Why negative reinforcement training is bad for dogs
Here’s how to use positive reinforcement to train your dog or puppy in a way that’s safe and fun for you both.
Punishment – whether it’s directly physical or something hands-off like noise cues – is never a good means for training a pup. Intimidating or causing a dog physical discomfort can be incredibly damaging to an animal’s mental and emotional well-being. Anything that creates fear, anxiety or discomfort (like shock collars, prong collars, choking and submissive moves or gestures) can provoke a dog to retaliate or defend himself by attacking the trainer or pet parent.
One of the first and most important questions to ask before diving into a discussion about training methods is whether the “problem” you’re trying to address with a dog is actually a training issue or an issue related to their current environment, relationship dynamics and wellness routines.
“As a society, we’re hyper-focused on being able to gain control of our dogs’ behavior through cues,” Sarah Fraser, certified dog behavior consultant and co-founder of Instinct Dog Behavior and Training, says. “This ‘control the dog’ mindset becomes highly problematic, regardless of what methods we’re using to train. Especially if what the dog actually needs to navigate our human world successfully isn’t training, but different environmental conditions, health and wellness support, more outlets to perform important natural behaviors or more support and guidance from their humans.”
As you begin training your pup, it’s important to use positive reinforcement and to understand why they’re behaving a certain way to begin with. According to Fraser, some of the most effective training interventions don’t involve much training at all – they rely on providing the environment, relationships and wellness routines a dog requires to feel safe, connected and fulfilled.
Why you shouldn’t punish your dog
Many pet parents may not even know what negative reinforcement looks like when training a dog or puppy. Some examples of negative training include physical punishment, yelling, shock collars, use of squirt bottles and leash correction. While some of these tools aren’t physically painful, they still fall into the negative training category. Dogs subjected to punishment training over time can become incredibly stressed, anxious and fearful.
“Simply put, there are far better, safer, kinder options available that don’t put your dog at risk of chronic stress, unintended negative associations and/or increased likelihood of aggressive and reactive behavior,” Fraser says.
Pet parents should absolutely never hit or kick their dog because it increases their stress levels and decreases their trust in you, resulting in a negative pet-parent relationship and potential safety issues.
In fact, punishment training often fails due to increased stress. This is especially true with dogs in sensitive developmental periods like puppyhood and adolescence, with dogs who are already fearful or anxious about the world around them and when dogs are in new situations.
Training that focuses on delivering unpleasant consequences when a dog displays, or fails to display, certain behaviors presents an increased risk of chronic stress and compromised behavioral health, Fraser says. Aversive experiences are more likely to lead to negative emotional states and, therefore, negative associations.
Similarly, because punishment-based training focuses on teaching a dog what not to do, they’re often left confused and uncertain about what they should do in a given situation.
Positive reinforcement dog training
Of course, your dog still needs to be taught expected and safe behaviors. Especially when puppies, dogs need guidance to grow into happy, healthy pets who can safely socialize with others. When focusing on positive reinforcement, dog parents can teach their pets in a way that doesn’t cultivate fear.
“It’s hugely valuable to teach our dogs key life skills that allow them to enjoy more freedom and participate in daily life with us,” Fraser says. “How we choose to teach and interact with our dogs, and the types of consequences we choose to provide, will directly influence how they feel – about you, learning, the behavior in question and the world around them.”
One of the most important reasons Fraser recommends sticking to positive methods is to maintain (or establish) a healthy relationship with your dog – one in which they view you as a source of safety and opportunity rather than a source of potential threats and hazards.
“This relationship dynamic sets the stage for increased trust, cooperation and connection and makes it far easier for you to provide effective guidance and direction to your dog when needed,” she says.
Positive training is also way more fun! It allows our dogs to become confident, fearless learners who enjoy engaging with us. If you expect your pup to greet you with tail wagging when you get home from work, or cuddle you after a long day, then it’s up to you to treat them with kindness.
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How to discipline a dog or puppy
According to Fraser, the best form of training is an approach that expands beyond just teaching discrete skills and behaviors to include broader nurturing principles that support your dog’s overall behavioral health. Pet parents should also focus on fostering a relationship dynamic in which they’re viewed as a safe, predictable, helpful leader. Provide optimal wellness routines that include adequate and fun exercise, natural behavior outlets, sleep and healthcare to best train your pup in an effective way.
“In daily life, there are so many wonderful ways to reward your dog for desired behaviors,” Fraser says. “I find it helpful to start off by thinking about your dog’s preferences: What types of toys, play, treats, petting/physical touch and activities do they enjoy? These can all become powerful rewards!”
Especially in the early stages of skills training, food is generally the most practical, effective and efficient way to reward your dog for their behavior. Don’t be afraid to grab their favorite snack when you head out on walks or introduce your dog to a new environment. Rewarding them with a tasty treat will help your dog remember how to behave, and they will want to impress you to earn more snacks.
Fraser also recommends using “life rewards” to reinforce desired behaviors in everyday life. This involves rewarding your dog by giving them access to a desired object, location or activity. Think about rewarding polite waiting at the door with permission to bound outside and play. Or, you can try rewarding a successful response to “drop” with an immediate toss of the ball, instead of making them wait.
“Remember that your dog’s preferences can change based on context: Your dog may love your snuggles first thing in the morning while you lie in bed together, but that doesn’t mean snuggles will be an effective reward for coming when called at the dog park,” Fraser says. You should be mindful of using a variety of rewards when they’ll be most effective. Patience is key when discipling your dog, but the result is worth it for you both.
When to get help training your dog
If you’re concerned about any of your dog’s behaviors, talk to your veterinarian. Nothing is too trivial or insignificant – and the earlier you help your pet, the easier it’ll be to achieve the result you want. You can also reach out to professional trainers who use positive reinforcement methods and take your pup to behavioral classes for extra socialization.
“A veterinarian can be an invaluable member of your dog’s training and behavior support team. Especially if your dog has underlying medical issues that need to be addressed or managed or if you’re dealing with complex fear, anxiety or aggression issues,” Fraser says. “Remember that veterinarians are medical professionals. Their expertise lies in supporting your dog’s physical and physiological health.”
If your vet isn’t as comfortable correcting behavioral problems, ask for a local referral. You can also reach out to a certified trainer or behavior consultant who utilizes kind, positive, evidence-based methods. You should always prioritize a safe and fun environment when it comes to training your best friend, so don’t be afraid to ask for help to find the best methods that work for you.
The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.
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Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash