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Do training methods matter?

Methods of dog training have long caused questions in the dog training community. Below I scrape the surface behind the theory on how most animal training is done. Any sources I use are cited and referenced below.

Training methods can be broadly put into two categories: positive (reward based training) or aversive, (punitive training - using punishment in the form of pain and coercion as well as tools designed to cause pain or discomfort). Operant training is used by most animal trainers to develop a behaviour. It relies on an association being made between a behaviour and a consequence. If we want to increase a behaviour we need to reinforce it so the animal is inclined to perform the same behaviour. Consequently, if we want to reduce a behaviour punishment is used.

Learning theory state four quadrants of training for operant conditioning: Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment.

In the sense of the quadrants defined. Positive is the addition of something (positive does not mean good). Negative is the removal of something (it does not mean bad). Reinforcement is to increase the behaviour and punishment is to reduce it.


Positive reinforcement, is where we add something to increase the likelihood of the behaviour. (This is reward based positive training - as for this to work we have to add something of value, such as a treat. E.g., Lure a dog to sit, when their bum hits the floor we mark that moment and reward with a treat. The reward therefore increases the likelihood the dog will sit again under the same circumstances)

Negative reinforcement is the removal of something to increase the behaviour (aversive training, something bad is presented to the animal and only removed when they perform the desired behaviour. This time the dogs bum is pushed until it touches the floor when it does the had in released, being pushed into position as you can imagine is not on the dogs list of things it loves, and likely moves down to avoid the pressure put on it, the aversive pushing is then removed once the behaviour is met).

Positive punishment is the addition of something to reduce a behaviour (aversive, this can be physically pain eg, slip leads, choke chains, prong / electric collars, or something the animal dislikes/finds uncomfortable - e.g., noise bottles, water sprays. A dog is barking when it sees movement at the front of the house and they are shocked with an electric collar, the shock is highly aversive and will likely make the animal stop barking due to pain, discomfort or fear).

Negative punishment is the removal of something to reduce a behaviour (In the category of punishment it doesn’t necessarily mean bad and can be fairly effective and minimally aversive way of reducing unwanted behaviour. This may be simply removing attention from a jumping dog until they stop. They are after the attention but the behaviour of jumping up is unwanted. As soon as they stop jumping we can reward (positive reinforcement) this by giving our attention back.

Positive training is by no means a new concept, it has been used for behavioural modification in humans and animals alike. B.F. Skinner originated the idea in the 1930s when describing operant conditioning. Positive methods alone have been shown successful in training animals to perform behaviours and that teaching a behaviour can be done effectively with positive training (China, Mills & Cooper., 2020). Which questions as to why aversive methods are even considered appropriate in modern day training.

The dog training industry is so far behind that of all other animal sectors. Zoos can use positive training methods to train the likes of bears or tigers (wild animals that aren’t really know for their human social skills!) to present a body part to administer an injection. They are not forced or tranquillised to do this, but are taught to offer the behaviour by their own free will. (Laule, Bloomsmith & Schapiro, 2003; Pryor & Ramirez, 2014). reducing the animals stress considerably. Furthermore, positive training methods has been shown to be enriching for the animals, they are more likely to express natural behaviours and less aggressive behaviours (Spiezio, et al., 2017). If the methods can be used on carnivorous animals who would be considered a threat if we were close to them why is it not sufficient for training dogs who we have domesticated over centuries to coexist with us?

However, punitive techniques have been popularised by personality trainers for a long time because they seem to offer quick fixes making the trainers look like miracle workers. In reality they push the dog into learned helplessness a state of fear that makes them shut down emotions or behaviours. They also allow for the blame to be put on the dog as being “bad” when accountability should be put towards humans, who’s job it is on taking on the responsibility of a guardian to train and communicate to a dog how to effectively live in a human society.

A dog ‘trained’ under duress you could argue is not trained at all. For example, They are punished every time the behaviour is presented, so they stop the behaviour out of fear of reprimand. They haven’t unlearned the behaviour or learnt a better way, they merely suppress their natural urges. This manifests into a dog who fearful of doing wrong, something you can easily tell in their body language (Deldalle & Gaunet, 2014; Casey, et al., 2021). This should not be the outcome anyone wants for their pet. Furthermore, research has shown that this has a higher potential to display as aggression further in the dogs life (Casey, et al., 2014).

I use positive training methods only, that is because the animals welfare is at the forefront of my mind. I don’t believe in ‘owning’ a pet at the expense of the animals happiness. The human dog dyad is a special one, and by cultivating a relationship of mutual respect can lead to fascinating partnerships full of enjoyment. If it is possible to train force free then there is absolutely no reason to instil pain or discomfort whatsoever.

Finally I will leave a link to the animal welfare act (, but most importantly the most basic of animal needs defined by the five domains of freedom: these are

  1. Needs for a suitable diet - ensuring Food/Water needs are met

  2. Needs for a suitable environment - comfortable/quiet sleeping area.

  3. Need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns - sniffing on walks! Enrichment of food is also great for calming dogs

  4. Need to be housed with, or apart from other animals - depending of the sociality of the animal, but also the individual tolerance

  5. And last but not least! Need to be protected from pain, suffering and disease.

Number 5 tells us an animal under the protection of any guardian should be protected from pain and suffering. Aversive training and trainers cause pain or suffering to coerce the dog into behaviours they want without regards to the dogs welfare when this goes against the animal welfare act.

Do training methods matter? hell yes! and this needs to be addressed.


Casey, R.A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G.J. and Blackwell, E.J., 2014. Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, pp.52-63.

Casey, R.A., Naj-Oleari, M., Campbell, S., Mendl, M. and Blackwell, E.J., 2021. Dogs are more pessimistic if their owners use two or more aversive training methods. Scientific Reports, 11(1), p.19023.

China, L., Mills, D.S. and Cooper, J.J., 2020. Efficacy of dog training with and without remote electronic collars vs. a focus on positive reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, p.508.

Deldalle, S. and Gaunet, F., 2014. Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9(2), pp.58-65.

Laule, G.E., Bloomsmith, M.A. and Schapiro, S.J., 2003. The use of positive reinforcement training techniques to enhance the care, management, and welfare of primates in the laboratory. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 6(3), pp.163-173.

Pryor, K. and Ramirez, K., 2014. Modern animal training. The Wiley Blackwell handbook of operant and classical conditioning, pp.453-482.

Spiezio, C., Vaglio, S., Scala, C. and Regaiolli, B., 2017. Does positive reinforcement training affect the behaviour and welfare of zoo animals? The case of the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 196, pp.91-99.

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