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What does it mean to be a positive reinforcement dog trainer?

I recently came across a tiktok video of a trainer who claimed to be "training" a dog, when in reality she had a very distressed dog on a slip leash (a leash designed to tighten around the neck without stopping) and was pulling up on the leash to cut off the struggling dog's airway.

I know that that is disturbing to read, and I am sorry if it's upsetting. but that is exactly what happened in this video. And when the dog stopped struggling, the handler relaxed tension on the leash, claiming that the dog was now "calm". I went to this "trainer's" profile, aghast at what I just saw, and the first words in their social media bio were "positive dog training".

I am not being hyperbolic when I say my jaw LITERALLY dropped. I am not sure if this person was being intentionally dishonest or just obtuse, but this person calling herself a positive dog trainer just could not be further from the truth. So I decided I would write something up in the hopes that maybe I could help to educate folks on what, exactly, positive reinforcement dog training is, and how to know if the trainer you are looking into is actually a trainer who uses positive reinforcement training.

Now here's a puppy picture to cleanse your palate:

A mixed breed puppy on a boat
My dog Phoebe! She has learned tons through the use of positive reinforcement!

So, what exactly IS positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning; operant conditioning is the process by which all animals learn through consequences. When an animal (including a human!) does something and the consequence is reinforcing, that animal continues to offer that behavior. When the animal does something and the consequence is punishing, the animal offers that behavior less. Positive reinforcement training is training that is rooted in the principle of rewarding behaviors that we like so that we see an increase in those behaviors in the future.

Three young dogs and a dog trainer at a group class
Here I am rewarding some boisterous labs for keeping 4 paws on the floor!

Positive reinforcement is not JUST training that is "nice" to dogs. I think since "positive" in the general sense means something good emotionally, people sometimes think that positive reinforcement is just a way of saying "oh that trainer is nice". But it's not that simple. Positive reinforcement is a scientific procedure, and in order for positive reinforcement to actually be taking place we have to see an increase of the target behavior in the future after a reinforcer was used. If we're not seeing an increase in the target behavior, than the application of positive reinforcement actually didn't happen (even if we think we gave the dog something pretty nice!)

So, what is positive reinforcement TRAINING and why does it matter?

Positive reinforcement training is training that primarily uses positive reinforcement to change behavior. The other things commonly used by a positive reinforcement trainer include management ( an environmental change that will prevent the dog from rehearsing the undesired behavior), increased enrichment and exercise to reduce problem behaviors, and sometimes judicious and careful use of negative punishment (negative punishment is NOT inherently "bad" like it sounds; it simply means removing something the dog is trying to get to reduce behavior in the future). Positive reinforcement trainers purposely avoid using anything that teaches primarily through discomfort, pain, or stress (things like choke chains, prong collar, electric collars, spray bottles, loud noises). The reason we avoid using tools like this is because they carry potential side effects including the suppression of natural and healthy behaviors, decreased welfare, and the potential creation of fear, anxiety, and aggression.

Why it's sometimes confusing to know if a trainer

is a positive reinforcement trainer

Well, first of all, it's because dog training is a completely unregulated industry. There is no licensing body, no central governing agency that clarifies best practices in dog training and what does and doesn't pass as good training. Many trainers are mostly self taught, cobbling together an education from books, seminars, ands if they're lucky some sort of mentorship. If the trainers are not self taught, they may have attended a variety of different dog training academies and again, the information gleaned from these academies can be hit or miss depending on the program. Some programs are fabulous (I'm particularly biased towards the two programs I went through) while some programs were created in the early 90's and haven't been updated since, which is an absolute shame!

This variety of different educational backgrounds means that some trainers really know their stuff, and others... don't. This doesn't stop them from opening up shop though! For every great dog trainer out there who enriches and improves the lives of the clients and dogs they work with, there are dozens of trainers who are doing harm to their clients whether it be due to ignorance, negligence, or both.

A husky puppy stands on a scooter in a group dog training class
A picture from the height of Covid times! Ukko the husky got to learn about the scooter at our classes!

Some old school trainers who don't know any better have started using food in addition to the old fashioned tools they've "always" used and calling what they're doing positive reinforcement training. But just because you're following a collar correction with a cookie does not make your training methodology one that uses positive reinforcement!

I also think that many trainers who use old fashioned methods to train have realized that most pet parents today are actively looking for positive reinforcement trainers. Society at large has started to catch up with the most recent science in training, and people are starting to understand that their dog doesn't need them to use a heavy hand or show them "who's boss" in order to change their behavior. And because of this, some trainers have started to change their marketing message ("we use positive reinforcement!") without actually changing their methods (i.e. still using primarly collar corrections and physical pressure to "make" the dog do what they want, and maybe tossing them a cookie and a pat on the head every once in a while if the dog is lucky).

I may sound like a total pessimist when I say this, but yes, I absolutely believe that some dog trainers who have trained for a long time and are not very kind to dogs are being dishonest with pet parents so that they can keep their business going without actually having to update their methods. If you say you use positive reinforcement and the general public doesn't really know how to tell if that's true or not, it's the rare dog owner who will question and push back against someone they're trusting as an "expert".

This is why, in my next blog post, I'll be going more in depth into things that positive reinforcement trainers DO do, things they won't do, and red flags to be on the look out for!

If I can keep just one pet parent from hiring a trainer thinking that they use positive reinforcement when in fact they use old fashioned, inhumane training methods, then these posts will have been worth it.


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