The Pros of Positive Reinforcement Training

By Dana Bjornerud, CBCC-KA, DBTMC
Motivation K9

I was asked by the lovely ladies of Zoe’s to put together a blog post about the positive training methods I use and promote. I jumped at the opportunity, mostly because I believe this is something rescues should care strongly about. Rescue isn’t just about getting the animal to appear good enough for adoption, but to actually effectively change behaviour issues while keeping the animal feeling as safe as possible.

I guess I should start with the easy stuff, then go to the science behind it.

So. When I work with a dog, whether it be my own, a client’s, or a rescue, I want it to be as fun as possible. If I’m having fun, I’m communicating it to the dog so the dog then relaxes, and with that relaxation comes more effective training. Not to mention, training is an ongoing thing. This is something a dog owner should spend significant time on – why spend that time waiting for your dog to screw up so you can yell? Why not help him get it right so you can cheer?

I find many trainers that are “balanced” or use aversive training as a first line of defense seem, well, grumpy when they’re training. I get to laugh, smile, cheer, play with and praise my dog. And that leads to an amazing training session and an amazing bond. So on the surface, that is one reason why I choose the training methods I do.

On the next level, there’s some psychology at play. The whole idea of you get what you give. If I am super positive and happy and reward what I want from my dogs, it feeds into an overall happier and positive me. It helps the human get into a pattern of constructive thoughts. Comparatively, if your training requires you to correct a bad behaviour, you are waiting for your dog to make a mistake. How do you fight a negative thought pattern when you are literally watching and waiting for bad things? Why set your dog up for failure that you have to punish, when you can set him up for success, which you can celebrate with him? How does that negative thought pattern effect how you view your dog?

Now for the scientific reasoning for positive training. The last 30-40 years of scientific research has shown us that the foundations of the alpha, dominance, punishment training are flawed, and the methodology that sprouted from them is risky. Training a dog with aversives and essentially aggression, is likely to create aggression. Whereas keeping the dog feeling safe and using science based learning theory allows us to change how the dog thinks, with very little risk of creating aggression.

Not to mention, my dogs are companions and friends. I have them in my home to have fun, snuggle, and do things with like hike and play games. I do not have dogs so I can have a robotic slave that bends to my every whim. When we strive to have the “perfect” dog that never does anything wrong, we take away the fact that they are living, breathing, thinking beings. This is not to say anything a dog does when left to its own devices is acceptable – but that does come back to the human not training the dog what is more acceptable in that situation.

I have found that most behaviour issues in dogs are born from one very basic thing – humans do not fully understand dogs. We don’t understand their language yet expect them to speak ours. We don’t understand the very basic principles of what it means to be a dog, so we expect them to behave like tiny humans. And we don’t give them the time and dedication they need to be successful, yet we expect perfection.

If humans could properly interpret what their dogs are saying, learn (and apply!) what science has shown us about them, and spend the time they need to be properly trained, we’d have happier owners, happier dogs, and I’d be out of a job!

So in essence the training I use boils down to a simple phrase – Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive. I train dogs without constantly needing to invade their space, and I do it with the least amount of aversion to solve the problem. You do not need to hurt or intimidate a dog to train it. It is better for the bond between you and your dog, it is less likely to cause behaviour issues later on, and it’s overall less stressful for you and your four-legged friend. I use science-based methods to change behaviour effectively. Set the dog up for success, and reward the right choice like crazy!

Many great rescues fall into the trap of quick results that aversive training can bring. Zoe’s has added a dedication to humane training to the enormous list of amazing things they do. Partnerships with local positive trainers such as myself is a fantastic step. Together we can educate and help many more animals than alone. I hope more rescues can follow the example Zoe’s is setting with their stance on not just rescuing, but long term success with responsible dog ownership!