Dog training originated in the early 1900s to train dogs for war. After WWII, it came out of war and into civilian homes.
The methods used then are called Traditional Methods. The main methods to teach dogs behaviors were negative reinforcement and punishment. The main tools used were choke chains, prong or pinch collars and shock collars. The tenets of Traditional training are that dogs learn through consequences or operant conditioning. To teach a “sit”, a traditional trainer may pull up on a choke collar to encourage the dog to sit, and when the dog complies, the trainer releases the pressure. The bad goes away. It can be condensed to the saying, “do it, or else.” Traditional training is still thriving today.
Since the 1940s, another kind of training has developed which is based on animal ethology or studies of the dog’s natural behavior and what it means. This kind of training is often referred to as Pack Theory; Dominance based training, or dog whispering. These trainers believe that dogs establish dominance in hierarchies in the pack and in order to have control over your dog, you must achieve the Alpha Status. This gained popularity in the 1970’s and 80’s and continues to be very popular and very misunderstood. The big names responsible for this type of training are The Monks of New Skete and Cesar Milan. This kind of training is based on popular belief and not on scientific studies. A lot of this thinking claims to be based on studies on wolves, but recent information has found that dogs and wolves don’t really have all that much in common and the whole premise is shaky. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and there are significant behavioral differences between dogs and wolves.
Positive Reinforcement Training also began in the 1940’s but didn’t gain popularity until about 20 years ago.
The first positive reinforcement trainers were students of the great psychologist, BF Skinner who coined the term, operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence.
The first positive trainers couldn’t compete with the very successful traditional trainers and ended up training for performances on TV. Compared to the Traditional Methods, It wasn’t taken as a serious method of dog obedience.
Ian Dunbar is the most recent pioneer of Positive Dog Training. He is the founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and created the first off-leash puppy training programs that made training fun, easy and safe.
More and more scientific studies have been done and the findings are very heavy on the side of being positive. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of research suggesting that not only can dogs learn new behaviors effortlessly through positive reinforcement training, but major behavioral problems like fear biting and food aggression can be addressed very successfully. What’s more is that it is fun and easy for dogs and people. Now service dogs, police dogs, competitive and performing dogs are all being trained using positive reinforcement and all are very well trained.
So if traditional methods and positive reinforcement are both based on operant conditioning and both are successful, why have I chosen the Positive over the Traditional?
The most important reason is that I train family dogs, not competition or performing dogs, but dogs that live in houses with real people and often children.
I don’t want to do anything that could make things worse or endanger the people in the household. The use of punishment in training has been studied a lot and the studies show that most dangerous situations involve dogs that are stressed. Punishment further stresses a dog.
Several studies have shown that dogs that were shocked after a bad behavior had cortisol levels up to 300 times the normal levels. Punishing an already stressed out dog creates a ticking time bomb. It would be irresponsible to recommend anything that could be potentially dangerous or possibly cause a bad behavior to worsen.
I also believe that we are smarter than dogs and should be able to teach them in a way that isn’t harmful. I have had great success with an array of dog behaviors without ever having to force or punish a dog to convince him to do what I want.
I’ll end with this thought….all the Orcas at Seaworld are trained with positive reinforcement methods because they couldn’t get those whales to perform using any other method. I use Positive Reinforcement because it works.