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What is "positive" training?

I have met with a frustrating number of people recently who confidently tell me that they used a "positive reinforcement" trainer, and when we go on to discuss the equipment they use they pull out a prong collar, choke chain, or shock collar. When we go on to discuss techniques, I hear about cans full of coins, air horns, and other objects used to scare or startle a dog. When I tell these potential clients that the techniques they are listing would not actually be considered 'positive' they are truly surprised, since they were told by the last trainer they hired that they trained positively.

The fact of the matter is that most people outside of the dog training world know that positive training is a good thing and what they should look for in a trainer, but don't actually have a concrete idea of what the word 'positive' denotes. They call a trainer up (a trainer who knows that potential clients are usually looking for "positive" trainers), ask if they're positive, the trainer says "yes! we use rewards!", omitting the fact that they also require a prong to be used, and then sign a new student up. This all happens because there are no legal standards to which dog trainers are held. No licensing, no necessary certification. Zippo, zilch, nada. I'm sure if you follow this blog or talk to me in person you've already heard me say this, but I truly believe it bears repeating. You must be your dog's advocate and protector. You are the only one who can be.

So, what is a real, concrete definition of positive reinforcement? First things first, let's talk about the definition of "positive reinforcement". In learning theory we don't use positive and negative as ethical or emotional terms, instead we use them mathematically. When we say positive, we mean we're adding something as a result of behavior. And reinforcement is anything that will cause an increase in behavior in the future. So, you're adding something that will likely increase the desired behavior in the future. If I'm a human, I'm positively reinforced for going to work when my paycheck hits my bank account (addition of money makes it more likely that I will continue going to work). If I'm a dog, and I learn that when I sit I get a cookie, I'm positively reinforced for sitting (the addition of a cookie makes it more likely that I'll sit in the future).

A positive reinforcement trainer will not use a prong, choke, or shock collar on your dog. They will not use startle or fear to train because we know that use of those tools does the dog and the owner a disservice, can damage the relationship, and can cause new, worrying behavior problems that were not there before. A positive reinforcement trainer will refer out to someone more experienced when they have reached the end of their knowledge, not reach for the nearest aversive tool to see if that works. Therein lies the difference between a true positive reinforcement trainer and a trainer who simply markets themselves as such. Just because a cookie follows the correction doesn't mean the training is positive.

Now, is there such a thing as "totally positive" or "100% positive"? No, there isn't. When modifying and creating new behavior one almost always has to use what is called "negative punishment" (it sounds so much scarier than it is!), which is removing (negative) something the dog likes to decrease (punishment) a behavior. This could be as simple as closing a door when a dog tried to go through before being released. That is simply a rule of learning. However, there is no necessity to intentionally apply something painful, scary, or uncomfortable to change behavior.

If you are looking to hire a positive reinforcement trainer and want to weed out any dishonest candidates, ask questions like "What equipment is required?", "What do I do if my dog gets it wrong?", and "Will you ask me to use a prong collar, choke chain, or shock collar on my dog?". It's pretty hard to be unclear when asked questions such as those above. Alternatively, you can look on the Pet Professional Guild Website where all trainers listed have had to prove that they are truly positive to be listed.

In the mean time, understand that dog training is based on hard science, not mysticism and woo. It's critical that we safeguard our dog's well being by using only the most ethical, highest standards in training. When talking to a trainer about how they'll handle your dog, if they even hint at the use of aversive practices, turn tail and find someone who knows what they're doing.


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