Hook, Line, and Sinker: How Not-So-Positive Trainers Use Positive Reinforcement to Reel in Clients

Why does anyone want to have his or her dog trained? For many dog owners, it’s either to make a behavior improve, or to prevent unwanted behaviors from developing. For some it’s because they want to do fun things with their dog. Regardless of the reason, there is a level of trust given to trainers. Dog owners trust, at some level, that the trainer knows what they are doing, and that their dogs will not be harmed in the process of the training.

Here’s the clincher: dog training is NOT a regulated field. There is no protection in place for the general public, and anyone can call him or herself a dog trainer. There are those who only have the knowledge taught to them by someone else, or who have been training dogs in some capacity or another for many years. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the trainer is doing the training correctly. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t hurting the dogs under their tutelage.

See, behavior is a science. It’s studied around the world and millions of dollars in grants are given to the quest of understanding it and subjecting it to rigorous scientific study. The findings of all these works have indicated that punishment is detrimental to a learner (in this case, dogs). The use of punishment, where an unpleasant consequence is imposed in the form of physical sensations or perceived threats, results in increased aggression in dogs. Different behavior scientists have tested this, over and over, and by and large, the results of the studies support this. That’s why it’s science. It’s not that the idea originated somewhere in the mists of time and has been passed down generations, so it has to be true. Science doesn’t care about what has always been said, or what is believed. Science takes an idea, puts it through the ringer, and then sees what happens. Then, it does it again, with a different person doing the ringing. And again. It takes the belief out of the equation, and focuses on what actually happens. And science is showing that punitive training methods harm dogs and cause unintended behavioral fallout.

Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning, and more dog owners out there are aware of this. It’s a wonderful thing that is happening and it’s changing the face of how dog training is viewed. Owners are becoming more selective in who they hire to train their dogs. And trainers that still use pain, intimidation, and fear to coerce a behavior are also taking note.

The term “positive training” is the newest word in marketing dog training services. Because dog owners know that they should be looking for training that uses positive reinforcement, this has become the newest buzzword. Marketing has one purpose, and it’s not to educate, or to look out for your best interest. Marketing is there to make you buy something- in this case, the training services of any given trainer. When trainers that use punitive methods advertise their services, they are going to be really good at selling them to you. They have to. Think about it: “We shock your dog into compliance!” is not exactly the best tag line.

They will use words that sound like what you are looking for- and this is why it’s important that every dog owner read the fine print and do some poking around to see how trainers go about their training.

In a recent example, the website belonging to a trainer who employs the use of shock collars states:

“As much as we like to humanize our dogs, they do not understand right from wrong. Rather, they understand when a behavior gets them a response they enjoy – a treat, a toy or praise – and will repeat the behavior to get that response.”

All of this is true, and does refer to the use of positive reinforcement. So far, so good… until, as you keep reading, it states:

“In the same way, they understand when a behavior gets them a response that they don’t like. With repetition of an unpleasant response, dogs will learn not to repeat that behavior.”

This is where flags need start to be raised. A trainer that does not use force or coercion to elicit or stop a behavior doesn’t even need to mention this. It’s not a part of the equation. Why? Because science has shown how to get the desired behavior without the use of force or coercion. And science has shown that it works. (For those who want to know, one of the applications is the differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors. There is also counterconditioning and desensitization. None of which require the introduction of anything unpleasant to the dog.) A trainer that uses positive reinforcement and steers away from training with the use of force knows this.

This particular trainer goes on to explain how he teaches new behaviors, and makes no more mention of “unpleasant responses”. He does explain a reasonable approach to help your dog be successful with training even in the face of increasing distractions. Now, he’s made you comfortable with what he does again. This is brilliant marketing- getting you to have a nice warm fuzzy feeling about his approach. This primes you for the introduction of his special training program:

“Our training program — called Positive E-___ — is focused heavily on positive reinforcement and less frequent correction via an e-collar. When we teach a new behavior, we promote compliance with rewards and praise. This encourages your dog to repeat the behavior when commanded.”

Whoa. Read that again. Great name for the program that implies the use of “positive” methods- it’s even in the name! And it focuses on positive reinforcement (great!) and uses a little teeny-tiny bit of “correction” via an “e-collar”. (In case you don’t know, e-collars are remote electronic collars that are designed to deliver an unpleasant physical sensation to a dog. It hurts them.) But the way this is written helps the dog owner perceive that it’s not that big a deal by going right back to talking about using rewards and praise which gets the dog to do as commanded. It’s the same approach that drug companies use to tell you about all the side effects of their product. Sure, they’re telling you what they are, but they are saying it in a happy voice, with happy and uplifting music, while you watch happy people who have presumably been cured of their particular affliction. It doesn’t make it sound all that bad. Right?

He continues:

“Once a dog has learned behavior, we add a consequence if they fail to perform when asked. Remote training e-collars — used properly — get the dog’s attention and give the owner and trainer a way to enforce commands the dog has learned. The stimulus used is the same as what is used in human physical therapy with a TENS, or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. These devices are safe and work by sending stimulating pulses across the surface of the dog’s skin along the roughly one inch between the collar probes.”

So again, he mentions the use of coercion through the use of an “unpleasant” physical sensation. He then follows it by saying the common claim of trainers that use shock collars that “when used properly” (implying that there is a safe, correct way of using them without causing behavioral harm or physical pain) gets the dog’s attention (no kidding…), and enforces the commands that the dog has learned. Enforcement means to force, to make them do it, to coerce. It means that it does not give the choice and there will be consequences to not doing it.

Taking away a choice from any animal destroys the behavioral wellness of that animal. Early behavioral experiments on animals (dogs, actually) showed this to be the case, resulting in dogs that would just shut down and try to not do anything- even when choice was given back to them. For a quick explanation of this experiment in video format, watch the video on the following link:


Watch until 1:45, although this will also speak about what this teaches us about human depression. And if they could extrapolate the results of this experiment on dogs to what happens in depressed humans, it bears to say that the dogs were depressed as a result. From the use of shock collars.

Back to our sales pitch. The trainer compares what the dog is feeling to what patients of physical therapy feel when a TENS is used on them. What he fails to mention is that TENS is used on humans who understand what is happening, know when it’s coming, and have the means to stop the therapy if it becomes too uncomfortable. After my C-section my stomach muscles weakened enough that I started to have sciatica. TENS was one of the therapies given to me by physical therapists at the hospital to improve my affliction. If I didn’t understand what was happening, why it was good for me, was not given a heads up that the sensation was about to begin, didn’t know if and when it would end, and didn’t have a way to tell my physical therapist that it was uncomfortable, they would have had to restrain me. Yet, this is what any dog who is subjected to e-collar training goes through.

The sales pitch never goes into the fallout from the use of this tool, nor what you will have to do to repair the damage. In an editorial from Dr. Karen Overall, DVM, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior, certified by the Animal Behavior Society as an Applied Animal Behaviorist, and editor-in-chief for the Elsevier journal, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Dr. Overall states the following:

  • the use of shock is not a treatment for pets with behavioral concerns;
  • the use of shock is not a way forward;
  • the use of shock does not bring dogs back from the brink of euthanasia; instead, it may send them there; and
  • such adversarial techniques have negative consequences that those promoting these techniques either dismiss or ignore.

I encourage you to read the entire editorial on “Why electric shock is not behavior modification” here.

Indeed, it is a buyer beware world out there. You are your dog’s advocate. You are her voice. She has no choice, and is completely at your mercy as to her physical health, behavioral health, and overall happiness. It’s your job to make sure that she is safe.

Again, remember:

“We’ll shock your dog into compliance!”

may be an honest sales pitch. But it won’t sell the goods.