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The Power of Positive Training

by Paul Owens

Thirty years ago, I trained my first dog, a golden retriever named Tara. She participated in obedience competitions and was awarded “Dog World” scores, meaning that in three separate trials she scored over 195 points out of a possible 200. Competition trials measure precise response and performance in various exercises including sit, down, stay, come-when-called and heel. Like many dogs at the time, she wore a choke collar, and was trained with leash corrections. She was occasionally reprimanded by being shaken or pinned to the ground. No treats were ever used; there was, however, an abundance of praise. Over the next fifteen years, I taught thousands of people to train their dogs using these methods. The basic message was: “Do what I want and be rewarded with praise and petting, or suffer the consequences of being jerked, shaken or pinned to the ground.” Tara certainly “obeyed,” but she and I paid a price.

Trainers who use a combination of the negative and positive methods outlined above are sometimes referred to as traditional or “balance trainers.” Traditional training uses physical punishment as well as rewards to shape behavior. Praise, petting and life rewards (getting to chase a ball, go for a ride, tug a toy, etc.) are employed by many of these trainers, but choke, prong or shock collars are also frequently used and methods can include jerking the dog, pinning him to the ground and “scruff shakes.” Traditional trainers represent the vast majority of trainers in the world today. Three decades ago, I was one myself.

Negative trainers use severely abusive methods. These can include hitting (including the use of fists, newspapers, rubber hoses), kicking, extreme shocking, biting (both by the trainer and/or another dog), hanging the dog or holding him underwater until unconscious, and ear pinching. Many people, desperate to change their dog's behavior, feel that negative training is the only way to get him to obey. It is not. This brings us to the third group, the positive trainers.

The gentle touch

Over the past two decades, leading behaviorists and experts all over the world have been practicing a kinder, gentler approach to training even the most severely aggressive and frightened animals. Positive trainers use treats, praise, life rewards and affection almost exclusively. None of the physically aversive methods of traditional or negative training are ever used. But can positive training be effective, especially with difficult dogs and severe cases of aggression?

I stopped using negative methods over 15 years ago, and 50 percent of my practice deals with moderate-to-severe cases of aggression. Having trained thousands of dogs with both positive and negative methods, I have concluded that positive methods are not only more effective, they are safer, more humane and far less stressful for both dogs and humans.

Science seems to agree. A 2004 scientific study by the Department of Clinical Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol is one of several that strongly supports the value of positive training over punishment: “Because reward-based methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviors, we suggest that their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible alternative to punishment for the average dog owner.” *

Why does positive training work?

Nonviolence works.
How we train and interact with our animals is directly linked to how we interact with each other. Numerous studies have connected violent behavior toward animals with human-to-human violence. The reverse is also trued. Positive interactions with animals promote physical and emotional health and safety in human relationships.

Compassion, patience and consistency are used in the educational process. Positive trainers recognize every dog is different and learns at his or her own speed. They formulate programs to suit the physical and emotional limits of each dog. Many things affect a dog's behavior and reliability. These include breed, age, history, health, the trainer's consistency and skill., etc.

For example, although a young puppy can learn most any behavior in a few short sessions, behavioral reliability cannot be achieved until the dog reaches emotional maturity, which normally happens between one and one-half and four years of age.

Discipline is the key to the effectiveness of positive training. Positive trainers all use the NILIF leadership model: Nothing in Life is Free. Reliability is the goal, and training is strict, but is also fun. The message to the dog is this: I will never hit, kick, shock, shake or otherwise abuse you. But, if you want anything, you must do something for me first. Want to get petted? Sit. Want to go outside? Lie down. Want to say hello to another dog? Stay until I release you. Want to chase a ball? Go to your bed until I say “okay.”

Positive training also sets you and your dog up for success and safety. It makes positive associations so the dog looks at life as something friendly, thereby removing the need to be competitive or aggressive. Finally, positive training increases behavioral reliability through a strict but scientifically proven leadership program. You begin training at the point your dog is successful and step-by-step build to the point of reliability you have set as your goal.
This brief overview illustrates how positive training might be used to shape the beginning steps of a reliable “come-when-called”.

Start in a non-distracting environment. Rub the smell of a treat on your finger. Place your finger one inch from your dog's nose and say “come.” As soon as your dog touches your target finger, praise and give a treat from your other hand. Repeat this process, each time adding more distance, an inch at a time. This method is called targeting. In essence you are saying to your dog, “if you touch my finger with your nose, I will reward you.” This translates to “come.” Have family members and friends also practice, but each time someone new tries, that person should start from one inch away, just as you did. The rule is this: “If your dog won't do what you want her to do, go back to the point where she was last successful.” Practice saying the word one time only. Give your dog up to 30 seconds to figure it out. If she's doesn't, return to the distance where she was last successful and incrementally add more distance.

When your dog gets top the point where he will run across the room and touch your finger as soon as you put it down by your side, add more challenges. The are referred to as the 3 D's, and stand for duration, (length of time), distance and distractions. In our example, we are adding distance with a little bit of distraction.

Show your dog the treat, then give it to a friend or family member to hold. Now put your hand one inch from the dog's nose and say come, as you practiced before. As soon as your dog turns his head to touch your finger, say “good” and have your friend stick a treat in your dog's mouth as quickly as possible. Make sure your hand is only one inch away and your friend is holding the treat at least a foot away, on his chest for example. Gradually add more distance so your dog has to walk ten feet away and each time return to your friend to be rewarded. It's like a Zen koan: “to get the treat, he must leave the treat.” When your dog does this successfully, he is now at the sixth grade level for “come-when-called”.
If you expect your dog to turn on a dime when you call, even when she is 40 yards away, or running at full speed after a squirrel, you will need to take her through the canine equivalent of elementary school, then high school, college, and finally to the PhD level this response represents.

Positive training is a step-by step process. It is made effective by:

  • setting you and your dog up for success and safety
  • making positive associations so the dog looks at life as a nice place to be, hence removing the need to be competitive or aggressive
  • increase behavioral reliability through positive training and a strict leadership program. You begin training at the point your dog is successful and build to the point of reliability you've set as your goal.
If you decide to use a trainer trainer, ask to observe a class and see what methods he employs. Observe how he speaks to the handlers. If a handler or dog is confused, listen and watch to see if the trainer offers optional techniques, encouragement and patience. If a trainer says you cannot watch while he trains, I suggest you take your dog and run the other way.

Physical punishment and aversive training methods are simply not necessary and do nothing to promote or foster safety, patience, kindness and compassion. A gentle, positive approach will make life much richer and happier for you and your dog.

About the Author:
Paul Owens
Author: The Dog Whisperer DVD and the book: The Dog Whisperer,
A Compassionate Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training
Certified by The Association of Pet Dog Trainers
Endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors
Director: Raise with Praise, Inc. Dog training

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