What kind of trainer are you?

Positive reinforcement, traditional, balanced, non punitive. These are all terms dog trainers and behaviour consultants use to describe their styles. I use the terms non-aversive, progressive or force free to define how I train dogs and help people to train dogs.

When I read that someone is a “balanced” trainer, I would suggest that it is usually a euphemism for trainers who use physically punitive methods when training, as well as reward based training. This is a clever marketing strategy as some of these trainers would have us believe that a “balanced” approach of both harshness and reward based training is necessary. There seems something quite appealing about a balanced approach in theory and it is only when we look at it more closely that we discover what many (not all) of these trainers actually mean by the term. This idea is further promoted by Cesar Milan when he says we need to “balance” our dogs, which could in turn suggest a more “balanced” approach.

Traditional trainers are ones who mainly employ compulsion based training methods, such as ear pinches and choke chains. The get results, they just don’t have a very good relationship with their dogs in many cases as, unless they use some other type of more reward based training, the dog behaves in the desired way in order to avoid painful or unpleasant consequences.

Now, before I move on to positive reinforcement (PR), I’ll define a few terms. Operant learning was first documented by B.F Skinner in the 1930s as part of his Masters degree and Doctorate. There are four elements to this, positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement and negative punishment. The term “positive” does not mean good, it means to add something to the environment. Conversely, negative means to subtract something from the environment. Think in terms of the mathematical + and – signs. Reinforcement means the preceding behaviour is likely to increase in frequency, duration and/or intensity. Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement, and leads to a decrease in the preceding behaviour.

Now the reason understanding of these terms is important is that a misunderstanding of them leads to misinformation being promoted as fact. Trainers who say they only use PR and do not use punishment are misinformed and can, as a result, mislead others. They may use PR primarily

Training loose leash walking using force free methods
Training loose leash walking using force free methods

but an element of punishment is always inevitable. But punishment does not have to be harsh/physically punitive/psychologically damaging/aversive. If we don’t want our dogs to jump on us and our dogs learn that by jumping, they receive no attention and stops doing it, then jumping is punished. If we play tug and the game ends if our dog misses the toy and catches our skin, then we have used punishment to stop the “teeth against skin” behaviour. If our dog body slams other dogs and we stop play and this reduces the slamming, then we have punished the slamming. As you can see in these three examples, there is nothing harsh or painful about what we are doing but we are imposing rules on ours dogs.

The term positive seems to have been partially hijacked and as a result, it has been misrepresented. Positive isn’t necessarily a good thing when applied to learning theory. I’m all for calling your dog business “Positive” for marketing purposes, but we need to know the science behind it to back it up and not misrepresent it.

I regularly use punishment in dog training but I don’t use harsh or physically punitive techniques. I find them unnecessary and in many cases, counter productive. It just depends where we draw the line about what we are willing to do to our canine friends in the name of training.

John McGuigan


3 thoughts on “What kind of trainer are you?

    1. Yes, but reinforcement is a consequence also, and in this instance the use of the word “punishment” is as it pertains to learning theory as opposed to the more popular understanding of the word.

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