I have had a few conversations and clients recently that have made me reflect on the problems I encounter with doing positive dog training and trying to educate and train pet owners this way.
1. It’s slow.
Training is just learning for your dog. Some things take a short time to learn and some take longer.
For example, to learn to read we really really practice that! Start small, easy words, short sentences, and work up to bigger books, longer sentences.. maybe an encyclopedia! (Hopefully everyone reading this knows what that is).
Some things take a shorter period to learn, either because it’s an easier concept or because the learner is already in a good mindset for learning.
For example, if I moved into a new house and have to remember where the towels are kept, that’s a relatively easy concept that will take me a much shorter time to learn then to read.
As for the state of mind of the learner, this is different for everyone. I find that some people can see something demonstrated just once and then pretty much duplicate that, and some people need to be shown several times. For me, I am a visual learner rather than auditory. If someone explains something to me, I would much rather see it demonstrated or do it myself to really cement the learning. So dogs are no different.
For our dogs, something like sit is an easy concept and takes a fairly short time to train. But a nice Heel or desensitizing to something the dog is afraid of, those are big concepts and take a lot longer time to train with more repetitions.
To get the dog into the right learning mindset, simple commands and tricks help with that, such as a Touch (nose target) command. When the dog is engaged and eager to learn, they pick new things up much quicker, and that is a good place to be, especially if you have to tackle any serious behaviors.
2. People do it wrong.
I’m including this in the problems with positive training because it is, in fact a problem we experience with positive training, and one that gives it a bad rap (rep?). For example, luring is a common concept we use in training classes, such as to lure the dog into a sit position by placing a treat up and over their head. However, I find that students rely on the lure for WAY too long.. much longer than needed so that what the dog learns is not the concept of sit, but that sit only happens with the treat in the hand or above the dog’s head.
Here is a picture of me luring two dogs into a Bow.
The concept of fading (getting rid of) the lure is something we go over in my training classes – getting the lure out of the hand as soon as possible – and I test students on it in week 2. However, luring is easy, and it yields a quick result. And most of us have a button on pride – we want our dogs to be successful and look good. So it easily creeps back in to the owner’s training.. handicapping the dog at a rudimentary level.
So what’s the problem with always having a treat in your hand? We are treat training after all! Well, then we end up with a dog who literally can’t do the behavior without a treat because it is SO unpracticed (they have had 1,000 repetitions of the behavior with a treat in your hand, and 0 without a treat). Therefore the treat also becomes a clue/cue/context for the behavior to occur – just as the verbal command is a cue for the behavior.
3. There are not many quick fixes.
One way I think of positive training is learning through higher education vs pain. Stick with me here – pain is very useful as a learning clue, but it is not the only way and does not have to be the primary way.
For example, one of my clients has a dog that chased cars on her property (not an uncommon behavior). She did not teach him an alternative behavior or manage his environment so that he was not able to chase cars, and therefore he got hit one day.
It was minor and nothing was broken, and the dog is fine. But as a result, he now no longer chases cars (at least does not go as close as he used to). So in this scenario, the painful experience was actually a productive learning experience for him in that it is inhibiting a very dangerous behavior. (Just to be clear I am not advocating this as a solution and would have addressed it much differently!!! But the fact still remains that it happened and he learned.)
It works the same for humans as well. Think about those of us that have ever had a broken heart or had a relationship go south, then you are more guarded and reserved to have that happened again because it was a painful experience.
By contrast, I have burned myself many times while cooking. Each time it is painful, each time I do not want it to repeat, but it is not painful enough for me to never do that behavior ever again, or for me to stop cooking. This is why pain is not always the best learning tool, because you do not know how it is for the learner. I have seen a dog be put on a prong collar for the first time and be so uncomfortable with the sensation that they never pulled against it. And I have seen dogs that either didn’t care, desensitized to it, grew callouses, etc. and kept pulling anyway.
So pain is usually involved in a quick fix.
But with positive we are trying to actually educate the dog. Teach him not to run on the road. To lay down when he sees a car coming until it’s out of sight, then he can move again, or practice him staying on the side and letting it go past and getting rewarded for that… there are a bunch of ways it could have been trained. Then it’s something the dog has LEARNED without the painful/traumatic incident. There is an alternative behavior for the dog to DO. Rather than the absence of behavior.
Instead of – don’t chase cars (leaving the dog with a void of what to do), it’s – do this behavior instead.
However, that takes time to train. A longer time depending on how long the behavior has been happening, how motivated the dog is to do the behavior, and the frequency of the training.
And I get it, not everyone has the time, wants to make the time, cares enough, etc. to actually train the dog. Many want a quick fix, and often positive training can’t provide that.
4. It takes effort.
One thing people frequently comment on is how well behaved my dog Buck is, and how they want their dog to be trained like him. Well guess what, he gets trained every day – not always something big, but always something. When he was a puppy I would use his meals to train something, and then line my family up to show off his tricks. I would plan my schedule so that I could include him for a training walk or adventure. I walked him every day and trained on every walk. Get the point?! He was not born that good. He is the sum of his experiences and his training. At his core he is really a nervous dog and would have really bad separation anxiety if he had been with an owner that did less.
My dog Buck.
I’m not saying you can only have a trained dog if you do all that, but you do have to do a lot. Especially when they are puppies, up through probably 3 years old is when many start to settle down and get into a good groove.
Sometimes you might have to shift your life around to be more conducive for your dog. Sometimes you have to cancel plans. Sometimes your puppy is not your dream dog… yet. And no, it’s not always fun. Yes it’s a lot of work. But that is life! Everything good takes hard work!
Positive training is a lot like losing weight. You have to actually do the work – there are no quick fixes, no weight loss pills that actually work, coconut oil is not the miracle! 😂 You have to be thoughtful about the food you eat, maybe not eat exactly what you want all the time, exercise, etc. Just signing up for the gym does nothing.. you have to actually GO and actually work out.
Positive training is the same – you have to actually train your dog. Repetitions. Consistency. Repetitions. Should I repeat it again or do we get the point?! 😂 Your dog jumps on people? Have someone practice coming in and out of the door 20 times. Then have someone else do that. And then again next week. And again. Until your dog gets it. You can’t just practice with me when I get there, or practice once a month (or not at all!) and expect your dog to learn a new behavior.
5. It’s misunderstood.
Many people think of positive training as too soft – too permissive. “Can I say No to my dog?” On a whole we are trying to train first rather than setting up for failure (not telling the dog what to do and then correcting them for a mistake they did not know was a mistake is setting up for failure).
But do I say no to dogs? Sure! If a dog runs into the road, you betcha I’m gonna yell No! I’m not going to ignore that behavior in lieu of him getting hit or something. 🤦♀️ But those are safety points. It’s not the same as having a dog pull on leash and saying no – this is when most people try to use the word. Or a puppy is playing keep away and the owner is yelling no. For me, these are moments where training and management allow us to be better and more productive than the word no.
However, outside of the word no (even if you never use it) the point is that all dogs need boundaries, and these need to be clearly defined and always consistent.
For example, we don’t allow dogs on furniture in my house. But when I used to board and train dogs, many of those dogs were allowed up at their house. Was this a big deal? No. If the dog jumped on the couch I just immediately said uh-uh and then pulled them off. Sometimes it took a few reps of that, but pretty quickly the dogs learned they got pet on the floor, and if they went on the couch they were immediately pulled off.
That’s an example of consistency – I did that every time so they quickly learned. Was it super painful? No. Did I use a shock collar? No. Did they learn? Yes. Is that still positive training? Yes.
And that’s the point. Is just saying the word No does nothing, but No followed by a consequence (removal from the furniture, the room, the person, etc.) means something.
Positive training does not mean your dog has no rules and boundaries. In fact I think that is awful and very stressful for a dog to have no rules. But can your rules be nice and fair? Absolutely! And they don’t have to be the silly old ones like you have to walk through the door first. They just have to be house rules that they can count on.
Compassion in Training
Those are some of the points I run into most often with regards to training. In my immediate area I am up against a few big name e-collar trainers who can promise quick fixes. I cannot. 🤷♀️
But I can promise you a way of training that is the way we should treat each other and animals – with kindness, compassion, fairness, and pain-free wherever possible.
Incidentally, I can also promise that the techniques of positive training will not permanently scar or break your dog in any way. Most e-collar trainers do not include THAT in their guarantee.
I was raised with the fundamental saying that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. And that is how I think we should strive to treat our dogs as well.
Becky Pesicka, CPDT-KA, CNWI runs Dogtastic Training, a positive training company in California.