Why I will only ever use reward based methods when training dogs

July 27, 2018

For those of you that have trained with me with your dog, you will be fully aware that I am very passionate about reward based training methods, and will never train any dog using force, intimidation or pain. The methods I follow are based in science, and play into how dogs learn. Dogs learn by association, but also by what works and what doesn’t. I don’t want any dog of mine, or any client’s dog, to do something because they are scared of what will happen if they don’t do it. I also don’t want any dog to be a robot, and feel they cant display their own personality because they are scared to put a paw out of place. Sadly, with aversive methods, this tends to be what happens.

Aversive methods are methods that use something that is specifically meant to cause fear, intimidation or pain in order to stop a dog behaving in a certain way, or in order to “teach” a dog to behave in a certain way. They can appear to work…but it is WHY and HOW they “work” that I have a problem with. I use the term “work” loosely because that dog has not learnt to voluntarily behave in a certain way, and perform a certain behaviour willingly and happily… they are simply trying to avoid an unpleasant or painful stimulus. To me, that is NOT training. That is intimidation.

With these methods, the dog is often set up so he or she performs the unwanted behaviour, and is then corrected for it. For the “correction” to stop the behaviour it has to be unpleasant for the dog. There is no way around that – if the dog enjoyed electric shocks, or yanks on the lead, then that dog wont learn to try and avoid that feeling. This leads to a dog behaving in a certain way (or avoiding behaving in a certain way) in order to avoid that unpleasant stimulus, and this in turn can also damage the relationship and the trust in their human….because that person is the one that causes that discomfort or pain to occur.

These methods usually tend to elicit one of 2 responses….the dog will either shut down, as they learn to suppress the behaviour to avoid the unpleasant stimulus…..or the behaviour can get worse.

If we take aggression as an example…most aggressive behaviour occurs because the dog feels scared. So by punishing them for communicating this feeling (by barking or lunging to keep that “threat” away) all they are learning is telling you they are worried is going to be punished. Their underlying emotions have not been changed….they are not learning a more positive emotional response to the trigger…they are just learning it isnt safe to express their emotions. That is a ticking time bomb.

The aggressive responses can also get worse and be focused on where they associate the unpleasant stimuli to be coming from in order to try and prevent it happening in the first place.

With simple training exercises, the dog is often forced into the position they are meant to be learning…..so their head may be forcibly angled up to the humans face, so eye contact is forced, in order to learn a “watch me”. Taking aside the fact that eye contact is very confrontational and intimidating in the dog world, so forcing our dog to make eye contact if they have no choice is extremely intimidating, eye contact and focus is such an important thing to encourage your dog to offer, but that is the key word – “offer”. There HAS to be choice. Engagement cannot be forced….your dog has to WANT to engage with you and check in with you. And apart from that, it is SO easy to teach without resorting to force!

Reward based methods, on the other hand, work in the opposite way…..we set the dog up to succeed in the first place, and then reward them for the behaviour that we like. The dog then learns that is is great doing things that we ask them to do, because they build a strong history of good things happening when they do do those things for us. Reward based methods build a strong foundation of trust between dog and handler. In order for dogs to learn a new behaviour, or in order for us to change a behaviour, it is important we minimise the amount of times the dog is practicing that unwanted behaviour. So by getting in there first, setting it up so the dog performs the behaviour we are looking for and THEN rewarding them for it….it is much easier for that dog to learn what we want….and learn it pays off to do it. The saying “its quicker with a clicker” is so true!

What kind of relationship would you prefer to have with your dog? One where your dog fears you and his main motivator for behaving in a certain way is to avoid something unpleasant? Or one where your dog has so much trust in you, and enjoys working with you because you have a great relationship? I know which one I want! We would not go to work if we werent paid at the end of each month……yet people still sometimes expect dogs to do what they ask with nothing to reward them or motivate them to perform that behaviour again. Reinforcers (they don’t have to be food…..they can be toys, praise…anything that your dog truly does LOVE) are your dog’s salary!

Occasionally people use the excuse that reward based methods wont work for that particular dog……for many reasons. But the fact is reward based methods work for ALL dogs. If they are not working then it will simply be because they are not being applied correctly, there may be an underlying health problem in the dog that is causing pain which is the motivation for the behaviour, or people are expecting too much too soon. Reward based, scientifically proven, ethical training methods work…they work for training simple exercises and behaviours, and they work for addressing more serious behavioural problems such as reactivity (aggression), and there is no much more to it than just feeding your dog treats!

If we teach a dog something using methods that invoke fear, frustration or stress, the dog will be internalising that emotion. For me it is SO important to give your dog choice, as this leads to a much stronger behaviour, a much stronger human-dog bond, and a much happier and relaxed dog all round! I can absolutely tell a dog that has been trained using reward based methods versus punishment based methods….the body language of the dog says it all.

Polite Paws July 2018

By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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