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Dog Training Methods. Arising Conflicts

There are so many types of dog trainers out there, that it is impossible to cover the characteristics of each of them separately. Conflicts between balanced dog trainers and positive-only dog trainers have appeared regularly over the decades. Also, these two types appear to have common ground with the others, so the analysis is focused on them, not entirely limited to them. It is a long and complicated topic but let’s try to point out some important factological moments, starting with a brief explanatory comparison between these two groups of trainers and their methodologies. My personal opinion can be found at the end of the article.

Approach to Behavior Modification:

Balanced trainers utilize a combination of positive reinforcement and aversive techniques to modify behavior. They may use rewards such as treats, praise, games, and toys to encourage desired behaviors, while also employing aversive methods, such as leash corrections or verbal reprimands, to discourage unwanted behaviors when needed.

Positive-only trainers focus exclusively on positive reinforcement methods, utilizing rewards such as treats and praise to reinforce desired behaviors. They avoid the use of aversive techniques or tools and prioritize creating a positive and force-free training environment.

Philosophical Perspective:

Balanced trainers believe in using a variety of training methods to address behavior issues effectively. They may view aversive techniques as necessary in certain situations, such as addressing severe aggression or dangerous behaviors, but strive to use them judiciously and with an emphasis on minimizing stress and discomfort for the dog.

Positive-only trainers advocate for a force-free approach to dog training, rejecting the use of aversive techniques entirely. They prioritize the emotional well-being of the dog and believe that positive reinforcement methods can effectively modify behavior without causing fear, anxiety, or distress.

Handling of Undesirable Behaviors:

Balanced trainers may employ aversive techniques to interrupt or discourage undesirable behaviors, such as pulling on the leash, jumping up, or aggression. They may use tools like corrective collars or verbal corrections to communicate to the dog that certain behaviors are unacceptable.

Positive-only trainers focus on redirecting or managing undesirable behaviors through positive reinforcement methods. Rather than using aversive techniques, they may redirect the dog’s attention to an alternate behavior or remove the dog from the situation to prevent reinforcement of the unwanted behavior.

Training Environment and Relationship Building:

Balanced trainers emphasize building a strong relationship of trust and respect with the dog while using a balanced approach to training. They may incorporate play, affection, and positive interactions to strengthen the bond between the dog and the trainer.

Positive-only trainers prioritize creating a positive and enjoyable training experience for the dog, where learning is facilitated through rewards and cooperation. They aim to build a strong foundation of trust and mutual understanding between the dog and trainer without the use of aversive techniques.

Types of dogs they work with:

Balanced trainers tend to work with all kinds of dogs, including companion pets, service dogs, sporting dogs, working dogs, and traumatized rescued dogs.

Positive-only trainers work mostly with companion pet dogs, puppies, and some rescued dogs.

Audience and clients:

Balanced dog trainers may rely on inexperienced new dog owners, as well as on collaboration with professionals and experienced dog owners.

Positive-only trainers tend to be the choice of inexperienced or new dog owners, and some of the animal welfare organizations.

Overall, while both balanced and positive-only training methods have their proponents and critics, both of them are effective and the choice between them often depends on the trainer’s philosophical beliefs, the individual needs, the type and temperament of the dog, and the specific behavior issues being addressed. It’s essential for all trainers to prioritize the welfare and well-being of the dog and to use methods that are safe, humane, effective, and tailored to the unique circumstances of each dog.


All aspects of balanced dog training are extremely adaptive which makes any form of generalization hard. Fortunately, positive-only dog training has more consistency in reference points, giving opportunities for analysis.

„Positive-only training is an entirely new concept. It is currently introducing innovative approaches for learning using treats and playing games“.

Actually, it has roots that trace back to the early 20th century. However, it gained more prominence and formalization in the latter half of the 20th century and has continued to evolve since then.

One of the earliest proponents of positive reinforcement training was the German animal behaviorist and psychologist Konrad Most. Most’s work, particularly his book “Training Dogs: A Manual” published in 1910, emphasized the use of rewards and praise to train dogs effectively. He advocated for using treats, toys, and other rewards to reinforce desired behaviors, rather than resorting to punishment or aversive methods.

In the mid-20th century, trainers such as the Brelands, who worked with B.F. Skinner further advanced the understanding and application of operant conditioning principles in animal training. They demonstrated the effectiveness of positive reinforcement techniques in shaping animal behavior and coined the term “bridging stimulus” to describe the use of a marker signal to communicate to the animal that a desired behavior has been performed.

While humans have been training and playing with dogs for thousands of years, the structured use of games for specific training purposes also gained prominence in the 20th century. As agility and other dog sports gained popularity, trainers began incorporating more and more game-like elements into their training methodologies.

„Positive-only training is based on science”.

Science in positive-only training mainly refers to Skinner’s quadrants, used in the context of operant conditioning to categorize the four possible consequences of behavior, as positive-only trainers use two of these quadrants: positive reinforcement and negative punishment.

Skinner was brilliant in his filed and his work was fundamental to dog training world we know today but it is important to note that he was a human psychologist, experimenting with mice and pigeons, closed in boxes. His purpose was to make inferences about human learning based on the example provided by animals. He has never trained dogs and has never used animals in more natural environment. Actually, his research primarily focus on learning psychology rather than behavior. Practically applied, Skinner’s methods on child-rearing and education have been subject to some criticism and debate, particularly regarding issues of autonomy and the potential for overly controlling or manipulative practices. While his concepts can (and must!) be applied to dog training to some extent, they do not fully encapsulate the complexity of training a dog.

Dogs are emotional beings with rich inner lives and emotional complexity, and their behaviors are influenced by a variety of factors beyond simple stimulus-response conditioning. Yet, they are animals, not humans. Effective dog training requires consideration of the individual dog’s temperament, learning style, breed, lineage, past experiences, specific training goals, environmental factors, the emotional state of the dog, and the relationship dynamics between the dog and the trainer. Skinner’s quadrants provide a wonderful framework for understanding consequences, but they are just one piece of the whole puzzle and they do not account for the complexity of these contextual factors in shaping behavior.

In other words, successful dog training is not limited to learning psychology. It may require a deeper understanding of the canine race which is determined by a combination of other scientific fields, such as ethology, cynology, biology, evolution, genetics, ecology, cognitive and behavioral psychology, neuroscience, veterinary medicine, animal welfare science, etc. It is a long list, especially in the presence of the human factor dog trainers also need to work with – dog owners.

Limiting knowledge to only one scientific field may lead to some potential challenges associated with a strict “positive-only” approach:
  • Positive reinforcement techniques excel at promoting and reinforcing desirable behaviors, but they may not always effectively address unwanted behaviors, especially those that are instinctive or self-reinforcing. In some cases, additional techniques may be necessary to modify or eliminate undesirable behaviors.
  • Timing and consistency are essential! Inconsistencies or delays in delivering rewards can lead to confusion and hinder the learning process for the dog.
  • Dogs with severe behavioral issues may be less motivated by traditional rewards such as treats or toys, especially in high-stress situations. In these cases, positive reinforcement alone may not provide sufficient motivation for the dog to engage in desired behaviors or to overcome their fears or aggression.
  • Dogs trained solely through positive reinforcement may become dependent on the presence of rewards to perform desired behaviors. This can pose challenges in situations where rewards are not readily available or feasible, leading to a lack of reliability in the dog's responses.
  • In certain emergency situations or scenarios where immediate intervention is necessary to prevent harm to the dog or others, a strict positive-only approach may not provide appropriate tools or methods for quickly stopping unwanted behaviors. Some dogs, particularly those with severe behavior issues or specific temperament traits, may require a more comprehensive training program that incorporates a variety of techniques.
  • Dogs trained exclusively through positive reinforcement methods may experience frustration or confusion if they do not understand how to earn rewards or if the training process is not effectively communicated to them.

Overall, while positive reinforcement-based training is widely praised for its effectiveness and ethical considerations, trainers and owners need to recognize its limitations and be prepared to adapt their approach as needed to address the individual needs and behaviors of their dogs. Incorporating a well-rounded training program that includes a variety of techniques can help ensure the best outcomes for both dogs and their owners.

The only problem with positive-only training is that it doesn’t exist. It’s impossible for an individual not to experience discomfort, especially when learning and growing. Without the existence of a wrong choice, there wouldn’t be a right one. The good feeling is defined as such simply because it’s compared to a bad feeling. People who cause pain, stress, or fear in dogs are not called trainers. They are called abusers. This classification isn’t based on the tools, accessories, or methodologies they use, but rather on their personal mentality and actions.

In fact, positive-only trainers grasp the concept of ‘good is nothing without the bad’ extremely well. Their marketing strategies often rely on positioning themselves as the ‘good guys’ in contrast to portraying others as the ‘bad guys.’ However, this approach is ultimately flawed, as it reflects nothing but insecurity and disrespect.

The only innovation in this innovative positive training is the percentage of people who are just now getting acquainted with all this long-known information. Newbies who give old things new names and profit from other newbies lacking knowledge. Even if it sounds completely innocent, it may not always be so. When, quite expectedly, positive training fails to achieve the desired result, the alternative for many dogs turns out to be unnecessary medication „treatment” or euthanasia. Because serious training begins where the positive-only one stops.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with inexperienced people learning new stuff. On the contrary, it is wonderful. It’s just not right for them to confront other, more experienced people with their newly acquired partial knowledge. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the dogs – being just a tool in interpersonal competition. Pointless competition and opposition. The two methodologies and concepts are not mutually exclusive, they can successfully complement each other.

Part of the problem leading to conflicts is that over time the whole concept of training changed. Nowadays everything is called “training”. Training no longer refers to teaching the dog to perform a certain task in a specific way, nor to solve serious problems in the animal’s behavior, or to be some specialized activity, as initially applied centuries ago. Today, owners experience difficulties in taking their dogs for a walk, trimming their nails, visiting the vet, getting them off the couch, or introducing them to the world it is expected to live in. More and more owners are not able to simply take care of their dogs. For all of this, they need ‘trainers’, and these ‘trainers’ label the ordinary, basic, so natural, and intuitive everyday coexistence of a human and a dog… training!

I would really love to hear more trainers talk about dogs rather than methodologies. I would love to see people who get to know and respect their dogs rather than trying to change the animals in order to meet the wrong human criteria. I would love to meet more trainers who actually work with dogs, rather than explaining on social media how others should theoretically work with dogs. I wish I encountered more people who prioritize the well-being of dogs over their own egos. Dog training is not a scientific concept or a mathematical formula. It is a communication with diverse emotional individuals, based also on adaptivity and common sense. There are no old-fashioned ways versus new-fashioned ways of training. There are working and ethical ways of communication versus non-working and unethical ways of communication. There is no one-size-fits-all when speaking of complex living beings.
Also, there are no universal trainers, just as there are no universal doctors. Everyone should have a certain foundation, but each specializes in specific areas according to their experience, strengths, and preferences.

Oh, science! I almost forgot about this key magic word. l can assure you that science still has more questions than answers, especially when it comes to dogs and the way they function. „Science” should not be subject to speculation.

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