Positive Animal Training

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

In the 1960s behaviorism and the work of BF Skinner reigned and dominated the field of psychology and understanding of animals. In simple terms, animals were thought to just be stimulus-response machines, with little or no emotions or intelligence and certainly no consciousness.

Behaviorists believed that studying lab rats was all that was necessary to understand any behavior because it was all the same. This major error continues to influence many animal research experiments in labs.

One principle of behaviorism came from Classical Conditioning, meaning that if you rewarded an animal with something they desired, such as food, that animal would become conditioned to repeat the behavior that preceded the treat. So, if a dog sits and you give him a treat, the animal learns that sitting results in a treat. If you punish a dog, the behaviorists believe, you will reduce the likelihood of that behavior. Thus overly-simplified position resulted in justifying decades of cruel animal testing in research labs. Behaviorism only focuses on what an animal does in response to events in the environment. Behaviorism is looking at the outside result, the final behavior, and not considering other factors, such as animal instinct, animal emotion, or animal choice and intelligence.

BF Skinner in his lab, with what became to be called the Skinner box. There was no regard to how the rat felt.

While behaviorism still offers some benefits to understanding training, such as the principles of conditioning, it falls short when it comes to the humane understanding of the true needs and desires of animals – in short, their inner lives. Recent research has gone way beyond the mechanistic behavioralist view. The work of many researchers on our reading list expand and explore the true potential of animals for profound experiences such as emotions, empathy, compassion, curiosity, inventiveness, creativity, and love. Including these aspects of an animal's inner world changes how we approach training.

The Major Training Perspectives:

Some training methods use negative methods of punishment, coercion, and fear to change animal behavior. The concept here is that the human must dominate the animal in order to show him who is the boss. This methodology was popularized on TV by Cesar Milan. I admit, BEFORE I became a dog trainer, I watched every episode of Cesar Milan's shows. I had a chance to watch him in person on one of his tour shows.

I believe he is personally gifted, and dogs respond to his natural dog-abilities. However, he is misinformed about his understanding of the role of the Alpha Male (see my blog on The Truth About Alpha Males.) This dominance model doesn't hold up to current scientific understanding about how animals learn, but was very much the style in the 1950s and is still practiced today by some trainers, especially in law enforcement and with military working dogs.

Although dominance methods can create compliance, in many cases, they disrupt the true potential for the human-animal bond, which is based on mutual respect, two-way communication, and trust. As I had a chance to understand the science of positive training methods and became a dog trainer myself, I feel it is very important to educate the public that methods that hurt, frighten, or dominate animals is morally wrong. Dominance is not effective learning. It does not hold up with our current science of animal cognition. It is the wrong approach for those who seek to have a trusting relationship with their animal.

Cherry, a very sweet dog, who was once forced to fight

Having spent thousands of hours volunteering at animal shelters, you see that dogs who have been hit (as evidenced by the fact that they cower when a human raises their arm or holds something above their head) -- end up as owner surrenders. This is because the human may have gotten dominance over their animal, but that animal will often act-out or be destructive in other areas. Thus that animal is often surrendered or abandoned.

Cherry, one of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick's Dog Fighting Ring, is a shining example of how healing is possible for dogs who have been severely traumatized

Animals who have been dominated, hurt or abused suffer trauma just like humans. What is inspiring is that they can heal in the right environment, with lots of safety, love, and patience. They can learn to trust humans again with the right kind of treatment. I have seen even extreme cases, such as one dog who was rescued from the Michael Vick dogfighting compound, his name was Cherry. This black Pitbull was so frightened of everything that when Best Friends Animal Sanctuary rescued him, and took him for a walk, he would just slink along the ground. Best Friends rescued some of these "worst cases" -- which they later named "Victory Dogs" because so many of them were able to be rehabilitated.

Cherry gives love at a screening in NYC of Champions

Cherry has since been adopted by a loving and patient family, and I had a chance to meet him at a screening in NYC of the powerful documentary Champions, which tells the story of these dogs and their rehabilitation, even though in the past rescued fighting dogs were always euthanized at shelters. Cherry was a very happy, well-behaved, loving dog who was able to relax on stage in front of a crowd of strangers and take treats, wag his tail, and pose for pictures. Later Cherry chose a wonderful baby sister, Ellie. Thankfully he has a wonderful life now!

Positive Training Methods began to replace outdated training styles in the 1980s. Ian Dunbar, an English veterinarian, helped popularize this approach and encouraged people to get puppies off to a good start with "puppy parties" and early socialization. Positive Training methods seek to use only positive reinforcement, meaning an animal is rewarded for good behavior (the dog sits, she gets a treat.) Bad behavior is redirected (the dog chews on something she is not supposed to, and she is handed a toy she is allowed to chew.) Some trainers will use a combination of positive and corrective training. For example, some may use positive training methods for 90% of situations but will consider a variety of harsher methods for serious behavioral challenges. Some examples of stronger corrections involve varying degrees of control, such as leash corrections, startling noises or touches, or other dominance methods.

Dolphins, which are most effectively trained with 100% positive methods, meaning, "good" behavior is rewarded, and "wrong" behavior is ignored, have done much to teach us about the effectiveness of positive training for all species.

Today, there is mounting evidence for the use of at least 90% positive training. While this may require more patience and perseverance than methods that override an animal’s will, they result in better physical and emotional health for the animal. One of the most common reasons dogs are "owner-surrenders" to shelters are behavioral problems. In my opinion, this one change, increasing the reliance on positive training methods, may reduce the number of animals who are abandoned, escape, or become "owner-surrender" to overcrowded shelters.

Methods that take into consideration the animal’s needs and wishes are based on greater respect for the animal’s spirit. They take the perspective that animals have needs, emotions, desires, and generally want to please us. It is a matter of showing them or teaching them that positive behavior please us and often gets rewarded.

Autonomy and the Power of Choice

Just as very young children need boundaries and structure (a five-year-old should not run free in a mall, for example), animals who share our lives need training and an understanding of what we desire and what we don't desire. However, HOW we get to this result is a question of what we value. If we want a companion animal who loves, trusts and respects our wishes, positive training methods will have the most effectiveness.

When he was ready, Cherry chose this puppy, Ellie. So now he is the big brother.

Having said that, it is important for children and animals that they have SOME time or areas where they can make their own choices. This means playtime, off-leash. Where they can choose what they want to do and how they do it. Even service dogs and other working dogs need some "downtime," rest time, or play time. They need some time where they can make choices, such as lay in the sun or not -- play with a toy or not -- potty when they need to, engage with others or not and so on. Everybody's situation is different. If you live in a big city, you may not be able to let your dog run off leash. So you have to look at your specific situation and ask yourself "In what ways or situations could my dog make his or her own choices?" Having some "choice time" each day or week, even for twenty minutes can go a long way towards mental and physical health in humans and non-human animals.

Brief History of Animal Training and Methodology

Ever since we took wolf cubs into our caves, we have been socializing dogs to be our best friends. As Mary Burch, PhD states, "Domesticated dogs were used for purposes such as hunting, herding, droving, pulling sleds, and killing vermin. Tibetan Terriers are thought to have been bred and raised by monks in Tibetan monasteries as long as 2000 years ago to serve as pets and assist with the care of flocks and herds. In the 1790s, during her imprisonment, Josephine reportedly used her Pug to carry messages to Napoleon. In the 19th Century, Asian tribes were using sled dogs to carry loads. All of these dogs had some training that was most likely provided by the owners and based on