5 Dog Training Facts
The world of dog training can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t know where to start! There seem to be a lot of conflicting information on the internet, that you might see from celebrity trainers on TV, and even information in books. It’s confusing, and not ideal for someone searching for specific knowledge on the subject.
It is easy to get sucked into a whirlpool of information, filled with training lingo, methodologies, philosophies, theories, etc, and get stuck going in the same circles of not knowing what to do. So we’re going to stick to proven facts in this article
Dog training is a complex topic, but also has basic principles that are true in all cases, and are the pillars that training is built on. We also have great science and actual proof that is very clear about what kinds of training are best. It’s no longer esoteric philosophies and theories.
Facts of Dog Training
Fact 1: The Use of Punishment Creates Stress in Animals
Stress doesn’t create an effective learning environment. Putting more stress on an already stressed animal will not calm them. This is fact.
We can measure cortisol levels (stress hormone) in dogs after they have gone through something stressful. We can easily visually measure stress related body language, and this is a skill that we use in dog training to help owners train their dogs.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has written a wonderful position statement on this topic, and no surprise here, they are not in favor of punishment used to modify a dog’s behavior (in other words, dog training to change an emotionally based behavior in a dog). It is well known in the training community that punishment will often cause a dog mask body language warning signs when they are stressed, which can lead to aggression happening “out of the blue”.
The reality is that the punishment will never solve the underlying emotional issues causing the behavior issue. Stress doesn’t fix stress.
Another huge part of this is that a lot of the time, this stress manifests as fear.
Fact 2: Punishments Can Strengthen Undesirable Behavior
For punishment to it must be a consequence 100% of the time for a given undesirable behavior.
If a dog is punished for a behavior sometimes, but not each time, then those times that the dog is successful and has no punishment are Extremely rewarding to the dog. Even more so than if there were no punishment involved at all. So the unwanted behavior not only persists, but gets stronger over time.
In dog training we call this a intermittent reward schedule, and it is one of the most powerful tools in keeping a learned behavior strong.
Fact 3: Punishment Doesn't Teach What You Want
For example, let’s say you’ve got a dog with a jumping problem. It doesn’t matter how many times that dog is punished for jumping, he will not learn that you’d like him to sit nicely and calmly for greetings. The only thing that could teach him and change those behaviors for good is actually teaching him the alternate behavior that you’d like.
Along with many other negative consequences, this in my opinion is one of the worst because it pretty much ensures that a dog and owner will be stuck in a cycle of punishment. I don’t think that anyone wants to hurt their dog, and I truly believe that most owners, if they were taught how to get results from their dogs without fear, intimidation, or pain, would want to do so.
Fact 4: Reward Systems Drive All Behavior in All Animals
This includes humans!
When the consequence to a behavior is a reward, the behavior will be repeated. This is a fact across all species, and something that is easily replicated and proven. This is a fundamental principle of behavior, one that has driven the survival of all animals, and one that all good dog training uses.
For example, let’s talk about a hunting lion. Hunting is a complicated behavior with a low success rate (17-19% for a single lion). However, if a lion doesn’t hunt, they will die and be an evolutionary dead end. So the act of hunting must be a fulfilling behavior for the lion; if they were discouraged because of a lack of success, the hunting behavior would stop, and no more lion.
This is how all successful behaviors have been perpetuated with evolution. Fulfilling needs, like eating, drinking, hunting, seeking a mate, seeking safety, etc, all of them are driven by the end result being rewarding for the animal. In dog training this is the easiest system to use successful with a dog because we are already working with how they are inherently built as an animal.
Another example would be with zoo animals. All of them are taught how to cooperate to a certain degree with their keepers and vet staff. This is not done with punishment; many wild animals will attack if there is punishment involved! Cooperation in care would be impossible without the use of reward. And frankly, a tiger that is pissed off because they’ve been punished is going to be way harder to handle than one who is more placid due to training.
Fact 5: Good Dog Training Has Clearly Measurable Results
From one training session to the next there should be changes in behavior from the dog that we can measure. This could be a longer period of time before the dog reacts to a trigger. This could be the dog recognizing a cue more quickly. This could be you being able to move farther away from your dog before they break their stay.
The reality is that the dog will have a change in behavior, need less help from you to succeed, and show an understanding of what is being communicated by you.
The Caveat - Where Trainers Differ and Opinions Enter the Picture
It is my opinion that in dog training we as humans should strive to create safe and fun experiences for our dogs that do not involve pain, fear, or intimidation. You do not need any of these things to successfully train a dog.
I don’t think that it’s right to create fear or avoidance in an animal you’re trying to train. I don’t think that it’s humane to use methods that are primarily punishment based, especially when we have so much evidence that it’s not the best way to train and there are so many negative consequences possible when using punishment.
The negative consequences of using rewards don’t exist. If a dog gets an extra reward because of my error, or I fail to give him one, we are not creating additional behavior issue. There is no fear. There is no pain. Instead we have trust and safety, we have access to building a dog’s emotional state up into something positive around things they found threatening before. We can create joy, fun, and play. This is not possible by using a punishment based system. You will not generate “feel good” feelings in a dog about training with punishment.
For me as a trainer, I strive to do my best to humanely educate dogs and their people in a way that is not damaging to anyone involved. It’s a no brainer in my opinion, and this is the way I choose to train.
When you know there is success without negative consequences why choose any other way?