Positive training methods have been widely adopted by many trainers around the world in the past years. This is partly because pets have gained a more important role in families and the demand of humane training methods is growing, but also because newest studies show positive methods have a striking effect on how fast and how eager the dog, or the human for that matter, is to learn.
That's how it is for your dog. It is living in a world made for that big odd creature and the creature is expecting behavior that isn't always natural for the dog. Therefore the creature must teach the dog to behave like it wants it to behave.
I have talked about the process of learning earlier, and about how fear blocks learning. Therefore we don't go more into that, but talk about why positive methods are simply better and why certain tools and methods widely used in training based on negative reinforcement are not beneficial nor do they teach anything.
Learning doesn't happen on it's own
Just a quick example once more to show you the problem with training by negative reinforcement only.
The most common negative reinforcement we all have probably come across and even used is teaching the dog not to pull on the leash by pulling the leash.
Even writing that is contradictory.
How do you make the dog walk nicely by pulling and tugging on the leash? Why does the method ”work”? Well, the basic idea is pulling on the leash leads to nasty tugging and it learns to avoid pulling because it feels bad. It doesn't learn to walk nicely on the leash. Instead of learning to walk good because it knows it is expected to walk calmly on the leash, it only learns to avoid certain behavior, in this case pulling. This means for example that teaching it to work with you in canicross later can be terribly hard, because pulling has been a negative thing in the past. And if you teach the dog it is OK to pull in canicross, it may start to pull during normal walks, too, because it learns pulling, that has once led to nasty things, doesn't lead to them anymore.
Only that it does.
”Wait a minute. Why can I pull sometimes, and sometimes I can't?”
The idea of modern positive training is to train the dog to do the right thing, and this means the dog has to understand what is expected. It can't learn a behavior if it is not taught the behavior. Because of this methods like above are not encouraged, because they don't teach the dog any new way of behaving, they only simply try to make it avoid certain action. Obviously this method leads to a similar behavior with positive methods; the dog doesn't pull. It just doesn't really learn anything new either, and the negative stigma of pulling can interfere with possible future hobbies.
I admit I have taught my older dogs to walk on the leash by tugging the leash. This is exactly why I know it is a bad method. Teaching them to work with me in canicross was hard, because pulling had a terribly negative image in their head. I had to teach them to walk nicely with me again, with positive methods, only so that I could encourage them to pull while we do canicross. I had skipped training them to walk nicely on leash, I had only taught them that pulling leads to nasty tugging.
With my girls I used stopping when they pulled. I called them beside me or gently tugged the leash to get their attention, and we continued while they had returned to my side. This way they learned that fun stops when they pull, but also that fun continues when they walk nicely. They got treats for getting back to me, and they were far more eager to return to my side when I stopped than my boys had been in the past.
I admit I still did tug on the leash several times because the wrong way is imprinted in my brain. I did it no matter I knew it was wrong. Teaching myself to be more positive has been as hard as correcting the twisted behavior I caused with negative training in the past, because unfortunately many of the negative methods lead to results. They just do it in a way that is not beneficial for any later learning process nor to our relationship with the dog.
It takes time
It took you months to potty train and it takes us the total of several YEARS to learn the basics of what a human being must learn to function in this society. Just remember that when you start teaching the dog something and expect it to master it in a week.
Many times people justify their usage or harmful tools by saying they lead to fast results. That is right, but only partially; dogs learn to avoid things pretty quickly. It is a trait any animal, even us, have. We try to save ourselves from nasty and painful things, and electric shocks or pinches on our throat or squishing our trachea are all to be considered not so pleasant things to feel. However, they also learn to connect the nasty thing with the tool and many dogs that have been forced to use E-collar or choke chains or prong collars need to wear the tool every time when they are to be under 100% control. Otherwise they would not act trustworthy. This alone proves that they have not exactly learned to behave in certain way, they have only learned that while wearing the tool they need to avoid certain behavior, because then the tool does not hurt them.
They have learned no new behavior. They have not been trained. And if they are trained, then the usage of those tools is completely in vain. They are not needed. What is needed is time, because learning takes time. We can't justify unpleasant feelings or pain or danger with our own will to have the dog behave correctly fast.
Learning to learn
Teaching the dog to continuoisly avoid things to save it from unpleasant things leads to apathy.
Learning is based on offering new behavior and being praised about the right one. This is exactly the same with people and with dogs. In school we praise the children from doing the right thing, managing to find the result to a problem, not scold them from making a mistake that leads to a wrong answer.
Think about it; would you rather try to learn what the building-tall creature wants you to do when it gave you rewards, or when it punishes you if you accidentally offer the wrong behavior? Wouldn't the latter lead to sitting completely still, because while not getting rewarded, at least you don't get punished from doing wrong either? That is what happens with dogs. Dogs that are trained with punishment are not good at learning, because learning is a skill that gets the better the more you work on it. Dogs, as well as people, can learn to learn. While many people use both punsihment from the wrong and praise from the right action, the fear of punishment can interfere with the learning even if the right kind of behavior means rewards.
When the fear is let out, we as trainers are still in need of motivation for our student. Something to kickstart the will to learn now that it is made safe and offering new behavior only leads to positive outcome.
Some dogs are harder to motivate than others. The key is to find what motivates the individual the best. While fear blocks learning, reward encourages it. For us people the salary we get from our work motivates us to work. If we do things for free, the reward is not material but emotional. Either way, we work and in general we do things to benefit from it. Once more, dogs are exactly the same. While we are motivated by the change of buying a new car or a nice new pair of Phantom Of The Opera shoes (I'd do wonders to get one of those), dogs are usually easier and most are happy with a treat or a toy.
Some individuals, like many afghans, might need you to work harder to find their non-existent motivation. It is pretty safe to say, however, that every dog is motivated by something.
A success story
In the end I'd like to share with you a success story that hopefully helps to understand the power of positive training as well as shows that all negative things mentioned above caused by punishment really are true.
I have talked with this one young trainer I met in a web community we both belong to. She has been struggling in the past to find a proper trainer to help training her young, strong, energetic dog, and during her journey she came across many different styles of training.
”We told her our situation that [the dog] barks, lunges at every single moving thing, and that we cant take her to walks anymore, so she said I have to 'dominate' [the dog] and to show her her place.. we were never allowed toy rewards, just treats. The trainer suggested many people to use choke chains. She even said that they're better than prongs. So, whenever [the dog] tugged on leash, she said to pull her hard back with the chain and use strict tone.”
The person told me that they were told to use excessive force, and the trainer they went to even made the dog yelp by tugging her leash so hard. She said it felt bad to see, but since this person was said to be a professional trainer, they continued training their dog with the given instructions.
”This method damaged [the dog] heel so bad she saw ''heel'' command as a very negative thing, meaning whenever she doesn't do what humans want, she gets a hard pull on her neck.”
This is sadly a very common outcome with punishment. Dogs that have been trained with violence and force tend to act very tense and submissive when they perform, due to the negative impact the punishing has on the command. They don't work out from eager to be rewarded, but out from fear, and this often leads to stiff and untrustworthy performance.
”Since then we found the new trainer. The first times we only had individual sessions, as [the dog] couldn't focus at all around people and dogs. She (the trainer) immediatly saw our situation and what made [the dog] nerveous. She needed time to get used to the new training place, and even when we first met, [the dog] barked and snapped at the trainer, seeing her as a threat. So, she gave us many useful tips. Our previous trainer didn't even teach how to hold a treat in hand properly.
The trainer knew we had to fix our damaged heel command. We had to completely train [the dog] from the start, the new command being ''fus''. I was so happy now, because soon we stopped using the choke collar and only had positive training with treats and lots of play.” - ”We went to her many times and she gave us constant homework we had to do at home. Now that we used treats and toys and no choke collar, [the dog] didn't ignore me as she did before. We had more walks and she was looking at me more than before, because correct behavior meant big reward coming. She was happy to work with me since I didn't cause her any pain.
We have worked with positive training to the point I don't have to hold the leash anymore when we're walking. She has great recall, we can even pass people and bikes calmly without her snapping or barking because there was no tension on the leash. She is now free of the pulling and pain, which before seemed almost impossible, really. I didnt know that only such simple things can make her this happy to work with me and respond quickly.
Now, after a year since we went to the positive trainer, we can work in group sessions with many other people and dogs.
And really, all we needed was patience, time and effort.”
Inspirational, don't you think?
Do you have any positive success stories? Share yours in comments and pass the kindness on!