Dog Gone Good
Positive-only training – how positive is it really? Part 1
By Mike Wombacher
I was 20 years old when I got my first dog, a gorgeous male German shepherd. That was back in the early ’80s. Knowing nothing about dogs, I enrolled in a local dog training class during which I learned, among other things, how to get him to sit by yanking up on his neck and pushing his rear end down, and “rewarding” him with a release of pressure when his butt hit the ground. Even then, this seemed inherently unfair to me – punishing the dog for something he had never properly learned how to do.
Since those days, much has changed in the world of dog training. Largely as a response to this “yank and jerk approach,” a new generation of more thoughtful and sensitive trainers emerged, using positive reinforcement techniques largely gleaned from the world of marine mammal training. When I embarked upon my training apprenticeship 15 years ago, this was the world I entered, and it was a much happier place than the old one with its military-style training approach inherited from the WWII generation.
As I began my apprenticeship, I was fortunate enough to work with someone who was fully versed in every aspect of training – from clickers and treats to conventional training collars to electronic collars – and who had an in-depth understanding of the behavioral psychology of dogs. From him I learned, over the course of nearly a year, how to use all these methods intelligently and humanely in support of behavior modification. The emphasis was always on maximizing the positive, minimizing the negative, all the while being realistic and aiming for comprehensive results in a timely fashion. This remains my motto to this day.
In the years since then, the field of dog training has continued to change, and what is greatly in vogue these days is something called “positive-only” training, an extreme approach laden with hyper-aggressive political correctness. In this training philosophy, it is never okay to reprimand a dog or be physically assertive for any reason. For instance, according to this mode of thinking, if your dog barks you ignore it until it stops and then reward it with a treat. If your dog is peeing on your carpet, you say nothing (you wouldn’t want to scare him), but simply give him a treat when he goes potty outside. You ignore bad behaviors and positively reinforce good ones. While obviously absurd (by not reprimanding a dog at appropriate times you are depriving him of important information necessary for learning), such thinking might be humorous if the long-range consequences were not so profoundly negative, especially when dealing with problem dogs.
A few years ago, I was invited to speak at the statewide Animal Care and Control Conference. During my time there, I had the opportunity to talk with two directors of animal care and control organizations, both of whom told me that since the advent and rising popularity of positive-only training methods (not a balanced approach emphasizing positive methods) they had seen an upsurge in shelter surrenders of out-of-control adolescent dogs. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence of what I consider an enormous problem; however, these people do know their jobs.
Their experience lines up directly with my own. On average, I get three to five private clients per month who are dealing with issues of aggression in their dogs and who have spent many months (and many dollars) working on their issues with positive-only trainers. Uniformly, when the training approach didn’t work, they were told one of two things: “You’re not working hard enough – your dog needs ten-thousand repetitions of this exercise,” or “Your dog is untrainable.” This last conclusion was occasionally coupled with the suggestion to euthanize their dog.
Imagine their surprise when, in every case, we were able to resolve their problems reliably within five visits or less. Remember, some of these people were on the verge of putting their dogs down.
It is instances such as these that demonstrate the need for a balanced approach to training that includes psychological methods of rank management and relationship building, a heavy emphasis on positive reinforcement, and an understanding and appropriate use of compulsion (force). They also demonstrate what I consider the moral bankruptcy of an ideological and unwavering commitment to positive-only training. A good trainer should first and foremost be interested in what combination of approaches will quickly and humanely resolve their client’s situation, not simply in promoting a particular training ideology regardless of the results.
There are many cultural and psychological reasons for this state of affairs (the subject of my fourth book, on which I am currently working), and space constraints prevent me from exploring them further here. But depending on your response, I might delve into this hot topic again in the coming months. We will continue the discussion of positive-only methods next month. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about your dog’s behavior, please send them to me at email@example.com. I will do my best to answer them, and I will feature some of them in upcoming columns.
Mike Wombacher offers dog training classes at Bow Wow Meow and Muttley Crew in San Francisco – find out more by visiting www.doggonegood.org.