Let’s say you want to find a great trainer for your dog and so you do a web search. The search results in several web links and you check them out, seeking the best result for your beloved pet. What might you find?
Lack of Industry Regulation and Oversight
First, understand that among about 50,000 dog “trainers” in the United States, there is no standard, regulation or oversight. Any single person who wishes to call themselves a “dog trainer” is…voila, a “dog trainer.” There is no need for qualification or proof of competency.
Imagine if you needed the help of an oncologist and did a web search, and then selected someone who identified as that professional…but could not produce any evidence of education or certification. How comfortable would you feel about working with that person?
In the Wild West of the dog training world some folks market themselves as “positive” trainers. So what does that tell you about their education, qualification, philosophy, methodology or credentials?
Sadly, the ancient warning of “buyer beware” applies to the prospect of finding a qualified professional to help with your beloved family pet.
What Does the Word “Positive” Mean?
In psychology, and in the concept of operant conditioning in particular, the term “positive” has a specific meaning. Think in terms of basic math. Positive means to add something to an equation, while negative means to take something away. Much of modern dog training is based upon learning theory and applied psychology, and operant conditioning is an important part of that process.
Let’s look at a common canine behavior of a young dog jumping on people during greetings. Many dog stewards do not want their dog jumping on people, so they may attempt to suppress that behavior. Meanwhile, the dog wants to engage with the person and jumps on them to gain their attention…and it works. They put their paws on a person and they get attention every time.
A behavior that is reinforced is apt to be repeated.
The “positive” trainer who uses aversive methods will administer a punishment to the dog when it jumps on a person, hoping to teach the dog not to repeat that behavior because it is too uncomfortable or painful to do so. The aversive punishment is something that the dog does not like, so it is expected that the dog will seek to avoid the punishment in the future, thus suppressing the behavior. That is a “positive” trainer in action.
On the other hand, a reward-based trainer will use “positive” reinforcement to reward your dog for offering any behavior which does not involve jumping on a person in greeting. The trainer will teach a dog to sit, touch a hand target, lie down, look at their steward, grab a toy to play with, play a game of “find it” or some alternative activity. Your dog could also simply stand in place and not jump on the person. Those alternatives will have been rewarded by “positive” reinforcement with something your dog enjoys, such as food, toys, affection or play. In doing so your dog will offer those behaviors, instead of jumping on people, because they offer your dog something he or she values.
Dogs just do whatever brings about an outcome that they appreciate.
Both trainers are using “positive” methods. One is called positive-punishment and the other is called positive-reinforcement. Knowing this, if a trainer tells you that they use “positive” methods, what exactly are they saying?
How Can Your Protect Your Pet?
My advice to pet stewards is that if a trainer declares they are “positive” and does not clarify exactly what that means, they are probably not in the positive-reinforcement or force-free class of trainers. Such sloppy use of terminology does not register with modern science-based professionals who practice full disclosure.
Ask specific questions of the trainer you are considering hiring, such as “What exactly will you do if my dog does this?” and “What exactly will you do if my dog does that?”
Sadly, too many of my clients came to me after trainers who used “positive” aversive methods damaged their dogs, without any prior disclosure. I want to help you avoid that pitfall in the environment of an unregulated pet service industry.
We each need to be our dog’s best advocate.
About the Author
Daniel H. Antolec, PCT-A, CCBC-KA, CPDT-KA began teaching dogs in 2011 and founded Happy Buddha Dog Training. He teaches dogs in a way that makes it fun for pet stewards and pets alike.