Why did I choose positive reinforcement dog training?

It’s no secret, I am an animal lover. I have always shared my home with at least one pet. A contraband Betta fish somehow found its way into my room during my freshman year at Baldwin Wallace. While I pursued both a bachelor’s and master’s in business, animals were my first love. After earning my bachelor’s degree I adopted a Pomeranian mix named Charlotte. I also spent many hours volunteering at shelters and fostering homeless dogs.

I love reading about animal behavior and watching TV shows about it. I was a subscriber to Cesar Millan’s philosophy and trainers like him. They had their own popular television shows, they must be experts! I tried those methods, as I had witnessed many other trainers doing. What didn’t “sit” right with me was the emphasis on aversion therapy. I felt horrible using these methods to train my dog.

I knew there had to be a better way. I loved my dog, I didn’t see her and I vying to be the Alpha female, she was just a silly dog! She was content to sleep under the bed, eat some treats, and go for walks.

I have an inquisitive nature so I decided to do some research canine behavior. Dominance or Pack Theory training was based on a study done in the 1970’s by Dr. L. David Mech using a group of captive wolves. The wolves were not related or part of a natural pack. They were individually captured or breed, then forced into an enclosure making an unnatural forced pack. Dr. Mech then used his observations to write a book called The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. Since its publication a number of dog trainers adopted this approach and applied it to the training of domestic dogs. The error in this thinking is that while all domestic dogs share DNA with the mighty wolf, they do not share the psychology or “rewired brain” of the current day domesticated canine which occurred through selective breeding for positive and needed “working” traits plus thousands of years of domestication.

With further research I found other behavior experts that disagree with Dr. Mech’s studies. Victoria Stillwell, a very well known positive reinforcement trainer and blog author at Positively.com, has kindly listed out just a few of the studies that disqualify Dr Mech’s book and its appropriateness for domesticated dog training. (To view these studies please click here.)

Science to the rescue! It was a very validating process, I had been subscribing to a method which I had an internal objection to. Call it intuition, call it ethics, call it a love for for my multi-footed friends, call it “intestinal fortitude” if you want!. I had identified my reason for my aversion to aversion therapy, but now I needed to find a training method which “fit” me.

I got deeper into pet care through fostering, growing my own family and my decision to go back to school to study positive reinforcement. During this time I also opened Sits ‘N Wiggles my own business which specializes in pet sitting, training and obedience classes and dog walking. I started seeing the great things that could happen with positive reinforcement. I have also seen the damage that other training methods have done.

What exactly is positive reinforcement? In order to do this in a fun way, I will have to have a little personal disclosure. One of my favorite snacks is Doritos. If I was a castaway on a remote island and all I had were a thousand cartons of Doritos, I would not even think of trying to get rescued. Those little triangles of artificially flavored fried corn mash send me into Nirvana. I would do a lot of things for a Dorito, even things I ordinarily would never do. To even out this glimpse into my life, I have a fear of maggots. Those little white, plump, juicy, rice shaped eating machines disgust me to no end. I avoid them at all costs. If, by some horrible turn of luck, I am suddenly in close proximity to even one of them, I assume the fetal position and slip into a catatonic stupor, but not before the screams and running for my life adrenaline rush subside. If you are near me when I see maggots, I will attempt to climb you like a tree in order to escape them. While I know a maggot can’t physically harm me, I will still act as if it can, and will. Now, imagine that I am your beloved daughter or your girlfriend. You have a valid concern that I may injure myself (or you) in one of these maggot invoked panics. You want to change my behavior when I see a maggot. What are your options? You could punish me whenever I have that reaction to maggots, which will probably make my fear even worse, now I get to still maintain my fear of maggots, but never show it for fear of getting hit, yelled at or choked. If that is your choice, you’ve just substituted one fear for another. Another option would be to help me feel better about being around maggots. Which would you choose? Which would you want done to you?

Dominance theory says if a dog is afraid of something: a person, another dog or a vacuum sweeper, that you should choke them, yank on a prong collar, or shock them. What this does is train the dog to LOOK like they have overcome their fear because now the dog sits still. But is that dog calm and relaxed or too scared to move? Fear for fear. You aren’t solving the problem.

Positive reinforcement theory says if a dog is afraid of something: a person, another dog or a vacuum, that you give them the space the need away from the scary object and then do things that make the dog feel good! Provide comfort or affection, treats, play and praise! MAKE IT RAIN (LOVE)!!

If you want me to get over my distaste of maggots, you’d set out just one maggot far away from me, but close enough I know it’s there (I’d recommend maybe Pittsburgh.) Then give me tons of those orange triangles. Make the sky burst open and rain those artificially flavored and colored angled goodies down upon me. Then in a few years, move the maggots a little closer, maybe to Youngstown. Eventually I’ll be able to actually have them in the same room as I am. Just keep the Doritos coming. Eventually I will even need fewer treats and comfort as I overcome my fear.

Which sounds better to you? If you love your dog, which would you want?

To bring this back to dogs…

A foster named Mitchell was the guy that gave me the confidence to pull the trigger and go back to school. I watched him go from an emaciated, scarred up, and scared dog who reacted negatively to other dogs, to a dog that was handsome, confident and well behaved in just three short months.


Dog Training using Positive Reinforcement


I have seen happy, healthy, even exuberant dogs become scared, aggressive, and even physically injured. I have personally seen burn marks from shock collars and puncture wounds from prong collars. I have seen these dogs attacking their doggy siblings or refuse to come out of their crates. I’ve seen dogs growl, alarm bark, and even lunge at their owners, owners that they once loved, trusted, and cuddled with.

I have never seen a dog trained with positive reinforcement have this type of distress. Some dogs can bounce back, it will take time, training, patience and love. Some dogs never will come back from the trauma of aversion methods. They might never find a home that is safe for them and their human adopters. If they don’t, euthanasia may be the only option left.

You may ask how are these “trainers” still in business. It is because people don’t do their research. They watch television and read the trainers websites and think, like I did, that having a television show and a website makes them experts. They see dogs that walk in a perfect heel position and are impressed. People believe some breeds of dogs, like pit bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, must be trained with a heavy hand because they’re somehow different than Goldens, Poodles, or some other “soft” breed.  One thing these types for trainers excel at, especially over positive reinforcement trainers, is that they are great used car salesmen. They work more on their sales than we do. They are well groomed and show their “satisfied customers.” The general public is still learning about alternative training methods,they aren’t. We believe that the training methods and results speak for themselves. We will talk until we’re blue in the face and we will clean up messes from these style trainers. Because we care.

Positive reinforcement works and it does not harm. It works not only on dogs, but cats, tigers, wolves, and elephants. It’s time that we, as a community of animal lovers, educate others and practice safe, humane and proven methods of canine training. Do not give these “trainers” access to your beloved pets. When enrolling your pet in any kind of training or obedience training program, ask questions or ask to watch a session.

It’s time to stop the abuse disguised as training and be kind to the animals we love. Choose wisely!!!