By Dr. Becker
A growing collection of recent studies is proving that positive reinforcement training of dogs is much more effective and ultimately successful than training involving dominance and punishment.
Some of the studies even demonstrated that training involving punishment actually created additional problem behaviors – certainly an outcome no dog guardian deliberately sets out to achieve.
Behavior Training That Hurts Rather Than Helps
A study titled “The importance of consistency in the training of dogs”1was conducted at the University of Southampton in the UK and the University of Life Sciences in Norway. It was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research in May 2007.
The purpose of the study was to determine whether punishment was a risk factor for problem behaviors, and the combined effect on obedience and specific problem behaviors of reward, punishment, attitudes and rule structure. Rule structure is defined as permissiveness vs. strictness, and consistency in applying rules.
The study showed that punishment correlates negatively with obedience and positively with training problems. Rule structure, including consistency of the owners, was associated with higher levels of obedience and less training problems.
In another study conducted at the University of Bristol in the UK and published in the September-October 2008 Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research2, results suggest dogs trained only with positive reinforcement exhibited fewer problem behaviors. And dogs whose owners used punishment in training were much more likely to show a fear response to other dogs.
Additional Positive Reinforcement Training Studies
- A study titled “Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog”3 and published in March 2010 showed that increased anxiety and fear was related to a more frequent use of punishment in smaller dogs.
The researchers concluded smaller dog owners can significantly improve obedience in their pets by being more consistent in interactions and engaging regularly in play and training activities with them. Behavioral problems could be reduced by avoiding habits of punishment that might reinforce fear or fear-related aggression.
- In a “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors”4 conducted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and published in early 2009, confrontational methods applied by dog owners before their pets were presented for a behavior consultation were associated with aggressive responses.
The researchers concluded it is important that owners understand the risks associated with such training methods as “hit or kick dog for undesirable behavior” … “growl at dog” … “physically force the release of an item from a dog's mouth” … “alpha roll” … “stare at or stare [dog] down” … “dominance down” … “grab dog by jowls and shake.” These confrontational methods elicited an aggressive response from at least a quarter of the dogs on which they were attempted.
- In a paper published in 2004 by researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK5, it was determined that in the general dog-owning population, dogs trained using punishment are no more obedient than those trained by other means, and, furthermore, they exhibit increased numbers of potentially problematic behaviors.
Because reward-based methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviors, their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible alternative to punishment for the average dog owner.
Positive Reinforcement Dog Training in 5 Simple Steps
The goal is to use very small-sized treats (pea sized is good, and you can even use frozen peas if your dog seems to like them) and verbal praise and affection to encourage desired behaviors in your dog.
- Come up with short, preferably one-word commands for the behaviors you want to teach your pet. Examples are Come, Sit, Stay, Down, Heel, Off, etc. Make sure all members of your family consistently use exactly the same command for each behavior.
- As soon as your dog performs the desired behavior, reward him immediately with a treat and verbal praise. Do this every time he responds appropriately to a command. You want him to connect the behavior he performed with the treat. This of course means you’ll need to have treats on you whenever you give your dog commands in the beginning.
- Keep training sessions short and fun. You want your dog to associate good things with obeying your commands. You also want to use training time as an opportunity to deepen your bond with your pet.
- Gradually back off the treats and use them only intermittently once your dog has learned a new behavior. Eventually they’ll no longer be necessary, but you should always reward your dog with verbal praise whenever he obeys a command.
- Continue to use positive reinforcement to maintain the behaviors you desire. Reward-based training helps create a range of desirable behaviors in your pet, which builds mutual feelings of trust and confidence.