Updated: May 24, 2020
Last night was the most recent of many conversations I have had correcting many dog training myths. So I felt that it would be beneficial to address some of them here.
First it is important to understand that there is a fierce debate in the dog training world between traditional punitive (dominance and punishment-based) training methods and force-free (science-based) training methods. With this in mind, I am sure there will be many questions and even some that disagree with some of the content in this article. But, do not worry I will be writing articles addressing many of these in time to come.
I stand firmly in the camp of canine psychology and science based behaviourism, this has also been coined as, force-free. Having trained dogs (including my own) with both methodologies, I have first hand experience in the longevity of the training and the bond with my dog.
10 Common Dog Training Myths:
Dominance training is safer because it has quicker results.
1. There is more than one way to train a dog.
This is the trickiest one to answer, because frankly speaking, yes, this is true. You can train positively using canine psychology or you can train with intimidation and fear. (Within these two approaches, there are a lot of different tools and methods you can use.)
There are a few questions you have to ask yourself with regard to this:
What kind of person do you want to be and what kind of relationship do you want to have with your dog?
How do you or would you feel if someone were to keep you living in a state of fear so that you behave yourself?
Do you want your dog to do what you ask because of a strong bond, trust and the fact that he wants to, or do what you want them to do your bidding out of fear of what you may potentially do to them?
Punishment does work... for a while, if you scream, poke, yank, shock, kick or hit your dog, he will probably stop what he is doing, but the bond and trust will be broken and if you continue to intimidate him, you increase the potential for aggression, either directed at you, or redirected at someone or something else. If you want to have an emotionally balanced and confident dog that trusts and wants to be with you, the positive path is the one you should take.
So although there are more than one way to train your dog, it is down to you to chose which methodology you will use.
2. Positive training methods don't work on 'dangerous breeds' of dogs.
Actually, this is where clinical canine psychology based (positive reinforcement) methods are at their most powerful. Using this method on 'dangerous breeds' or severely aggressive dogs is not only a safer option, but also a much more effective one.
Force-free training does not only work on small dogs with minor obedience issues, it is also by far the most effective way to treat severe anxiety and aggression cases. I have successfully rehabilitated big, powerful dogs both mongrel street dogs and large breeds suffering from severe anxiety and aggression issues. Think of it this way, in an argument you are more likely to become even more confrontational if whoever you are arguing with shouts louder than you, pushes or strikes you. Fighting aggression with aggression results in someone eventually getting bitten or the dog going into an emotional shut down due to fear.
If you find yourself in a situation with an aggressive or very anxious dog, engage a qualified behaviourist who will be able to truly change the way your dog feels for the long term. This is done by being able to read and analyse why the dog is behaving in an aggressive manner. You can read more about the different kinds of aggression in the Noble Canine article, Aggressive Behaviour.
To handle canine aggression successfully, it needs to be handled sensitively and with compassion. Aggressive dogs are feeling incredibly anxious and stressed. Stress needs to be managed so that the dog can feel better while the behaviourist finds the cause of the aggressive response, only then can the dog and the owner work towards improving the situation. Instead of using forceful or using punitive methods, the dog is guided by using positive techniques that help him see the core of the aggression in a different light. Some dogs can be rehabilitated relatively quickly but for others it can take a while, which is why it is important to see every dog and every situation as unique.
3. Dogs only 'respect' leaders who assert 'dominance'.
Although we do need to be effective leaders to our dogs, the idea of dominance is very complex and most often misunderstood. Unfortunately, most of the time dog owners misunderstand the leadership their dog requires and go down the incorrect path.
Being a leader or the head of a family is not about being dominant, tough or the most aggressive. Think about a large family gathering of your own. Your grandfather may sit at the head of the table as the head of the family. But why? Surely one of your uncles could dominate the old man. They may well be able to but they don't out of respect for the leader of the family. Dogs are the same. Even in a pack of dogs the leader is not necessarily the most dominant of the group. The leader must be able to provide safety, security and those things which generally make them feel good. Aggression and dominant behaviour does not get this, a leader with knowledge and experience does. Dogs are not looking to be the head of the family, the alpha, the top dog or the pack leader. They know we're not dogs. As a species, dogs have been living along side us for tens of thousands of years. They prefer us to provide effective, non-combative and punishment-free leadership. Contrary to popular belief, we do not need to try and act like what we think an alpha wolf would do when dealing with our dogs, but rather provide consistent, reward-driven learning which helps guide dogs into making the right choices - the choices we want them to make in order to succeed in our world.
So do not get caught up in whether or not you or your dog has the upper hand in the battle for dominance. Focus instead on building a common language, rewarding the good behaviour, redirecting the bad behaviour, and instilling confidence in your dog to live successfully within the boundaries that you set for your household.
4. Positive trainers do not believe in discipline.
Most positive trainers do use discipline, in the form of vocal interrupters, calm down time-outs, ignoring negative behaviour, or removing something that the dog wants. All of which are used to guide the dog into making the right choices rather than forcing it to behave out of fear. In technical terms, such discipline is called “negative punishment” because it removes (negative = 'minus' or 'less') something that the dog likes, such as your attention, access to you, or a favourite toy. This is by no means to be confused with the term “positive punishment” which, though includes the word “positive,” is defined as punishing the dog by adding something to the equation that the dog does not like (corrections, physical force, or intimidation).
Dominance-based discipline uses force and hard punishment such as ‘alpha rolls' (when a dog is forcibly laid on its back and side and held down until it ‘submits’), ‘biting’ (where a person uses the tips of their fingers bunched together that are poked into a dog’s side in order to simulate a ‘bite’ that a dog would use to reprimand another dog), foot pushes (where a person uses the side of their foot or heel to prod or kick a dog when it is misbehaving), hanging (where a dog is hung by his collar until his air supply is cut off), and shock collars that deliver an electric shock when the dog misbehaves.
Anyone can get a dog to behave using punitive training but it takes a real understanding of dog psychology to use discipline effectively without inflicting pain or fear and to guide a dog into not repeating negative behaviour while maintaining trust between dog and person.
5. Training a dog with food is basically bribery.
"A dog should never be bribed into doing something for food but they should obey their owner."
Thinking that food is bribery means a misunderstanding of how powerful using food in training is. Food has the power to help a fearful or anxious dog overcome fears. When food is presented to a fearful dog in the presence of a stimulus that causes that fear or anxiety, the smell and taste of the food bypasses all other parts of the brain and goes straight to the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala. Instead of feeling fear, the brain begins to be overcome with not just the pleasurable feeling that food gives but also allows the dog to focus more on the good sensation and less on the negative emotion. Food is incompatible with fear and is therefore a valuable tool in modifying a dog’s fear, anxiety and stress.
Force-free methodology isn’t just about using treats. Dogs can be rewarded through a number of different medium - food, love, play and praise.
The bottom line is that a reward that motivates a dog to learn is a great training tool because learning not only makes a dog more confident and able to live successfully in a domestic environment, it also encourages mutual understanding that increases the human/animal bond.
6. Positive training stops working when you stop giving treats.
Any reward that is used to motivate the dog to learn has to be of high value until the dog is responding reliably. When training force-free, once this has been achieved, the high reward, such as food, is only used intermittently. That means the dog doesn’t get rewarded with the food every time he responds to a command/ cue, but the next time he responds he might just get it. Then the next couple of times he responds, a lower-value reward such as praise will be used, but the dog continues to respond.
In fact, intermittent reinforcement like this actually makes a dog respond faster and more reliably because it is based on the same theory that makes a slot machine in a casino so addictive. This is how dogs really learn. So even if you don’t give a food reward every time, the possibility of the potential of one in the future makes a dog work harder.
7. Aggressive dogs are trying to be dominant.
This is very rarely true. Dogs are not out to achieve world domination! Dominance theory relies heavily on the idea that if a dog is being aggressive, controlling or just behaving badly ,then it must be trying to dominate the owner. Although domination does happen in the canine world, it demonstrates a real misunderstanding of dog behaviour to label everything a dog does as an attempt to be the boss over a human.
If a dog is exhibiting controlling behaviour, there is a high chance that he has never been taught how to behave appropriately. If a dog hasn’t been taught how to function in a domestic environment, he will behave in the only way he knows how. He might control access to food, space or furniture by showing aggression to a human only because he is insecure and hasn’t been given the confidence to know that there is no need to guard these resources. Dogs guard and control for fear that they will lose access to their comfort not because they want to dominate their owner.
8. Dogs are pack animals like wolves and are hell-bent on becoming the 'alpha' or 'top dog' over their owners.
The dangerous but common misunderstanding about the concept of dominance and pack theory in dogs is based by and large on research collected from studies performed on a pack of unrelated, captive wolves in the 1970s. The results of these early studies suggested that there was a rigid hierarchy in which 'alphas' (leaders) had priority access to resources, forcefully maintaining the group structure through displays of aggression to others. Aggression which was brought about by a very unnatural circumstance. Because dogs are descended from wolves, (there are thousands of years and many generations removing dogs from wolves both genetically as a species and practically as our domestic companions), it was then assumed that similar social groupings and violent 'pack' dynamics must therefore exist among domestic dogs as well.
The biggest flaw in this thinking is that it tells us that dogs are always attempting to assume a very specific role of the leader of the household - that the animal naturally tries to take over and the human must regain control. Dogs actually offer submission to one another rather than aggressively staking claims of superiority. Any animal that would be in continual battle for leadership could not work as a team the way canines do.
9. Dominance training is safer because it has quicker results.
This ‘quick fix’ idea demeans a dog’s experience and is psychologically unachievable. A dog’s emotional brain is wired in exactly the same way as that of a human (a very close emotional and intellectual capacity as a 3-year-old human). So a dog's physiological response to emotion is the same as ours, which means that our bodies have the same internal reaction to emotions such as fear, joy, excitement etc. When a dog is suffering from anxiety or fear that provokes a negative behaviour such as aggression, it is dangerous and incorrect to assume that by punishing a dog, the dog is fixed.
If a human has an anxiety problem, chances are they will seek therapy to help them. That therapy does not work in one session (and it certainly didn’t in the past when therapies were punitive). It takes time to work through an anxiety and change the way a human feels about something. It is exactly the same for a dog because time is needed to really change the way a dog feels emotionally. Punitive training is a quick fix which does not solve the root of the problem. The dog will still feels the same inside if not more insecure for the punishment he has received for ‘behaving badly’.
10. Positive Training Is Always Slow
Positive training actually changes the way a dog feels, thus altering his tendency to make the undesirable choice. Once a dog learns to think for itself within the guidelines that we set for him, everyone is in for a far more harmonious, balanced and happy life experience. This can happen very quickly when applied properly.
That's not to say that more serious fear and anxiety-based behaviours don't take much longer to get under control, because much of the time, they do. But which would you rather - a quick solution which ignores the underlying issue with the large risk the behaviour will return, or a solution that takes longer because it addresses the root cause of the problem and is far more likely to truly change the dog's behaviour in the long term.
Every responsible dog owner wants what is best for their dog. This is why is a paramount that when deciding how you will train your dog, you are informed about what is true and what is fiction.