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Monthly Archives: June 2012

What is Positive Training?

There are as many answers to that question as there are dog trainers.  But, there are also some hideous techniques described as “positive” when they are anything but positive from the dog’s perspective, and isn’t that really the criteria by which we need to judge?  After all, how would you like to have something quite aversive happen to you, only to be told that it was actually positive?  If you think that’s all right to do to dogs, would it be all right if you were an arachnophobe to have someone force you to hold a spider in your hands all the while trying to convince you what a positive experience you were having?

Dog training is fraught with all kinds of people, because it is an unregulated profession.  Want to train dogs and make money?  Hang a shingle because that’s how easy it is.  So, the next time someone tells you they are a trainer and they want you to try a particular technique on your dog that sounds as if it isn’t very positive, question their judgment the same way you would if they told you to pour sugar into your gas tank.  If the technique involves shock, pain, or fear, trust your instinct that it isn’t positive, and RUN AWAY.  

Training a dog is like training any other animal that is capable of learning.  That means that operant conditioning and/or respondent (Pavlovian) conditioning work.  

Operant conditioning is what we customarily use when teaching a dog to do a particular class of behavior, such as “sit.”  There’s a contingent relationship between a behavior and a consequence.  (My owner says “sit” and I sit.  My owner feeds me chicken for sitting.  I sit more when asked.)

Pavlovian conditioning is used when we want to change a dog’s autonomic, or emotional, response toward something.  In Pavlovian, or classical conditioning, there’s an association between two stimuli. (Appearance of man in baseball hat predicts my owner will feed me chicken.  Now, I like men in baseball hats.)  

Without getting too much further into the science, suffice to say that a dog trainer who explains their technique in lay terms should be equally able to explain and justify it scientifically for you.  ASK that the trainer specify what quadrants of operant conditioning will be in use during the training of your dog.  If the trainer really is committed to so called “positive” training, the response should be that positive reinforcement (R+) and negative punishment (P-) are the quadrants in use.  Don’t get me wrong, the other quadrants work, too, but the ones I mentioned as positive usually involve reinforcements such as food, toys and privileges.  Negative punishments such as the removal of a food item, toy or privilege are actually “positive” techniques.

By contrast, positive punishment (P+) often involves the application of coercion, such as a leash jerk, a shock, or a reprimand to reduce an unwanted behavior.  Negative reinforcement (R-) involves the removal of an aversive stimulus to increase a particular behavior.  

Many trainers who use the P+ and R- quadrants have co-opted some very “positive” language for use on their web sites.  They fully well understand that most dog owners do not want to hurt their dogs, so they couch coercive techniques in non-threatening language such as “freedom training” or “balanced training” or “remote training.”  Shock collars have become remote, correction, reminder collars, and the aversive shock they administer has become a reminder, a stimulus or a tap.  One fairly well known Australian trainer, who shall go nameless in the name of my desire not to trainer-bash, has the words “positive training techniques” on his site despite the fact that, in his book, he recommends “a sharp cuff on the rump” as one of those positive techniques.  Another trainer was recently found to be holding classes that owners signed up for only to find out upon arrival at the so called positive class that it was actually a shock collar class.  

Buyer beware – everything that is labeled positive is not positive.  

How, in this highly unregulated environment, can a dog owner find a trainer who is knowledgeable, and who will actually use positive training techniques?  It used to be that people were directed to find a “certified” trainer, but there is no national standard for certification, and the ubiquitous CPDT or CPDT-KA designation can include people who use techniques that are not positive.  In fact, the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers (CCPDT) has questions on their test about the use of shock collars, and has not adopted a stance against the use of shock, so although many of their certificants have rejected shock collars, the public still has no guarantee.

IACP, the International Association of Canine Professionals, has the most shock collar trainers of any major organization in its ranks, and proudly showcases Cesar Millan on its home page.  Millan has been known to use P+ techniques such as helicoptering, leash jerks, kicks, shock collars, prong collars, and pinning.  Members of IACP agree to reject the banning of any training tools.  Thus, in this writer’s opinion, they tacitly support shock collars.

NADOI (National Association of Obedience Instructors) is the oldest certifying organization in the United States.  NADOI does require supportive evidence of a trainer’s abilities and experience, but expressly prohibits members from criticizing other trainers or their training methods.  Thus, again, they may be tacitly condoning less than positive tools in the toolboxes of its trainers.  

In the interest of transparency, I am a CTDI.  Certified Trick Dog Instructors (Do More with Your Dog program operated by Kyra Sundance) are required to use positive training and avoid shock collars, etc. in training trick dogs.  However, there is no prohibition on the training of foundation behaviors, such as sit, down, or stay, by using shock collars, which many of us are disturbed by.  So, some of us are all positive and some are not.

To my knowledge, APDT membership in the United Kingdom is more of a guarantee that a trainer does use positive training.  

In the United States, two professional organizations that require its trainers to shun the use of prong, choke, or shock collars are the Pet Professional Guild and Victoria Stilwell Positively.  The nice thing about Pet Professional Guild is that they also admit other dog professionals, such as groomers and veterinary technicians, as well as pet owners who support force free training.

If your trainer attended one of the following schools, it’s fairly certain that they have a good grasp of the science and an understanding of why positive training makes the most sense: Academy for Dog Trainers, Companion Animal Sciences Institute, Karen Pryor Academy, Pat Miller’s Peaceable Paws.  There are others, but the word “K9” rarely shows up in schools that use purely positive training.

Pet owners who are regaled with the old “I got spanked and I turned out all right.” line, or who are made to feel like bad pet owners for not wanting to “correct” their dog’s behavior, need to remember that we’ve come a long way in other things that used to be commonplace.  Before 1964, virtually no one had seat belts in their cars.  Now, most people don’t go to corner store without buckling up.  Then, teachers could hit children with rulers, now children are disciplined in other ways.  While people argue that corporal punishment works, a meta-analysis of published science showed that “immediate compliance” was achieved and perceived as desirable, but that there were many problem behaviors associated with its use that were undesirable.  In dog training, shock collar trainers often brag about their immediate results, too, but are silent about the unintended consequences of that global suppression of behavior (learned helplessness) or behaviors that might “pop” out at inopportune times.  They rail against the use of food and tell people they’ll have to carry food all their lives, but conveniently forget to tell them that they’ll be using that shock collar in the same way – dogs, being good discriminators can quickly learn “when the second collar is there” just as easily as they can learn “food pouch is on.”  I’d rather feed a dog forever than cause him pain forever…  Dogs need a high rate of reinforcement when first learning a behavior, and they need many repetitions to become fluent in a behavior.  Positive training results in dogs that can exhibit complex behaviors or go around a rally or an agility course without needing a cookie after each obstacle!  Trainers like Emily Larlham and Pamela Dennison prove it day after day.

Is Your Dog a Dog Park Dog?


Most people don’t realize just how small the socialization window is for puppies.  The optimal time to have puppies playing with other puppies, off leash, is between age 8-16 weeks, then on through adolescence and adulthood.  That’s the optimal time to bring a puppy to puppy class as well.  While we used to wait for pups to have all their shots, we now understand that there is a behavioral risk to waiting, so many trainers now use the  guidelines established by the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior in their Position Statement on Puppy Socialization.

Key Point: If you think your dog “needs more socialization” because he is having issues with other dogs, chances are that he needs something else, such as classical conditioning or desensitization work, and he may not be ready for the dog park.


First, let’s decide, “What is a puppy?”  For the purposes of defining this phase of development, puppies are puppies until they start to get their “big dog teeth” at between 4-5 months of age. They learn to inhibit their bite through play with other puppies by biting one another!  When one pup bites the other, the pup that gets bitten stops the play, or even yelps.  The biter then realizes that he won’t have a playmate if he continues to do that, and gradually, through many repetitions of this behavior, lo and behold, you will start to notice that while the pups are play biting and making horrible faces, or even play growling, no one is bleeding and no one is complaining.

Key Point: Getting aggressive with a nippy pup will make it more likely that he will be aggressive himself later.  (Herron, Frances S. Shofer and Ilana R. Reisner, School of Veterinary Medicine, Penn).  Learn how to deal with it in a positive way.  The Pet Professional Guild has a great Puppy Nipping Guide Pups that don’t play normally early in life may be fearful of other dogs later.


A play bow is a meta-signal.

While dog play can look very rough and tumble, it should not look like one dog is bullying another.  There should be lots of back and forth play, wiggling, open mouths, leaps, pawing the air, lots of self interruption of the play, and things such as parallel running or feints and paw raises are very normal parts of play.  Some dogs growl when they play.  If you are ever worried that your dog may be a bully, and too much for the dog s/he is playing with, try gently pulling your dog away from the perceived “victim.”  If that dog goes back to your dog voluntarily, chances are that the level and type of play is being appreciated.  If he doesn’t, perhaps it’s time to redirect the dogs to new playmates or go home from the park that day.  To see two normal dogs at play, see the video at this site:  Notice the back and forth play, the curved body postures, open mouths, meta-signals (play bows, raised paws, mock pounces), brief self interruptions.

Key point: “Meta-signals,” such as play bows, tell other dogs that all is in fun.  Well socialized dogs should be able to read such signals and respond accordingly. has good info on body language.


A dog that is anxious might whine or whimper, shake, have its ears back, be trying to hide behind you or an object.  Fearful dogs may tuck their tails, look hunched, be tense, or try to make themselves look smaller to deflect a perceived threat.  Some dogs may submissively urinate when another dog greets them as a signal that they mean no harm.

Normal play can look very rough and still be normal.  Abnormal play, to an experienced eye, has a quality to it that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.  For example, you may see one dog always chasing another dog that is fleeing and looks frightened, or a group of dogs running very fast, looking like they’re ganging up on another dog.  You may see one dog body slamming or rolling another dog, or see one dog obsessively following another dog that seems not to want to interact.  Repeatedly pinning or mounting another dog (except in very young puppies, where it’s mostly harmless and just seems to bother the humans and not the dogs), or a dog continually putting his head over another dog’s back, or one that gives a “hard stare” directly at another dog, or freezes, is worrisome.  Such behaviors are reason enough to get your dog out of the park before he’s the next victim of such a dog, or before he aggresses against another dog.  “Read the whole dog” is a trainer axiom – a wagging tail doesn’t always signal friendliness.  The ASPCA has a dog body language guide here:

If you are ever unsure, opt for safety, leave or intervene, rather than putting your dog in a situation where he could bite or be bitten.

 Key point: Do breed, age, and gender matter?  Yes, sometimes.  Learn your breed standard with regard to temperament.  In some breeds, dog to dog aggression, especially same sex aggression, can have a genetic component, although certainly training and socialization are important, too.  Some dogs are less apt to want to play as adults.  Others seem to be puppies forever.


Other people don’t want their dogs endangered by a dog that could be aggressive, or predatory.  If you think your dog “needs more socialization” because there are issues, and s/he is over four months of age, you may need to use classical conditioning and desensitization techniques.  In that situation, you may be doing more harm than good by exposing your dog to a situation that is “over-facing” him, so find a positive trainer or behaviorist to help you. Force free trainers can be found at


Not all dogs like to play with other dogs.  Some dogs enjoy one or two good friends, and some dogs prefer human company to dog company.  Dogs often choose their own friends.  While you can improve a fearful dog’s emotional response to the approach of other dogs, it’s really unlikely that you can totally remediate your dog’s social deficits if they are significant, to the extent that he would enjoy the dog park, and it may be kinder not to force him to endure going there if he isn’t comfy or makes others uncomfortable. Your dog is not abnormal if he’s not a dog park dog!  In fact, it’s more normal for adult dogs to lose interest in playing with others after they reach a certain age.


For all the young puppies out there, aged 8-16 weeks, who are busy getting ready to be dog park dogs, here’s a Puppy Socialization Checklist.  Be sure they get to a positive training class, too!

Key point: The most important safety precaution you can take before going to a dog park is to teach your dog to come when called every time!  A dog that cannot do this is not a dog park dog!  Even if your dog is friendly, other dogs may be overwhelmed by an exuberant greeting and prefer quieter playmates, so letting your dog just run up to others is very poor park etiquette. 

Pamela Dennison’s Whistle Recall DVD is very useful for training this behavior reliably.  You can either train with a whistle or use a recall word, the principle is the same.  Once your dog is trained, have fun at the park!



How’s Your Relationship?

One of the saddest things I see as a trainer is a dog that has no relationship with the human at the other end of the leash.  When I see such a lack of camaraderie between dog and owner, I am struck by the similarities among almost all of these “couples.”  The first thing I notice, oftentimes, is how quiet and uncommunicative the person is with the dog, how quickly the person is inclined to correct the dog or feel that it needs correction, and how reluctant the owner is to use food in training or to use a sufficient rate of reinforcement when the dog is first learning.

Perhaps some owners feel that because dogs don’t talk that we need not talk to them.  But, a dog that hears its name spoken cheerily by a loving owner, who follows up with a “yes!” as soon as their dog looks at them, and then tosses a nice bit of cheese or meat, usually has a dog that knows its name.  If nothing interesting ever happens when the dog does try looking at his owner, why would he continue to try to engage?

If you can get a dog to turn to you when you say its name, you can carry on an additional conversation with your smile, directional gestures, and activity, that the dog can respond to. It’s the first step toward getting the dog to want to come when called, and the dogs with the most stellar recalls are usually those that have been built solidly on relationship.  Sure, if rote obedience is your only desire, you could put a shock collar on a dog and force it to come, but the joyous, free, “I can’t wait to get to you” recalls are built on healthy relationships that benefit the dog as much as the human, and not on coercion.  I would never again coerce a dog when I know that I can have such pure joie de vivre reflected back at me by simply making every recall a happy affair that results in my dog benefiting as much as I do.  I have no problem showering my dogs with a smorgasbord of real meat, cheese, yogurt, tripe, and all manner of other enticements when they arrive at my feet until they think that I really am the god of all things dogs want.  And even for dogs that are more inclined to want to chase squirrels than eat, there is still no reason for punishing techniques (there ‘s something called Premack Principle that will come in to play for that).

Another problem with relationship that I see is that everything is filtered through the lens of what the dog does wrong.  “How do I stop my dog from (name the unwanted behavior),” they ask me.   What if people, instead of thinking only of the things they want to correct, began to reward the dog when he was good?  Dogs are practical – they repeat behavior that works.  And, dogs aren’t trying to take over the world, be “stubborn” or piss us off.  They are just being dogs.  All they need is a bit of education and they are more than willing to cooperate.  But how do you educate a dog that’s already out at the end of its leash trying to avoid you because the only feedback you’ve given is aversive?  I’ve never been able to quite understand how any logical person could think that their dog would want to be with them after they speak harshly, pin, scruff, shake, yank, or ignore the dog.  (Yes, I know, we ignore jumping up, but that isn’t the same as ignoring the dog on a two mile walk, save to yank him away from some cool scent once in a while.)

Correction has fallout with regard to relationship.  If you were on a leash and the only time you got your neck jerked on, or heard harsh commands, or were pushed away, was when you were on that leash (next to your human), you might wish to stay far away from the human once the leash comes off.   The saddest thing is to see 5-6 happy dogs, engaged with their owners and having a great time at class, and one poor dog that is being corrected at home, trying his darnedest to get to the other puppies and people, never once looking back at his own handler.

The truly hard part for me, as a trainer, is when I get someone ask me if they are in the right class, are doing something wrong, or have a stubborn or stupid dog.  There are few nice ways to be honest enough to tell someone that they may have done some things that messed up the relationship they have with their dog.  If the dog wags its tail upon the owner’s arrival home, the owner may tend not to believe that there could possibly be anything wrong.  But, indeed there sometimes is.  So, if you are struggling in class, or at home, please know that I don’t want to tell you that your relationship is suffering, but your dog is counting on me to tell you!  So, if I ask you to increase your rate of reinforcement, or use a high pitched voice to call your dog, or get cheerful, or catch your dog doing something right, or pay your dog a jackpot, all of that is designed to get you to be the most important thing in your dog’s life.  If that means a smorgasbord, and no more “no” then that’s what it means.  Please don’t shoot the messenger, but this blog post is my way of telling you, too.  Your dog will thank me if you listen, but you don’t have to – one more happy dog is more than enough thanks for me.

For information on why punishment doesn’t work:

For more information on the proper use of food in dog training:

Pam’s Dog Academy has some great videos on building attention and recall (and side effect of building relationship!)  You can start here:

Pet owners can now join the Pet Professional Guild.  Guild members, affiliates & sponsors understand Force-Free to mean, no shock, no pain, no fear, no physical force, no physical molding, no compulsion based methods are employed to train or care for a pet.
To learn more: