What is positive training? And what it's not?

You have, no doubt, heard about “positive dog training”. If you're reading this post, you're probably following my page and you know that I identify as a “positive trainer”.

So you know that I don't use choke chains, or electric collars, that I use food and other rewards to teach dogs, that I will not yank on your dog's leash or smack him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. 

That's the picture that comes to mind when you think about this term. This way of thinking focuses on the methods that we do or don't use as positive trainers. Many say they don't use punishment in training (which is, of course, incorrect) or aversive equipment (which is open to interpretation). 

This emphasis on methods actually works against us, and the non-positive trainers are quick to point out all the weaknesses of this. 

Depending on who is looking and at which angle, they can find that some methods and techniques that we use are, in fact, aversive, even if we think otherwise. It's simple – if the dog finds it aversive, it is aversive. 

For one dog a normal collar may be aversive, another will find a pat on the head repulsive, both used every day by countless positive trainers. 

Let's face it, life is not always rosy and sweet, things happen that we, and our dogs, have to get used to and keep going. 

That's why the methods we use are not the only defining factor in calling oneself a positive trainer. Not even the most important.

Because the most important difference lies in... philosophy. 

Yes, that's your belief system, your way of thinking about your dog, your specific cultural and societal filters related to keeping and understanding dogs. You see, how you perceive your dog will determine how you'll treat him and how you'll explain his behaviours. 

What do you believe dogs are will taint the way you respond to him and what methods you'll use to teach him. The picture is the same for everybody – the dog in front of you – but depending on your philosophical filter, you'll see different realities.

Positive training philosophy starts with the premise that dogs are naturally cooperative and sociable, intelligent and curious, playful and mischievous. 

We see dogs are sentient beings with their own personalities and quirks, likes and dislikes, preferences and predispositions. They are partners, not servants. They are family. 

We know they are animals, don't worry, nobody is saying they are little people covered in fur. In all their animalness they are awesome and perfect, and they choose to work with us for our rewards and our company. They are dogs – they don't come to this world understanding our rules and expectations, they have their own ways of dealing with what they encounter and it's not always what we appreciate. 

Tough. We choose to live with them, not the other way round, so it is our job to adjust. But also to guide them and teach so they become the best dogs they can.

Positive trainers know that dog behaviour, like our own, follows certain principles, the principles of learning also called the learning theory. Dogs are not that different from humans. We are all animals and what works for one, works for the other. We understand that we don't know everything about dogs, nobody does, and we are first to admit that.

When training, positive trainers look for behaviours that can be strengthened and reinforced so they happen more often. Then everybody is happy. The owners get what they want, the dog is keen to repeat the behaviours to get a treat. 

So what do we do with the behaviours we don't want? We prevent them from happening in the first place by means of management and arranging the environment so the dog is successful. We don't take an unskilled dog to a place that is way too hard for him and then correct the wrong behaviour. 

We first teach the skills in an easy place and then gradually increase the difficulty until we have the dog performing well everywhere. We build the dog's competency just like we'd do with a child, step by step, until they become little champs (dogs and children alike).

Being a positive trainer, however, doesn't mean that we allow the dog to do whatever he wants. 

That's something that is thrown at us by the non-positive community, that we baby the dogs, treat them like kids, spoil them and then, in return, they display problematic behaviours like aggression, reactivity, total lack of manners. 

Well, yes, there are people who do that, but trust me, that has nothing to do with positive training. It's a misunderstanding of the term and lack of knowledge and skills. This problem comes from owners who really want to be positive and are against corrections and punishment, which is great, but they don't know what to do instead. 

Positive training is not just not using corrections, it's much more complicated than that and if someone doesn't take the time to learn the ropes, they inevitably make the situation worse. Which then gives the non-positive trainers the reason to criticise us. 

Yes, when they use corrections on an unruly dog, they'll see instant results, but not because the dog needed it to be a well functioning family member, not because it makes sense to the dog either, it's because of the sudden change in the dog's life and environment – from do what you want to ouch, that hurts. 

You do get cautious and well behaved when your life as you know it comes to an end. 

But it's not the fault in the way of training but rather in the lack of training of any kind that caused the issue in the first place. That dog owner was not doing positive training, that's not what it is about. 

Dogs do need rules, clear rules make life easier and create awesome companions, sport, and work partners. Positive training, when executed well, will give you all that without compromising your dog's welfare in the process. 

When you see your dog as a cooperative creature that he is, you'll find ways to teach him anything you want without being threatening, scary or intimidating. 

You don't need to be the boss, Alpha or pack leader, you need to be a human with empathy and compassion, knowledge and skills, love and understanding. 

And pockets full of liver. By the way, if giving treats to your dog makes you uncomfortable you're already not in the positive training mindset. You have to feed your dog - get over it - you might just as well use his food in training.

Let's get back to the issue of seeing the dog, to our filters or glasses. Who do you see when you look down at your dog? The picture, remember, is the same for all of us. 

When your dog does something embarrassing, annoying or dangerous, what do you think is the reason? In positive training we see a dog who lacks skills, who is scared or overwhelmed, who is over aroused and unable to cope with it, who is locked in a pattern of behaviour he doesn't know how to change. 

We look down and we take action: remove the dog from the situation, go home, identify what's missing in his training, teach it, then take it on the road, evaluate, implement everywhere, enjoy – your dog is trained now. 

Why don't we just correct on the spot? Granted, there is a big chance the dog would stop the unwanted behaviour instantly, but there would be no learning there, just suppression. 

Learning is slow, how many years you've been in school? It takes time to form new neural connections in the brain, and until that happens the old behaviour can still be the first choice. We owe our dogs the benefit of the doubt, maybe they don't know that yet, maybe their neural connections haven't formed yet, don't punish, teach.

Positive training is a conversation. The information flows in both directions. 

In an old school, non-positive paradigm, it's pretty much a one way street: we make rules that the dog must follow, the end of story. In our positive world we have discussions with our dogs. 

Would you sit please? No? Why? What's the matter? The dog has a say, an opinion. What if he's sore, maybe strained his muscle and it's painful to sit? Did you take it into account? Or you insist until he sits? Is it really that important or is it ok if he just stands there quietly if it's more comfortable for him? Are you aiming for cooperation or total control? 

Yes, we train our dogs to perform in every situation but we are tuned in to their story as well. Conversation, not monologue. 

We treat dogs as if they were equal partners and in turn they contribute to their education by telling us what works best for them, when they're under too much pressure, how we can make it easier for them. 

They can tell you all that! If you're willing to listen. They tell us with that ear twitch, this yawn, the weight shift away from us, but also with that little tail wag, those shining eyes, mouth open in anticipation. 

In positive training we listen. We take notes. And we make sure they are heard.

I hope you read it and agreed. That's why you are on this page. There is too much coercion in this world, let's make a little contribution to change it by treating our beloved dogs with respect and love.

Agata Brzek
Dog Trainer and Behaviour Consultant