Although positive reinforcement training has gained popularity rapidly over the last few years, there are still many who prefer the “traditional” methods of dog training. They often cite that positive training is just “bribery” (which it sometimes is) or that you can’t use treats for the type of work their dog does (which is sometimes true) or that it’s too “soft” and that having no consequences will make a dog unruly, undisciplined, and eventually lead to a dog that ignores you as soon as those treats are not around (which is true).
At least, it would be true if positive reinforcement did not have consequences. While some of the other mis-facts about positive reinforcement mentioned above do have their grains of truth – some people get too caught up in luring or throwing treats where they want their dog to go and this is bribery; you also cannot always use food for every exercise you are doing – but this is where toys and praise come into play. The idea that there are no consequences in positive reinforcement dog trainer is simply not true, unless you are training incorrectly.
What is a Consequence?
I have been avoiding using the word “punishment” in this article, up until now. Why? Because it immediately brings to mind a harsh correction: leash jerk, hitting, e-collars, etc. And if I had started this article out by saying we use punishment in positive reinforcement training, you would have stopped reading and called me crazy.
But in reality, I am talking about the “BIG P” in dog training and yes, positive reinforcement trainers use it too. So what is it then? Here is a very simply version without getting into the +/- Reinforcement and +/- Punishment grid that confuses so many dog owners.
A punishment (or consequence) is really just something your dog does not like that (here’s the important part) will make the bad behavior LESS LIKELY to occur again. THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO BE SOMETHING HARSH like beating your dog or jerking the leash attached to a choke collar. In FACT, it can be the REMOVAL of something or the ADDITION of something.
BUT it is something unpleasant to the dog (TO THE DOG is the key thing. Don’t think like a human, you have to think about your dog and what he likes/dislikes).
Example 1 (Removal)
In positive reinforcement training, many of us start loose leash walking training by telling owners to walk backwards, with their dog following. In the second step, we have them walk forward with their dog. If their dog starts to pull ahead, we tell the owner to stop forward motion and either (a) stay there until the dog comes back to them or (b) move backwards.
Can you see the consequence (punishment) at work here? I gave no treats to my dog in this example. BUT when he pulled forward, I stopped and either stayed put, or moved him in the opposite direction of where he wanted to go. To your dog, not being able to sniff where he wants a quite a big punishment. To the human, it doesn’t look like much is taking place. (For those interested, this is negative punishment, because we removed something the dog wanted – freedom).
Example 2 (Addition)
This is type of consequence that is used more in traditional correction training than in positive reinforcement, but you do see it used sometimes. The best example I can think of is my own dog Merlin. When he was around 6 months, Merlin started to react to other people and dogs. The place I worked at used Gentle Leaders (GL) a lot with reactive dogs, because they seem to help calm the dog down. While Merlin was not a big leash puller, I decided to try a GL on him only for those time he reacted. This meant, if he was walking next to me quietly and focused, I didn’t put the Gentle Leader on. I only put it on if he reacted. Merlin hates the gentle leader. Not like most dogs that try to get it off and find it annoying. His whole personality changes. He sulks, lowers his ears and tail, and becomes almost catatonic. To him, that GL was the worst punishment I could have ever done. (Needless to say, I immediately stopped using it because I am not that kind of trainer and I did not like the effect it was having on him).
But, it’s an excellent example of how something you may view as “no big deal” could be seen as a punishment to your dog. (This is positive punishment, by the way, because you added something that your dog did not like. In Merlin’s case, the dreaded GL).
How Should You Use it?
Now that you (hopefully) understand consequences/punishment a bit more, you can see how they do work with positive training – if they are done CORRECTLY.
It should also make you pay more attention to what your dog likes and does not like. Why? Because if you are trying to get your dog to do something and he isn’t, it may be that you unknowingly have a punishment in there. For example, if you call your dog to you every time you need to give him a bath and he HATES them, you are essentially punishing your dog for coming to you and you will ruin your recall.
Conversely, if you are trying to get your dog to stop doing something, and it’s not working, look for the reinforcement and then see how you can remove that from the equation. A great example of this is the barking at things in the yard. Unfortunately, dogs barking at people, birds, cats, etc., is self-reinforcing because they go away when they bark.
The bottom-line is that positive training is not “push over” training – there are consequences (or punishments if you must call them that). There are some really acceptable ways to use punishment (almost always negative punishment) in positive dog training. For example, dog trainers tell clients to ignore their dog when he is jumping or demand barking (this is punishment to the dog – he wants attention!). Or, if your puppy puts his mouth on you, play stops (again, a punishment in your dog’s eyes).
However, you must be careful to not go “overboard” on this and move into correction training without realizing it. Your best bet is to talk to your trainer if you have questions BEFORE implementing a consequence to ensure it’s done correctly. Otherwise, you will end up with side effects you were not expecting and a very confused dog.
About the Author
Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.