absolutely not true. Although positive training involves a lot of technical information, you don’t have to be thoroughly versed or enmeshed to understand how it all works.
However, be warned that it’s easy to become a “behavior junkie,” because learning how dogs learn is fascinating. Many people come to me saying, “I just want a dog that doesn’t jump or pull,” and then become so mesmerized by the process that they stay to learn more.

Without understanding at least some of the science behind the method I teach, it’s easy to fall back into the punishment mode of training, especially when frustrated by your dog’s behavior or perceived lack of progress.

Once you know the “whys” of behavior, it’s then quite easy to fix problem behaviors—and better yet, to stop them before they start.

Additional fallacies you may hear from tradition-based trainers:
Myth #3: Positive Reinforcement Takes Too Long
Actually, positive methods have been proven to speed up learning. In the beginning stages, it seems to take longer only because you may have to wait a whole five or ten seconds (!) for the dog to think, rather than forcing the dog into position.

However, once you and your dog catch on, clicker training leads to faster results. Why? Because dogs usually catch on faster than we humans do. Creating an environment where the dog feels safe enough to learn and yes, maybe make a mistake along the way is the cornerstone of modern dog training. Dogs quickly learn to perform desired behaviors in order to make you click so they can get paid! In this age of more things to do in less time, “faster” is a real asset. However, when building a relationship, it takes as long as it takes. You can’t rush a bond—with dogs or with other people. In addition, behaviors learned through positive reinforcement and positive associations tend to be lifelong. You certainly can’t build rapport and trust using punishment.

We all make choices in our lives. Sometimes we choose incorrectly. That is called a mistake. Dogs and people trained using positive methods sometimes make the wrong choices, as do dogs and people trained using punishment methods. At times, we all make the wrong choices—humans and dogs—because none of us is perfect. Did you get beaten the last time you goofed? If your dog makes a mistake, lighten up!

Many years ago I had a student that came to me with her adorable puppy and a very bratty 10-year old son. He was obnoxious toward his mother as well as to me. While he was taking the pup for a potty walk, I asked the mom what was up with her son. She explained that there was a great age difference between this boy and the next oldest sibling and that he was acting this way for attention.
I recommended that she treat him just as she would her puppy. If he was obnoxious, she was to turn around and leave the room. If he was appropriate, she was to reinforce him in any way that made sense to a 10-year old boy. The following week, he was a model of decorum, and it turned out he was really very bright and nice. During a break, when he was out of the room, I asked her, “Wow! What a difference! What did you do?” Her reply, “I did exactly what you told me to do and he is now correcting himself and apologizes if he forgets and talks back.”

So in just one week of using positive methods, she was able to teach her son to behave properly, when for the last ten years, all the yelling yielded were impolite behaviors.

Myth #4: In Training, a Dog Should Never Be Given a Choice
Clicker trainers set up the situation so that their dogs make the desired choices. Dogs always have behavioral choices, even when they’re trained with aversive consequences (corrections and/or punishment). To think they don’t is an illusion.

I’ve seen dogs make mistakes regardless of whether they’re trained using punishment or positive reinforcement. I’ve also seen people make mistakes—sometimes the same ones over and over again.
And if they do make a mistake – so what? No one is perfect!

Myth #5: You Must Always Have the Clicker with You
Although most modern trainers would probably admit to having clickers stashed everywhere (I personally found 15 clickers in my pocketbook the last time I cleaned it out), they’re not necessary every time you work with your dog.

The clicker is used mostly when teaching a new behavior in the beginning stages. You can phase it out once the behavior is well learned. Thus, it is very important to make sure that certain words become secondary reinforcers. (A secondary reinforcer is something that the dog has to be taught to like) I use the words “yes” and “that’s right” as my “click words.” Sometimes it just isn’t logical or practical to be holding food, clicker, toys, and the leash. Use these words not as praise, but as a marker signal followed by a reward, just as you would reward after a click.

Myth #6: Clicker-Trained Dogs Won’t Work Without Food
I could counter that by saying that punishment-trained dogs won’t work without punishment—like the above, it’s just not true. In the beginning stages of training, I recommend that you use food liberally. Many times, the dogs have no real positive connection with training or their owners, and food helps to jump-start those connections.

However, a good positive/clicker trainer learns how to go from continuous to variable schedules of reinforcement and to use other types of reinforcers, such as verbal markers, praise or toys. If you’re still using the clicker, then the behavior isn’t learned enough yet to phase it out. And that’s okay – all things in due time!

Food is sometimes easier to deliver and doesn’t take much thought—get a behavior right, get a cookie. But if you use only food as reinforcement, the naysayers will be right—your dog will work only for food. Using other types of reinforcers, such as petting, play, or silly games, takes more thought and planning, but the benefits are enormous.

Myth #7: Force Works Better
Although a dog’s desire to avoid pain is strong, the desire to gain pleasant consequences is stronger. Think about the last time you got a speeding ticket—did it stop you from speeding? Much of your dog’s behavior is based on what’s more reinforcing for him do to. So you want to create pleasing behaviors for both of you!

Let’s say you’re stopped by the police each time you’re not speeding and are rewarded with $100. Every day for a week, you’re stopped two or three times per day and handed $100. Then the police go to a random schedule of reinforcement. Now you get stopped only one or two times per day and only three or five times per week. Sometimes you get verbally praised, sometimes you’re handed dinner tickets to your favorite restaurant, and sometimes you get the $100.

Once in a while you get pulled over and handed $1,000. Would you ever speed again? I sure wouldn’t. I would take that money and run out and buy a van with cruise control because I wouldn’t want to miss the chance of possibly getting the rewards! In the same respect, once a dog has learned something (good or bad), he tends to repeat that behavior over and over. Behaviors learned through force tend to fall apart when the dog is under stress. But behaviors learned in pleasant circumstances with positive consequences are less likely to fail under pressure.

Myth #8: Positive Training Isn’t Effective with Barking or Aggression
Dogs trained using a clicker can be easily taught alternate behaviors to replace the unwanted ones. Trainers using positive principles often devise very creative ways to change undesirable behaviors such as barking and aggression. I’ve personally used positive training to solve a large number of serious behavioral and aggression problems.

I’ve seen dogs barking in crates. I’ve seen their owners come up to the crate, kick it, yell at the dog, take the dog out of the crate when they can’t stand it anymore or it becomes embarrassing, and otherwise reinforce the dog for barking in the crate.

I’ve seen owners put collars on their dogs that deliver an electric shock or a spray of citronella to get them to stop barking. After a few zaps with the shock collar or some sprays with the citronella collar, they hang the collar on the crate and say, “See? The dog is now not barking.” True, but take the collar away and the dog starts barking again because now the threat of punishment is no longer there. And the dog hasn’t learned anything constructive, such as being quiet in the crate.
If you don’t give your dog a job that you approve of, he will become self-employed—and I promise you, you won’t like his choice of employment.

Aggression can often be easily (although not necessarily quickly) corrected by using positive methods. You can’t answer aggression with aggression and expect the dog to become friendly. Doing that would be the same as if someone was yelling or hitting you because you were afraid, and then expected you to go out and be the life of the party.

Myth #9: You Must Be Dominant to Your Dog
There are still arguments going on in the dog training world about the word and intent of “dominance.” There are almost as many definitions of it as there are dog trainers. Yes, there are “dominant” dogs, just as there are “dominant” people. I think the real problem is that in our society we tend to think of the word “dominant” as being punitive, violent, scheming and coercive.

I feel the use of the word dominant clouds our perception of how to train dogs. What we are really trying to accomplish is compassionate leadership. Leadership between humans and dogs is about boundaries and acceptable behaviors for dogs living with humans. Adding compassionate understanding in training clarifies the roles in our relationship. The human, as leader, guides the dog, sets boundaries and teaches what is acceptable–with compassion–for the dog’s long term well-being.

The behaviors we feel we cannot live with are usually natural canine behaviors; such as marking of territory, jumping on those they’re happy to see, extensive barking to announce intruders. These behaviors are not attempts to subvert our leadership or organize a “coup.” Really. Your dog isn’t awake all night scheming how to take over your shared small world. Qualifying those behaviors as “dominant” is a misuse of the word and leads humans to believe there is intent from the dog where none exists.

I already stated (in Chapter One) that “positive doesn’t equal permissiveness,” and that “I never use physical or verbal punishment on my dogs. I don’t rule by force and my dogs don’t rule the roost.” Being a leader for your dog is really about showing them the ropes, teaching them the rules–with compassion and being consistent with your expectations and cues.

I am sure you have experienced the following scenario; you ask your dog to do something, such as heeling and he completely blows you off. And yet when your instructor takes the leash and has a few treats, your dog acts like he has been trained for the Crufts Obedience Invitational. You get your dog back and he goes right back to ignoring you. Your dog isn’t stubborn, stupid or acting “dominant” over you. Your instructor probably has a clearer picture in her mind of what she wants the dog to do, is very clear in her cues, and your dog is reading, understanding and complying.

Dominance has been attributed to many dog behaviors, most of which actually indicate an untrained or stressed dog, not a dominant one. Licking, jumping up in greeting, pulling on the leash, getting up on the couch, a dog with separation anxiety that destroys the house in his terror of being left alone, peeing in the house, ripping up pillows, going out of doorways first, sitting on your foot, nudging your hand for petting, barking, biting the leash, and the list can go on and on. I know a woman who was told (by her vet of all people!) that when she came home from work and her dog started licking his legs (creating lick granulomas) that he was acting dominantly toward her. None of these behaviors are about your dog showing “dominance” over you; they are all indicative of either an untrained dog or stress behaviors, and sometimes both.

Myth #10: TV shows are real life
Lately there are a ton of horrific and downright abusive “reality” shows on TV about dog training. Please just remember that television is all about entertainment, (and ratings and money from advertisers) and have little to do with reality. Just like the police, lawyer and doctor shows, they all have little to do with real life or consequences. You wouldn’t go into a courtroom thinking you have learned all you need to know about the law from Law and Order or perform surgery because you watch House.

No one can train a dog or solve serious behavioral problems in 30 minutes—it’s just not possible. TV shows rarely have follow-up episodes to see how the so-called “cured” dogs are faring. There is an enormous amount of editing involved, and with the real amount of time spent with the dog and problems that ensue are not shown, plus tons of crucial information left unsaid and unaddressed. If your dog is having behavioral problems, please seek out a professional trainer, making sure you check references and certifications first.

Pop Quiz
If your dog is barking incessantly and you yell at the dog, what is your dog learning to do?
If your dog jumps on someone and you yank him down by the collar, what is your dog really learning?

Positive training is based on proven scientific principles.
Positive training does not take longer than punishment based training, and is, in fact, often faster and more effective
Dogs always have choices in how they behave, regardless of the consequences and the training method.
Positive training is the only reliable way to deal with aggression.

Posted in Blog, General.