Before talking about the dark side of extreme positive dog training methods, I want to stress that I am primarily a positive dog trainer. What this means is that I firmly believe that changing behavior is always more effective when using a positive reward-based approach than using punitive measures. However, if a dog is knowingly misbehaving, I believe there must be consequences – and withholding a treat doesn’t cut it on those occasions.
Let me define what I mean by “extreme” positive dog training. There are folks who sincerely believe that one should never ever correct a dog. Ever. While I admire their good intentions and desire to do no harm, I believe they sometimes take it to a degree that is not only unhelpful but can actually be harmful.
For example, an extreme positive dog trainer believes that withholding treats from a misbehaving dog is an example of a consequence that comes from not doing what you want. However, if your puppy is digging a hole, he doesn’t care in the least that he’s not getting a treat. He’s doing exactly what he wants! He might be sad that he doesn’t get the treat, but he had such a good time digging that it really isn’t all that important to him. In other words, he has learned absolutely nothing.
Extreme positive dog trainers believe that you should never ever disapprove of your dog’s actions. My issue with this is that it doesn’t reflect the realities of life or the fact that dogs and people learn from complex (and sometimes stressful) situations where decisions need to be made. Frankly, it breaks my heart to see extremely bright and intelligent dogs like Border Collies who have had a trainer like this. Too often they become velcro dogs – they cling to you. And it’s not out of love, but out of insecurity. They are bright, intelligent and curious dogs who are completely unprepared for anything unexpected and curl up in fear when faced with something they don’t know how to deal with. Bright dogs love being challenged. They need it to feel good about themselves and safe in the world they inhabit.
I have spoken to people who won’t even make a noise like “aah!” at a misbehaving dog. How in the world is the dog supposed to know that what they’re doing is not ok if you don’t tell them?? No wonder they get insecure – or aggressive! They can’t figure out the rules – and like us, dogs need clearly understood rules to feel safe.
Dogs, like us, need to be challenged. They need to know, without question, when something they do is not ok. That’s how they learn. If they don’t get that from you, they can easily become insecure and I doubt that’s what you want for your dog. Dogs like having rules they can clearly understand. It makes them feel safe and much more willing to try new things because they trust you and know you’ll tell them if it’s not ok.
You can make a disapproving noise, pop their leash, walk over and shoo them away, or take any of a number of different actions that are not harmful in any way but are clear messages about what is and is not ok. This helps your dog know the rules and goes a long way to creating an amazing bond between you. Setting clearly communicated boundaries is the single biggest thing you can do to create that bond of trust between you. Isn’t that really what you want? A happy, active, curious 4-legged friend who trusts and listens to you?