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Beware Positive Reinforcement

By Lisa Patrona, Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC


"What?!? Why would a school that teaches the positive reinforcement philosophy tell me to beware of it?" 


Because the term "positive reinforcement" has become a catch phrase in the dog training industry. It's an approach that many trainers advertise and claim to use and teach, but as we will see, this is quite often not the case. We help people on a daily basis with dogs who ended up with bigger and more serious behavior problems to work through because they trusted and followed the wrong advice. We offer the information found here so you can understand what the term "positive reinforcement" in dog training really means, and how to know if you're about to hire a trainer who uses and teaches a positive reinforcement philosophy - or not. 


Here's how to know the difference:   


A "Positive Reinforcement" philosophy teaches people to teach their dogs to repeat behavior, or to modify problem behavior, by adding or manipulating consequences that are pleasant and desirable to the dog. There are two ways to do this: 1) by presenting something the dog likes/finds pleasant and enjoyable (i.e. food treats, toys) following a desirable behavior, or 2) in the case of a problem behavior (like jumping on you for example), by taking away or withholding something the dog finds pleasant and enjoyable (like attention/social interaction from you). 


For example, when your dog sits and you immediately reward him with a bit of cheese, you've  positively reinforced the behavior of sit. So when a behavior is "positively reinforced" it means that a pleasant/desirable consequence, like a food reward, is provided immediately as the dog is engaged in the behavior. Positive reinforcement increases the strength and frequency of behavior, and dogs will *always* repeat reinforced behavior/s. On the flip side, when dealing with an undesirable behavior, a positive reinforcement approach still uses pleasant/desirable consequences (the withdrawal of attention in the case of jumping on us) to effectively decrease the strength and frequency of the undesired jumping behavior. From there, the instant the dog makes a different, better choice in behavior, that alternate behavior is reinforced through the use of a desired/pleasant consequence, and a new more desirable behavior pattern begins to form.  


Trainers who use force, pain, intimidation, or fear are not teaching you about "positive reinforcement".  

When any form of violence (physical or emotional) is used or suggested in the name of dog training, including as a means to decrease problem behavior/s, you're not working with someone who uses or will teach you to use a positive reinforcement approach.  If s/he is telling you they're a "positive reinforcement" trainer, but tells you their approach involves adding or manipulating consequences for behavior that are clearly unpleasant to the dog, they've already told you all you need to know.  Keep looking. Trainers who use and teach people to use equipment like choke, prong, pinch, and shock collars, shaker cans, squirt bottles, alpha rolls, and other confrontational and violent techniques, will often times use terms like "correction" or "leash pop" to explain what they're doing and will sometimes provide praise, or even a food treat to the dog afterward. Then they'll explain that what just happened qualifies as "positive reinforcement". All you need to understand is, if a trainer teaches behavior by adding or manipulating unpleasant consequences as outlined in the examples above, they are not using - or teaching you to use - a positive reinforcement approach to train your dog.  Read on for suggestions on what you can do to protect your dog, and your pocketbook, as you go on the hunt for a positive reinforcement training professional. 


Here's some advice on how to know whether the trainer you're considering is being honest with you about the methods h/she uses to further help you to Beware Positive Reinforcement!  


* Visiting websites. The trainer/school's methods and philosophy for training should be clearly outlined and in line with the positive reinforcement philosophy. If the language seems confusing or unclear, or the methods they use and teach are not clearly defined--beware.


* Education AND experience are both very important.  Trainers Academy, LLC Instructors are educated, and certified by a variety of professional organizations. Our certifications require ongoing continuing education to allow for re-certification every few years.  We all have decades of experience, too. When looking for a trainer, if they claim to be "certified" be sure to verify their claims. If you can't...look elsewhere.  Experience matters, too, but if someone's only qualification is however many years of "experience" they have--beware. The industry as a profession has grown a great deal over the past couple of decades, so if someone tells you they've been training for thirty years, they may use outdated and harsh methods.  Be sure you're completely comfortable before committing.


* Conduct "interviews" with anyone you're thinking about hiring for help with your dog's or pup's training. Be sure to ask what methods and equipment they'll use.  If you're told that s/he uses "positive reinforcement" for training, but s/he states "I'll only use a choke chain on a (insert breed name) or if the dog is "really out of control" - keep looking.  If  they advise that they'll show you how to teach your puppy to stop mouthing on you (or your kids!) by suggesting that you jam your fingers down her throat until she gags or vomits, or to pinch her muzzle closed until she screeches, or to lock her in a dark closet -- thank them for their time...and keep searching!  If you're told to knee a jumping dog in his chest, or step on his paws to "cure" the problem, move on!  We could go on and on with examples, but we think you get the point.  


* Observe a class. Warning: If you are told that observing is not allowed, look elsewhere! When you do watch a class, remember that trainers who say they use positive reinforcement techniques should only be employing and recommending solutions that add/manipulate pleasant consequences for the dog to build and change behavior - physically punitive or forceful methods should not be used. If anything makes you uncomfortable, leave and keep searching!


* During your class observation, there's bound to be at least one dog who's barky, or otherwise distracted -- pay close attention to how the instructor (and any assistants) handle it.  If you hear the use of words to describe the dog's behavior like "bratty," "spiteful," "obstinate," "dominant," "alpha," or other such labels - or if the student it advised to use violence in any form to address the dog's behavior - you'd be very wise to leave quietly and keep searching.  Pay close attention to what you've learned reading this article. Does the instructor seem caring and concerned while advising techniques that qualify them as a "positive reinforcement" trainer, or not?


* See how the Instructor and staff interact with both the dogs and their humans in general. Are they willing and able to answer questions with confidence, understanding, and patience? Do their suggestions employ the techniques that a positive reinforcement trainer would use?


* Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you are told that only positive reinforcement methods are used, yet hear that "corrections will be introduced..." or "prong collars are used if..." you'll know it's not a program run by trainers who use or teach a positive reinforcement approach, and you need to keep searching!


We hope that this information is helpful and you've learned to Beware Positive Reinforcement! Feel free contact us, and to visit our website at for more helpful tips and advice.

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