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5 Reasons Dog Training Is Increasingly Shifting Positive

The societal changes that make positive reinforcement dog training more popular.

These days, more and more people are using reward-based methods to train dogs. Here are five reasons why this shift is likely to continue.

It’s an important shift because the discussion of dog training methods is not purely philosophical. There is now a wealth of canine science to draw on that shows using aversive methods (such as shock collars, prong collars, hitting the dog, and leash corrections) has risks, such as the risks of fear, anxiety, stress, aggression, and a worse relationship with the owner (e.g., Herron et al 2009; Rooney and Cowan 2011; Ziv, 2017; Vieira de Castro et al 2019). As well, some studies suggest that positive reinforcement is more effective to train dogs than aversive methods; for example, positive reinforcement works better than a shock collar to teach dogs to come when called (China et al 2020).

So it’s great news for dogs that more and more people are using reward-based methods. Five changes in how we think about animals in general—and dogs in particular—suggest this trend will only increase.

1. We now know that good animal welfare includes positive emotions

The lens with which we consider dog training methods has changed. These days, good animal welfare isn’t just about preventing cruelty (although that’s obviously still important). On top of that, we know that for good animal welfare, dogs need to have opportunities for positive experiences (Mellor, 2016; Mellor et al 2020). And reward-based dog training is one way to provide a positive experience: it is fun, the dog gets to enjoy nice food rewards (or play), it is cognitive enrichment, and it’s a pleasant experience with the person doing the training.

2. Because dogs are family

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Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

Increasingly, people think of their dog as a family member. In homes everywhere, dogs are allowed to relax on settees with their owners and to cuddle on their beds at night, something that old-fashioned dog trainers used to say is verboten (but is actually a personal choice). We recognize the important role that pets play in our lives and that our relationship with them is like a family member. And it just doesn’t feel right to shock a family member or to deliberately inflict pain or fear on them in the name of training. This shift means many people have an automatic aversion to aversive training methods.

3. Dog lovers know more about dogs

Just as scientists know more about dogs, so too do people who love dogs. These days, canine science is news. Studies of dog training methods get media coverage around the world in magazines like Science, as do the amazing things dogs can be trained to do (like sniffing out COVID). Coverage of the pandemic even includes articles on how to help pets cope. In turn, these articles are shared by dog lovers on social media. And even if there’s still a long way to go, the quality of information about dogs on the internet and in books is improving. Coupled with the shift to thinking about dogs as family, people not only want more for their dogs—but know more about what their dogs need.

4. Good dog trainers are better educated than ever

Dog training is unregulated, which means that all anyone needs to do to call themselves a dog trainer is to say that’s what they are. But more and more dog trainers have an education that has taught them how to use reward-based methods. They stay up-to-date on what canine science is telling us about dog training and animal behavior. They attend conferences and workshops (virtually for now) where they learn from other dog trainers, animal behavior experts, scientists, and veterinary behaviourists. Some of them even become canine scientists themselves. All of which means there are more dog trainers who are competent in using reward-based methods.

5. Reward-based dog trainers are easier to find

It used to be that if there wasn't a good dog trainer in your town, you were stuck deciding whether to struggle on your own or risk trying a trainer whose methods you did not agree with. But now, unlike in the past, if there isn’t a good reward-based dog trainer in your neck of the woods, you can find someone online who is doing virtual consults. Perhaps this is one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic. It turns out that virtual consults work really well, and so people have a wider choice of dog trainers than ever before.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to do, and many issues that affect dogs’ welfare. But at least as far as training goes, it feels like there is a definite shift in approach. We can still find examples of training that involves fear and pain—but wherever it happens, people are speaking up.

As I’ve said in many interviews since the publication of my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, I think everyone wants their dog to be happy (See: Why dogs' happiness, not obedience, is what counts). Using positive reinforcement in training is one of the most important things you can do for your dog. An increased awareness of this is great news for dogs, and also for their guardians.

References

China, L., Mills, D.S. & Cooper, J.J. (2020) Efficacy of dog training with and without remote electronic collars vs. a focus on positive reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508.

Herron, M.E., F.S.Shofer and I.R. Reisner (2009) Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesirable behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117:47-54.

Mellor DJ (2016). Moving beyond the "Five Freedoms" by Updating the "Five Provisions" and Introducing Aligned "Animal Welfare Aims". Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 6 (10) PMID: 27669313

Mellor, D.J.; Beausoleil, N.J.; Littlewood, K.E.; McLean, A.N.; McGreevy, P.D.; Jones, B.; Wilkins, C. The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including Human–Animal Interactions in Assessments of Animal Welfare. Animals 2020, 10, 1870.

Rooney, N.J. and S. Cowan (2011) Training methods and owner-dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132:169-177.

Todd, Zazie (2020) Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Greystone Books.

Vieira de Castro, A. C., Barrett, J., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2019). Carrots versus sticks: The relationship between training methods and dog-owner attachment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Ziv, G. (2017) The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs – a review. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 19:50-60.

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