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Dog Training: Positive Reinforcement vs. Correction Methods

The debate between positive reinforcement and conventional correction dog training continues. Here’s a deep dive into the differences between the two.

Every responsible dog owner should train their dog to some degree, whether it’s just enough to be able to comfortably coexist with their pet, all the way to full-on formal obedience, or somewhere in between. 

The two most common dog training methods today are positive reinforcement and correction-based. The question is, are these methods effective for dog training, and which one is better?

Positive reinforcement is generally considered preferable to correction because dogs learn good behavior with rewards, not by harsh punishment or physical force. Correction is often not as effective a training method because it can cause fear, avoidance, and aggression in dogs. Dogs that enjoy the learning process are much likelier to succeed than dogs that are punished as part of their training.

Does that mean that correction is an outdated method that is not suitable for dog training? Many would argue that this is true, but correction training is still widely used. There has been heated debate between the two camps for many years. 

Let’s discuss positive reinforcement and correction, and explore the differences between these two methods and how they affect the ultimate goal of achieving a successful, beneficial partnership between dog and owner.

Trends in Modern Dog Training

Traditional Correction-Based Dog Training 

Until the past 20 years or so, dog training was almost exclusively correction-based, using punishments or “adversives” to teach a dog the desired behavior. In this method, rewards may be used to teach the initial behavior, but once the dog understands what is expected, failure to comply with a command results in a physical correction.

For example, to teach a dog to sit, a treat is offered and the dog learns that when they assume a sitting position, they get the reward. Once they know that “Sit!” means, if they respond by sitting, they are given a correction by a quick, tug on the choke chain collar which produces and undesirable sensation for the dog. The dog soon learns to comply so it can avoid this correction.

Over the past couple of decades, however, two new dog training trends became prominent in the public eye:  “Alpha Dog” training (also called the “Dominance” theory of training and “Positive Reinforcement” training.

The “Alpha Dog” or “Dominance” Dog Training Theory

The “alpha dog” or “dominance” theory in dog training was popularized by Cesar Millan, the star dog trainer of the widely viewed television show Dog Whisperer. Millan often employed techniques based on this theory when training dogs on the show, and referred to it often in explaining dog behavior to his clients.

The theory is based on how wild dogs and their predecessors, wolves, function in a pack, and the trainer in many ways tries to replicate the dynamics and interactions present in these communities of nature.  Dominance trainers refer to the “alpha male” that is the leader of a pack, and his ability to get other pack members to follow and behave.

In this theory, the dog owner should concentrate on establishing themselves in the alpha dog role, with the idea that most dogs just want and need a pack leader or “boss” to guide their behavior. This includes such notions that dogs shouldn’t go through doorways before their alpha owner, and that they should wait to eat until after their owner finishes their own meal.

Critics of the dominance theory note that while it is true that dogs are descendants of wolves domestic dogs are not wolves and do not want people to dominate them. Also, research has shown that wolves do not live by the alpha system — on the contrary, wolf society is similar to that of a human family, where the adults lead because they are parents.

Although dominance-based training is a concept of its own, it is usually associated with correction-based training as they share many of the same tenets. 

Positive Training

Although positive reinforcement training has been around as long as dogs have liked treats, it has only been in the past 20 or so years that there has been a major mainstream push towards using it exclusively when training a dog, without reinforcing with corrections. 

Hailed as both more humane as well as effective, positive reinforcement training has made significant inroads into the current dog training landscape.

The Differences Between Positive Reinforcement and Correction-Based Training

To be clear, countless dogs have been successfully trained using both methods. But there are major differences between the two approaches. So let’s dig in and take a look at the differences between positive reinforcement training and correction training.

Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive Reinforcement Training (also referred to in various forms as “positive training”, “clicker training”, and “science based training”) is used by trainers to teach dogs behaviors using a reward system rather than by physical force or punishment. The goal of positive reinforcement is to show dogs what actions are desirable and what are not. 

Proponents of positive reinforcement training prefer it not only because they feel it is not cruel or stressful to the dog, but also because it is more straight-forward and clear than providing corrections, where dogs have to guess their mistakes and avoid punishment. They also believe it is more effective and nurtures a more emotionally stable and confident dog that is behaving out of desire, not fear.

When dogs behave properly, they receive a reward —  a reinforcement for their positive behavior.

Examples of positive reinforcements:

  • Treats 
  • Toys
  • Games
  • Praise

For dogs that aren’t especially food-driven, giving them their favorite toy, or a game of tug of war, or even verbal praise can work.

Positive trainers also use what is technically called “negative punishment” (versus “positive punishment” such as physical corrections) when a dog refuses a known command or performs an incorrect behavior.  

Examples of negative punishment include refusing to give a food reward and turning away from the dog to ignore them, depriving them of attention they seek at the moment. These punishments are believed to be less stressful on the dog than physical corrections.

Clicker Training

In addition to directly providing treats as rewards, many positive trainers use “clicker training” (also called “marker training”, which is a method that uses “conditioned reinforcers” to reward the dog. This allows a trainer to deliver positive reinforcement much more quickly and precisely than just giving food rewards.

A simple mechanical clicker toy is commonly used as the operant conditioner, but any quickly recognized signal such as a verbal cue or other noise (whistle, finger snap, specific word) can work. 

First, the dog is taught that each time it hears a click, it will receive a reward. Once the dog learns this and knows they will be getting a reward shortly after the click, the trainer begins rewarding a dog’s behavior first with a click, followed by a reward.

This method allows a trainer (not just a professional one, but owners as well) to reward a desired behavior instantly by merely clicking, or “marking” the desired behavior. It also allows the dog to instantly identify the correct behavior. There is no lag between the behavior and the reward as the click effectively bridges this time gap. Once the dog learns the behavior, a verbal cue or command can be added.

Here’s a good example of a pup learning how to “perch” by putting both feet on a raised object.

Positive reinforcement training, whether through direct rewards or operant conditioning, is a proven dog training method that is effective and considered humane.

Correction Based Dog Training

The correction method of dog training, which is considered the conventional method of dog training, uses punishment or aversives to correct a dog when it refuses a command or performs an incorrect behavior.

The most common aversives used in dog training include leash corrections with a prong or choke collar, electronic shock collars, spray bottles, and shaker cans. While there is a wide range in the amount of discomfort and stress experienced by the dog with these various training devices, all of them produce at least some level of it.  After all, that is why they work. The dog learns to avoid the punishment.

This discomfort and stress is at the root of the debate over whether this training method is considered less humane, cruel, and too controlling compared to positive reinforcement methods. Corrections can range anywhere from a tap on the dog’s rear to a jerk on the dog’s collar or even an electronic stimulation that gives the dog a short shock.

Correction-based trainers generally believe that it is easier to quickly demonstrate to a dog that they are doing something wrong than to only reinforce when they are doing something correctly. They also think that the corrections they are giving to a particular dog aren’t harsh, and that many dogs — particularly larger, more robust animals — don’t perceive the corrections as anything more than an annoyance to be avoided.

The choice of correction-based training is commonly compared to the choice of whether to spank one’s child. For many, it is a non-starter, while for others it is considered perfectly normal.

Many correction-based trainers use positive reinforcement as well, especially when a dog is first learning a new behavior.  They would be considered “hybrid” trainers, employing elements of both methods.

Even for those who favor correction-based training, it can be dangerous as well as ineffective and counterproductive when practiced by an unskilled trainer. Providing ill-timed corrections and over-corrections can confuse a dog and create anger and resentment. 

Some dog trainers advocate the use of squirt bottles and shake cans to train dogs — for interrupting behaviors they don’t want. Although these two techniques can be effective, some people find them to be cruel. While some might argue that squirting a dog with water is harmless, the dog might disagree and become discouraged rather than eager to comply with the trainer’s wishes.

Although dogs have been successfully trained for many years using correction methods, it has become increasingly controversial in recent years.  The rise in popularity of positive training and the fact that it can produce the equivalent results without the risk of stressing or abusing the dog makes the argument against correct training even stronger.

Principles Common to Both Training Methods

Timing Is Everything

When dog training, you want to reward your dog as soon as it performs the desired behavior. For example, if you tell your dog to sit but don’t reward it until it stands back up, the dog may think that they will get a reward for standing. As a result, the next time you tell your dog to sit, they may sit and stand immediately, thinking that that is the desired behavior.

Likewise, with correction training, if you wait until your dog has picked up an unwanted object on a walk and is carrying it, and you then administer a leash correction and give the command “leave it”, the dog won’t know why they are being corrected.  If this is done just as the dog is approaching the object, the message is clear (provided they have already been taught the command).

Keep Commands Short and Simple

Dogs can understand us better when we use direct words instead of complex sentences. Use easy-to-understand terms along with body language to teach your dog behaviors. Some common words used as commands during training are:

  • Sit (index finger pointing down)
  • Up (stand up)
  • Watch (point at your eyes)
  • Down (lie down)
  • Come (show “come here” gesture), and more

Stay Consistent

Once trained, your dog will remember and recognize commands, so you will want to make sure everyone in the family stays consistent with their body language and orders when communicating with the dog. Otherwise, your dog will be confused. 

“No” is an overused command that can be very confusing to a dog. Instill commands specific to the behaviors you desire.  For example, when training a dog not to jump up and paw you, teach it a command like “off” rather than “no”. And don’t use the command “down” in this situation if you have already taught “down” to mean lie down.

Dogs generally enjoy succeeding, so do your best to make it easier and more enjoyable for them to do so. Constantly yelling “no” at them every time they misbehave in any manner becomes confusing, not to mention monotonous and soon easily tuned out by them.

Don’t Repeat Commands

If you say “sit” and your dog doesn’t sit, don’t immediately say “sit” again. If you repeat commands over and over, the dog will learn that it only needs to comply on, say, the fourth repetition of “sit”.

Teach your dog the behavior, then add the verbal cue. If the dog doesn’t comply, don’t keep repeating the command. Withhold the reward and reset, beginning the training exercise again.

Reward Your Dog

Whether your dog has mastered its commands through positive reinforcement training or correction training, you should continue to reward it to keep it motivated, but at a reduced number of times during the day. This is called intermittent reinforcement. A dog shouldn’t be expecting a reward every time is performs a behavior, but by keeping the hope alive, behaviors will remain sharper over time.

Keep praising your dog for good behavior, but perhaps with lesser excitement than before. Create a schedule for positive reinforcement so that your dog will understand that if it always responds to commands, eventually it will get its praise and occasional treats. 

Criticisms of Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement training has a great track record of success, but it isn’t without its opponents. Here are some of the more common criticisms and a proponent’s likely response.

Dogs Can Become Too Dependent on Food Rewards

Criticism:  During training, tons of food rewards are used motivation to help dogs perform specific tasks. Eventually, these dogs will become accustomed to the reward system; thus, they will only work for food and nothing else. Whenever they hear a click or a particular command, they expect you to give them a treat; but they quit if you do not.

Response: If dogs are trained properly and weaned off treats gradually along with intermittent reinforcement, this should not happen. No matter how dogs are trained, if reinforcement is not maintained over time, they will likely start becoming less responsive to commands. It is the trainer/owner’s job to keep the dog interested in succeeding.

Having Perfect Timing Is Difficult

Criticism:  Dog training can be challenging for new dog owners, and much of dog training is about having great timing. When owners use positive reinforcement, they need to apply it immediately. The problem is, the average person does not have the skill to achieve the perfect timing.

Response:  While it may take a bit of practice to learn to properly time rewards, it’s not difficult and is no excuse for a dog’s failure to learn. It is no different than teaching a child a new skill, and I can’t imagine a parent saying they couldn’t teach their child to tie their shoes because “it was too difficult.”

Doesn’t Always Teach Dogs What Not To Do

Criticism: Rewards reinforce good behaviors, but negative punishments aren’t as effective at stopping bad behaviors. You may teach your dog how to sit, stand, or stay with positive reinforcement, but the approach won’t effectively teach them that it is not okay to chew on a cable cord or chase squirrels or cats. In other words, positive reinforcement cannot create inhibitions.

Response: There are several ways to train a dog what not to do. One is to keep them from doing it in the first place. This may sound a bit snarky, but it’s truly the easiest way to avoid most of the training problems a dog may develop in life. Don’t want your dog on the bed? Then don’t ever let them on it to begin with. It’s often just that simple. 

Of course that isn’t always an option. You can also teach a dog to do something acceptable instead. Your dog wants to chew on a cord? Immediately redirect the dog’s focus to a tasty, appropriate chew toy or bone. This requires the same supervision and timing as a correction-based solution, but without the correction. 

Negative punishment is another alternative. Dogs can be put in a “time out” or some other withholding or denial of something enjoyable to them.

Correction Might Be the Only Option in an Emergency

Criticism: What if your dog starts to run into traffic — wouldn’t yanking on their leash to keep them from doing that be considered a correction?

Response: Any sane, responsible dog owner would do whatever it takes to save their dog in an emergency. This scenario isn’t a training situation, it’s a life or death situation and anything goes.

Stopping Positive Reinforcement Could Trigger Aggression

With positive reinforcement, your dog will learn to expect to behave a certain way, just how you have trained it. However, if its behavior schedule is interrupted or disappeared, it will feel anxious, hence aggression. That is because the dog has become familiar with positive reinforcement, so not having it anymore leads to confusion.

Criticisms of Correction-Based Training

The most common criticisms of conventional correction-based training are that it is inhumane, abusive, and causes unnecessary stress to the dog. Opponents of this method also often believe that it is ultimately not as effective, either.

It Can Be Stressful to a Dog

Correction-based trainers don’t always agree that their method causes more stress than positive training. They will cite studies which found that dogs were more stressed out when their trainers withheld their rewards (negative punishment) than when they had an e-collar — electronic shock (positive punishment). It would be wise to note that measuring stress in a dog is difficult, and there are studies which show the opposite results as well.

It is Inhumane

It’s not hard to argue that jerking on a chain around a dog’s neck to correct them for not sitting on command is inhumane. But many experienced trainers will dismiss this type of characterization as being overly dramatic. Many dogs seem to show little to no adverse reaction to such corrections if they aren’t drastic or out of proportion to the dog’s size and strength.

One correction-based trainer explained, “I’ve had many dogs that often don’t even respond to a strong leash correction. If it were so traumatic and inhumane, don’t you think they would comply immediately? Different dogs need different approaches.”

But there are countless cases of dogs that are fearful and unconfident after bad experiences with correction-based training. Is it poor use of the method or is the method itself poor?

Shock Collars are Abusive

Shock collars, also marketed as “e-collars”, are a popular form of correction training. The trainer holds a transmitter and can push a button causing the dog collar to emit a shock or “stimulation” as the marketers refer to it. Again, it’s not hard to criticize the act of shocking a dog to get it to behave properly.

Trainers that use shock collars insist that they are safe and not abusive.  The technology is quite advanced, with precise control of the level of shock, and is favored by trainers of certain working dogs. 

Trainers who work with field dogs almost all use e-collars to correct dogs at a distance. If, say, a trainer blows his whistle to tell his dog 100 yards away to sit and the dog doesn’t comply, the ability to correct immediately from a distance is much more effective than taking the time to walk out to the dog to try to get the proper compliance.

Shock collars are also an integral part of training dogs to avoid rattlesnakes. Trainers pair the sound of a rattlesnake with a substantial e-collar correction, which teaches the dog to associate the sound with the threat and avoid it as soon as it hears it. Trainers using this method say that a positive only approach is nowhere near as effective and that this type of training can save a dog’s life.

Finding a DogTrainer

If you do not have the confidence or time to train your dog, there is always the option to hire a dog trainer to help you. You will want a professional trainer to work with your dog — the more the experience, the better. Here are some guidelines to help you make your choice:

Know Your Goals

Determine what you want your dog to learn. Does your dog have a housebreaking problem, or do you want to teach it formal obedience? The trainer will assess the dog and its environment, and understand your goals and expectations.

Positive Reinforcement or Correction, or Both?

Think about your ethics and ask yourself which dog training method will be suitable or beneficial to your dog. Ask the trainer what techniques they use or will use. And ask yourself which strategies will you be comfortable with?

If you are only comfortable with positive reinforcement, get a trainer who solely or primarily uses reward-based training, like using treats, toys, and games. Avoid trainers who use physical force, such as leash corrections. Also, avoid trainers who use choke collars, shock collars, pinch collars, or other physical punishment methods as their primary method.

Include Yourself in the Dog Training

Check your trainer’s references to ensure that they have the necessary skills and experience. You will also want the trainer to include you in training. After all, you will ultimately be doing the day-to-day training of your dog. In many ways the trainer is training you to train your dog. Make sure you are aware of the techniques the trainer will be using. 

A good trainer will share with you the method they will be using and demonstrate it. A good trainer will also make time to practice their techniques with students and update them with new theories and techniques from time to time. In the end, you must be comfortable with what you have to do with your dog. 

If your trainer ever asks you to do something that will distress your dog, ask your trainer why it is necessary, the potential drawbacks of the method, and how you can handle the drawbacks if they occur. You can also ask for an alternative to the plan. Never do anything with your dog that you are uncomfortable with or don’t understand.

Make Sure You Get a Respectful Dog Trainer

Regardless of training method, it is essential that you get a trainer that respects your dog. You don’t want a trainer that pushes your dog too fast, nor do you want one that loses interest if your dog doesn’t perform to the level of an obedience champion.

Before committing to a trainer, try to observe a class or private session first to determine if it is right for you. Watch the students and their dogs — are they having fun or looking stressed? Are the trainers using motivational phrases or yelling at the dogs and students?

Work With Trainers Who Work With a Veterinarian

Many dogs who have behavioral problems such as biting need immediate assistance from a pro specializing in their issue.  Veterinarians are often a good resource for references to these professionals and can work in tandem with them. When sudden behavioral problems like this arise, it is usually prudent to have a blood workup done to rule out any medical cause.

In these cases, a good trainer will collaborate with a veterinarian because certain behavioral problems may have an underlying medical issue. If your pet has a physical problem that triggers its behavior, a veterinarian may add medication to its behavior modification plan.

Many organizations, such as the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, offer courses and memberships for positive reinforcement dog training. Dog owners who register with these organizations can also search for dog trainers for their dogs. Members can rest assured that their dogs are under the supervision of professional dog trainers who practice positive reinforcement.

Final Thoughts

Positive reinforcement and correction are two different methods used in dog training. A trainer may use only positive reinforcement and exclude correction as many people view correction to be cruel. Sometimes a trainer may use both positive reinforcement and correction to train a dog because they believe no one size fits all. If you have doubts, it’s probably best to start with a positive only approach and only explore alternatives if your training goals are not being met.

The debate between the two methods isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But understanding the pros and cons of both methods can only help you make a better decision for how you want to train your dog, with regard to both effectiveness and ethics. Whatever you choose, know that you are more responsible than the majority of dog owners by wanting to train your dog and help them become a good canine citizen.

Superb Dog Editor

Superb Dog Editor