There’s a common phrase in dog training: “training is simple but it isn’t easy.” When broken down into larger functions, we are rewarding behaviors with treats and toys (sounds pretty simple), but in order to correctly train solid behaviors long-term we need to have a broad knowledge of concepts including topics like biology and psychology and we need to master many fine skills (making it not so easy at all times). Because of this truth, many people are quick to try training (with appropriate reward methods) and then claim it didn’t work, and try to move onto something inefficient or even worse, something detrimental to their dog’s well-being like force/aversive training methods. Here is more information and solutions.
State of the Profession
First, worth noting is not all professional dog trainers are competent. That might sound strange, but the fact is the dog industry does not require certification to practice, there is no oversight to make sure trainers are using best practices based on science, and so it’s possible to hire someone that is uneducated or has very little or no hands-on experience with dogs. This means even hiring trainers that claim to use rewards could land you with someone who does not use rewards, or someone who incompetently trains with rewards.
Also, beware trainers who guarantee behavior results. It’s impossible to guarantee the behavior of another living creature regardless of training methods used and unethical from a professional standpoint. Furthermore, many behaviors have medical-related pathologies, meaning only a veterinarian/veterinary behaviorist can diagnose and treat them, or work in conjunction with a professional dog trainer to solve them.
For example, if a dog has aggression due to a brain tumor, adding pain by shocking a dog is not going to solve the medical problem or the aggressive behavior problem; it is very likely to make it worse as well as compromise the dog’s welfare; and ultimately this is exactly why aversive/force training methods should never be used on any dog at any time.
Good Dog Trainers
When you find a qualified and skilled positive reinforcement trainer, it will relieve you from worrying about the non-easy aspects of the process. You won’t have to worry about trying to know everything all at once, and instead can rely on the trainer for advice and making sure everything is on the right track to success.
How to Solve the Dilemma
If the training seems like it’s not working, check the following:
1. Compliance – it’s worth noting that if the advice of a qualified trainer is not followed or enough repetitions are not completed, the behavior won’t get trained, or won’t be maintained long-term.
2. Execution – this concept is so important and another one to rely on professional help. There’s many minute parts of properly completing the training process – training the steps in the appropriate order, following the right mechanical skills, knowing where and when to deliver rewards, knowing what type of reward to use, understanding when to advance to a more challenging trial or reduce the difficulty for the dog, reading the dog’s body language, and so on.
3. Identification of the problem – this is another area where a professional dog trainer and/or veterinary behaviorist can help identify the problem and triggers or causes of the behavior, and put together a training plan to follow in order to change the dog’s behavior.
As the dog training knowledge and science has grown over time, the industry now has positive reinforcement training methods and solutions that work for all types of pet dog behavior problems. There is no reason to resort to scaring or hurting dogs in order to train them. If the training process seems stalled or before issues arise, work with a competent reward-trainer to assist you with the process.
By Dan Raymer
This is an excellent video by the Academy for Dog Trainers illustrating the state of the dog training profession and how to choose a professional trainer that will help rather than hurt your dog.
Here is an example of appropriate answers to the three questions:
What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
Your dog will receive rewards to positively reinforce the behavior.
What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
Nothing, or the reward or opportunity to earn the reward will be removed for that specific trial.
Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
No. Giving or taking away rewards does not hurt or scare dogs.
By Dan Raymer
Trainers who use unsafe training techniques (force-training, balanced training consisting of harsh corrections, usually with but not limited to choke chains, prong collars, and remote shock collars), often times spread disinformation. One of these core messages they use to discourage people from using positive reinforcement training methods is the claim that reward-trainers kill dogs. This is an egregious myth.
I personally have never recommended any dog be euthanized, nor do I ever intend to. This is because my dog training works using humane training methods. It works for behaviors that are quick to change and for more challenging, serious behaviors like reactivity, fear, and aggression. In fact, it really is the only type of training that works while taking care of the dog’s mental and physical health to the highest ability possible. Receiving a toy reward, or treat reward cannot harm a dog, whereas correction training leads to physical damage – like destroying the dog’s trachea from collar corrections, or burns from shock collars, or mental harm from fear of punishment.
Many animal shelters and rescues use humane training methods, while euthanizing certain dogs for problems they deem untreatable – this usually means for medical reasons (the dog is too sick and in too much pain), or behavioral reasons (severe forms of aggression, which make it unsafe to release the dogs for adoption and into the community). These are special cases, as these organizations are either limited in funds and staff (and function as an open admissions shelter, so even euthanize due to lack of kennel space at times, or they are limited admission, meaning they don’t have to take in all animals, and thus usually function as a “No-Kill” shelter, which means they have a live release rate of 90+%). So if these are the types of cases they are using to try to push the narrative reward training kills dogs, it is a poor argument. This is more of a resources and policy issue (including factors such as time, staff, qualified trainers working for the shelter, state laws, etc.) than it has anything to do with training methods. It is also ignoring the fact that many dogs have these serious behaviors due to force-training methods and mistreatment in the first place. Here is one example study of many that exist: “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors.”
In addition, there are dogs with medical issues that cause behavior problems. For example, dogs with brain tumors may end up displaying aggressive behavior. The aggression can not be fixed by any training method. The only thing that will fix it will be to treat the brain tumor – and whether that is possible depends on the specific details of each case. This means treating the cause, not the symptoms that show up in a dog’s behavior.
If your trainer, regardless of what type of training methods he/she uses, tells you to euthanize your dog immediately over the phone without getting all the relevant information, or without conducting an in-person behavior evaluation, then he/she is most likely not qualified to professionally deal with your dog’s behavior problem. And even with those details covered, a second opinion is likely needed. Dogs that have bitten do not have to be euthanized. Good, competent positive reinforcement training can help your dog, and in conjunction with a reward-based veterinary behaviorist, if needed (i.e., the behavior is caused by a pathological condition).
There is almost always an alternative to euthanizing a dog for behavior reasons. Most aggressive behaviors are contextual, so removing the dog from those specific situations or triggers can prevent the behavior from occurring. And doing things to prevent dogs from ending up with dangerous aggressive behaviors in the first place, should be our starting point. Check out these factors that are present in most human fatalities from dog bites, and dog bite prevention information. Avoid correction, harsh punishment, force and balance training methods. Instead use positive reinforcement/reward-based training methods to save dogs’ lives.
By Dan Raymer, CTC, BS
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54
This List will be updated occasionally to cover the most current dog training methods.
There will also be further explanations for dog training concepts in the future.
Overall Methods to Use
Positive reinforcement training – rewarding dogs for desirable behavior in order to increase the probability they will perform that behavior again.
Reward-based training – this refers to using primarily positive reinforcement, but also takes into account trainers may remove rewards or opportunities to perform a behavior for incorrect responses.
When training in this manner dogs learn very quickly via discrimination learning. They get rewards for correct responses, and no rewards for incorrect responses. It’s not aversive or harmful to dogs and it actually speeds up learning when they get some incorrect responses as it allows them to pinpoint what was correct.
Desensitization – exposing a dog to stimuli (things/events) at a level below his fear or upset-threshold, and increasing access or intensity towards the stimulus always under-threshold as the dog becomes comfortable at the current level.
Counter-conditioning – training a dog to accept something he has a negative view of by pairing the scary thing with rewards to create a positive association or emotional response towards it.
DRI (differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior) – this is a concept for teaching a dog with rewards to perform a behavior that is incompatible with an unwanted behavior. Some examples include:
- Sit-stay at the front door, instead of rushing through it.
- Pick up and hold a toy, instead of barking.
- Walk calmly on leash, instead of pulling.
- Stand next to people, instead of jumping on them.
Specific Training Techniques to Use
Each of these are positive reinforcement methods:
- Luring (or lure-reward training) – holding a treat (or a toy) to lure the dog into positions like sitting, lying down, standing, etc. Lures are usually faded or removed, so they are not required to do the behavior at the end of the process.
- Capturing – marking a behavior correct as the dog does it (with a clicker or other marker) and giving a reward. For example, a dog lies down, you mark it correct with a click, and reward with a treat.
- Shaping – rewarding behaviors in small steps, gradually working towards the final behavior. If the dog won’t lie down all at once, for example, you can reward him for sitting, then sliding feet out, then feet further out, until he finally lies down completely. This can be used with prompting (luring or targeting) or as a free-shaping technique (where you simply mark as correct and reward behaviors until you get the final one without any prompting or encouraging the dog to do the behavior).
- Targeting – teaching a dog to touch an object or thing, such as a target stick or your hand, which then can be used to teach other behaviors. Dogs will follow the target like a food lure. Targets are faded/removed so they are not required to do the behavior at the end of the process.
Types of Rewards and Equipment to Use
- Allowing dogs access to sniff something or
- Greet another individual
- Play with people or other dogs
- Providing a chance to go outside
- Gentle petting
- Marker or clicker training – to time correct behaviors with the mark/click and follow up with a reward to positively reinforce the behavior
- Using harnesses attached to leashes for walks – since these won’t (or are less likely) to damage the dog’s neck/trachea compared to other types of collars.
- Teaching dogs with rewards to accept veterinary or body handling procedures and grooming, baths, etc.
- Socializing puppies and dogs – pairing neutral or scary stimuli/things with treats to make them positive.
By Dan Raymer, CTC, BS