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Do You Really Want To Use Only Positive Training Techniques?

dog training Indianapolis

This post was written by our friend Melissa R. Shyan Norwalt, Ph.D., CAAB


Recently, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a conference to professional animal caretakers.  The topic they asked for was “Positive Training Techniques.” Now, the term “Positive Training Techniques” has become very popular.  Obedience trainers list it in their ads, veterinarians discuss it with owners, popular TV trainers will use the term. The thinking seems to be that, if we only reward our animals for good behavior and ignore the bad behaviors, the animals will behave correctly.  I was struck by this speaker’s topic request because, as any good behaviorist (and any parent) knows, behavior is just not that simple.

In these times, when many people think of their pets as more than animals (and I do so myself, don’t get me wrong), when pet food companies are selling their products on TV with phrases like “They’re just not your pets, they’re your family), it might be a good time to compare how we discipline pets and how we discipline children.  Scientific studies of parenting style suggest that combinations of nurturing (affection) and discipline (enforced rules) produce the best outcomes.  Now, I am not trying to tell people how to raise their children.  I’m trying to draw analogies between parenting style and pet-management style.  Misconceptions about “Positive Training” lead to behavior problems and this analogy may help our understanding.

In 1978, Baumrind1 developed a parenting style model, (although we all know people in all four categories below who “beat the odds” and succeed,  or “ignore the opportunities” and fail) which looks like this:

Parenting Styles

High Discipline Low Discipline
High Nurturing Authoritative (Rules/Flexibility) Permissive (No Rules/Flexibility)
Low Nurturing Authoritarian (Rules/No Flexibility) Neglecting (Nothing)

“Nurturing” means how much love and affection the parent gives.  “Discipline” means how much guidance and rules, as well as punishment (negative consequences for inappropriate behavior) the parent gives.

A) Authoritative parents (High-D, High-N) provide rules and enforce them, but also supply lots of affection.  They recognize that sometimes exceptions should be made for rule-breaking, and discuss the issues with their children.  Research shows that children of authoritative parents tend to have High Success and High Self Esteem as adults.

B) Authoritarian parents (High-D, Low-N) provide rigidly enforced rules, with no exceptions and  no discussion, and don’t show much affection.  Research shows that children of authoritarian parents show High Success but Low Self Esteem as adults.

C) Permissive parents  (Low,-D, High-N) provide little rules and lots of love.  Research shows that, as adults, these children have High Self Esteem, but Low Success—as they tend to have poor self-discipline and blame their failures on others.

D) Neglecting Parents (Low-D, Low-N) provide nothing to their children.  These children raise themselves, or find others to raise them.  They have a tough time succeeding and a tough time with self-esteem.

So what does this say about training (parenting?) style for pets.  In brief, Authoritative styles work best.  Pets need to be trained to understand what they are doing right, but also what they are doing wrong.  This does NOT mean a return to choke chains, jerking dogs, hitting animals, or other such physical punishments.  But a loud, stern “NO,” a disruption of undesired behaviors (grab a dog’s collar and pull him away…, give the biting cat a five minute time-out in the bathroom), as well as praise, petting, and rewards for good behaviors, works best.  Animals NEED positive training—they need to know what they are doing right as well as wrong.  But they also need consistent guidelines to learn what not to do.

So next time someone mentions “Positive only Training Techniques,” raise an eyebrow, tilt your head and think “Hmmm… is this a permissive pet parent? Just how successful is their pet?”


1Baumrind, D. (1978). Parental disciplinary patterns and social competence in children. Youth & Society, 9 (3), 239-251.

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  • Qtrhrsrdr87

    There is nothing wrong with a choke collar used properly.  If it were in humane do you really thing the AKC would allow it in their show rings.  A lack of discipline is why there are so many ill behaved dogs and children in this world.  I would rather do a stern correction on my dog and fix the behavior then and there than risk it hurting itself or someone else.

    • http://www.leospetcare.com/ Greg Magnusson, DVM

      Hiya! Thanks for reading! I’m just a generalist vet and NOT the behaviorist who wrote this article. However, as my esteemed colleague pointed out, using ONLY “stern correction” may create a successful dog, but not a dog with high self esteem, which is helpful in encouraging great behavior in unfamiliar situations. Note also that Dr. Shyan-Norwalt DID say it’s OK to pull a dog’s collar to disrupt behavior, but that adding a CHOKE to this movement is unnecessary and counterproductive.

    • mshyan

      Thanks for posting!!! You make a good point.  For persons who KNOW HOW to use a choke chain correctly, a choke chain is a useful tool.  As I’m sure YOU know (but many don’t), a dog trained correctly to a choke chain learns that the rattle of the links through the loop predicts a “pop” to the neck.  It hears the rattle and stops the undesired behavior early, so the pop becomes unnecessary.  This is called “Classical or Pavlovian conditioning avoidance behavior” and is very successful once learned. 
       
      HOWEVER, in my experience (and I’m guessing you’ve made your own similar observations), most people don’t know how to teach this signal to their dog.  Just how many persons have you seen using choke chains where the dog is constantly pulling and choking itself?  The person pulls and pulls and the dog pulls and pulls and coughs and coughs and nothing changes.  Because choke chains require some level of  “talent” or skill to use correctly, we are trying to move people away from them. (Also, a choke chain is easier to turn into an abusive instrument than some other systems–not that other systems can’t create abuse as well…)
       
      Other tools like Gentle Leaders, Haltis (both of which require training the person, too….) proper walking harnesses and such are easier for the average person to use.  They are also harder for people to abuse (although it can be done).  So, while trying to make the point that dogs need discipline as well as love in my blog, I will continue to advocate other means of control, instead of choke chains.

      Thanks for reading! 

  • Kina Knoch Gilmack

    Love this, Thanks for posting!

  • Dana Bookman Harness

    Such a great article…she really SHOULD tell people how to raise their children. The “positive reinforcement” technique has been applied to children in excess as well which is why there is a whole generation of do-nothings out there now (but they certainly have high self-esteem!)

  • Pamela Topping

    Aargh! I tried the ignore the bad stuff 10 years ago and it just prolonged everything. I wholeheartedly agree that you need balance between old and new techniques. It also needs to vary depending on the dog’s personality and genetics. What works with a Lab may not work with a Whippet.

  • http://www.smartdoguniversity.com/ Laurie Luck

    We’re on our 15th service dog raised using “only positive” training. We’ve seen great success with clicker training and have found great research that supports the training. With science to back up our success, it’s really quite a fulfilling career.

    The agency I raise and train dogs for uses clicker training exclusively — from the puppies to the advanced training to the transfer camp with the disabled client.

    We’ve been raising different breeds for well over a decade using clicker training and we haven’t yet found the need to introduce corrections (or aversives or punishers).

    Service dogs have a very important job to do. Their partner relies on their solid, reliable training to help them get through their daily life.

    Interestingly, the research is now showing support for positive only training, as well. Thankfully, canine cognition is becoming a very researched area of study — and we’re learning more every day.

    I strongly encourage you to check out Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz: Professor at the University of North Texas, Graduate Program in Behavior Analysis. Check him out in a Google Scholar search to see the *current* research (not outdated “balanced” recommendations).

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