The idea behind training positive is not new, but it does require us to pause and consider what it really means in this context, and how it can be of help to people who are training their dogs. Imagine an approach to training your dog that considers how a dog learns and why they behave the way that they do. And when I talk about these explanations of behavior, I am referring to an empirically supported and scientific understanding of what we know to be accurate for decades through experimental psychology. Next, we develop a plan that takes into consideration the needs of the dog (something that can vary remarkably from one dog to another) and come up with strategies that will be effective in accomplishing the goal through encouragement.
When we train positively, we focus on what we would like our dog to do, instead of becoming too preoccupied with what we don’t like about what they are currently doing. Good habits are fortunately, just as hard to break as bad habits. Having said that, if a bad habit already exists, then we curb it using positive reinforcement methods as opposed to shunning the behavior through punishment and a vindictive mentality. Punishment can take the form of physical, verbal, or psychological aggression/intimidation. The reason why this is avoided is because it is not conducive to helping dogs learn. The brain circuitry of most animals, particularly dogs, is constructed in such a way that punishment activates a fear/threat ‘center’, and this we have also come to understand as being inhibitive of new learning. This does not mean that punishment does not ever work for any dog, as I’m sure many people will tell you how effective they have found it to be. What it means is that just because it works for some dogs, does not mean that it will work for all dogs. Similarly, just because it works for some dogs, does not mean that it is the best approach even for those dogs! Professionals who utilize positive reinforcement as their primary training strategy will be able to provide endless case examples of dogs they have worked with whose learning was not only inhibited as a result of punishment-based training, but was responsible for exacerbating the original problem.
Positive reinforcement develops a dog’s confidence and motivation to engage in the training process, as well as enhancing their skills as a learner. After a few sessions, the learning becomes faster, and is retained, maintained, and generalized across contexts very well. Perhaps the most worthy outcome of training positively is the relationship that emerges from the compassionate and respectful interactions that are engendered through this process. I am constantly in awe of a dog’s ability to develop deep bonds with their humans once we commit ourselves to nurturing them with love, support, and compassionate guidance.
To be clear, this is not advocacy for consistently sending positive messages regardless of the dog’s behavior. It is an introduction to the concept that even some of the most severe behavioral problems can be addressed through gentler means. We do this in a number of different ways. For example, it may include creating scenarios where the dog will exhibit desirable behaviors allowing us to capture and harness them, and then to gradually transfer them onto other situations. By properly managing the dog’s environment, we creatively address any and all behavior challenges.