Conversely, there has been a rise in "100 percent positive training" - this is based on the idea that shaping a dog's consequences using positivity, usually food or toys, can successfully train your dog and make them a better companion while never putting any stress on them. Obviously, when you read this on a website, it sounds nice, but does it work?
Simply, it makes for a pretty performance.
If you are training for competition, agility or otherwise, you should be training with mostly positivity, because this will create a pretty performance – dogs that appear enthusiastic to heel, sit, down, come, etc. Move with more pep and zeal than those trained with compulsion (making the dog do something). Often times you will see dogs trained by compulsion do just enough to avoid a bad consequence – they can plod their way through commands and may make more mistakes because training is stressful and a stressed brain often fails.
Training a dog with treats is often times lightning fast. You can teach a basic sit, down, stand sequence in minutes with the right dog.
So why not all positivity?
Training with all positive methods has its disadvantages for sure.
- It's more difficult than people think. Average pet owners, and many inexperienced positive trainers, will lure a dog with food far too long and create food dependency. Any tool can create food dependency, but carrying around food all the time can be very difficult – and if your dog isn't hungry or sees something more compelling than a treat, you have lost your advantage – the dog's ability to be motivated. Then what?
- Dog obesity is a real problem. If you have an overweight dog, adding a lot of treats to the equation will exacerbate your problem. Smart treat trainers will portion out the dog's daily food and use that, but that's not as powerful as something like a hot dog that trainers or owners will use in high distraction situations, like a class.
- Creating pep and enthusiasm is not always what a pet dog owner wants. More traditional or compulsion based trainers will often tell a story about dogs that are aces on the training field or the obedience ring, but a nightmare to live with at home – they're always "on" and looking for ways to make you deposit treats or toys.
- Treat training exploits an addiction. If you're a good treat trainer, you're going to hook your dog on treats or a toy and fade out the reward once you've created sufficient "drive" (trainer word for motivation). Once you've done that, the trainer should only present rewards for awesome responses from the dog (like giving a salesman a quota and when he hits it, you double his quota to make him work harder). The same psychology that goes into treat training is the psychology that makes slot machines so addictive. You want the dog to keep pulling the mechanical arm and give him a pay out often enough to keep him playing. That's not always the healthiest mindset.
- Dogs need negative consequences too. Bad consequences are motivating. If you think about what motivates you, it's probably not entirely positive consequences. You might do the dishes to avoid an argument with your significant other. You do a good job at work so you don't get fired and lose your house. Your kid comes home on time so he doesn't get grounded. Dogs and humans seek the good and avoid the bad
- People who claim to be "100 percent positive trainers" usually aren't. Most people will make a sound of disapproval when a dog does something wrong. I've seen positive trainers at Petco use leash pops or corrections. Victoria Stillwell, a renowned dog trainer known for using positive methods, locked a husky in a dank basement (solitary confinement) for jumping on people.
Training is an Art as well as a Science
Positive reinforcement is essential to dog training. But it's not perfect. As a trainer, my job is to find an approach that is going to make the dog's life better as well as the lives of his owner.