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positive training

The Great Training Divide

Dogs - we love them! We invite them into our homes and even our beds. We spend billions of dollars a year on them. We buy, adopt, rescue, breed them. We just can’t get enough of dogs. Everyone that’s ever had a dog can tell you stories about those dogs and likely has an opinion about training dogs. If you have a dog with issues, you’re likely to get training advice from a guy at the dog park, your grocery clerk, and your mechanic. People will tell you, “I’ve had dogs all my life…” as some measure of their expertise. Well, I’ve had teeth most of my life, but that doesn’t make me a dentist! It’s likely that you will receive a lot of conflicting advice as well. To make matters worse, there are trainers on TV, a slew of training books, and many websites and on-line resources that offer different training approaches and advice. How do you choose? How do you know what is right for your dog? At their core, training philosophies boil down to a choice between correction based training or reward based training. Let’s look at the evolution of this choice. Our history with dogs is long and complex. We share many characteristics that make us natural companions. I like to think people enjoyed the company of dogs even when practicality required that the dog serve a purpose and function. In many cases, human survival was aided by a dog doing a job - primarily herding, hunting, retrieving, and guarding. I’m sure there was some training involved, but for the most part the dogs were doing what came naturally to them, and what they were specifically bred for. A natural balance existed. World War II changed everything. It changed the way people earned a living, where we lived, how we ate, and changed the lives of our dogs as well. War rationing of food gave us grain-based kibble to feed our dogs. Urbanization left many formerly working dogs unemployed. And the dog training method employed by the military found its way into our homes through the works of people like Bill Koehler and Blanche Saunders.

This is also about the time when the “dominance theory” came into vogue. It was based upon a study of wolves in captivity and claimed that wolves formed packs with an alpha male and female and that the alpha wolves maintained this position of dominance by forcing the other wolves into submission. This theory was then extrapolated to our pet dogs and we were told to use techniques like the “alpha roll”, “scruff shake”, and “chin clip” (made popular by the Monks of New Skete) to “dominate” our dogs. We were indoctrinated in the belief that we must always “be the alpha” when dealing with our dogs. This attitude fit quite nicely with the punitive methods of military style training.

The military style of training (now commonly referred to as traditional training) relies heavily upon the use of the “training collar” - a choke chain, pinch/prong collar, or even shock collar - and a six foot leather lead. Dogs were sent to obedience school when they were six months old - strong enough to withstand the “corrections” used in training. Handlers were taught to give “commands” that the dog must obey to avoid receiving a “correction”. These traditional training methods could be quite harsh and there were many dogs that “failed” obedience school. These were dogs that couldn’t handle the stress and physical punishment. Their responses to training were to either “fall apart” - urinating, cowering, crying, freezing up - or to “fight back” - growling, biting, attacking their handlers. The dogs that fought back were often subjected to even harsher training as the humans were told they must “win” and “dominate” these dogs. Not only were the methods hard on the dogs, they were hard on the humans as well; requiring some brute strength and physical confrontations with the dogs, which sometimes led to owners being bitten and dogs dying.

A new era dawns

Further research has debunked the dominance theory ( Modern studies shows that wild wolf “packs” are actually family units. Submissive type behaviors are offered rather than demanded and there is little violence between family members. While there are still many similarities between dogs and wolves (as there are between humans and apes), dogs are not wolves. We must be cautious in applying our wolf theories to dogs and we would be wise not to put ourselves in positions of physical confrontation with dogs. They have mouths full of razor knives and they are generally stronger and way lots faster that we are. Even with young and small dogs, just because we can physically overpower them, doesn’t mean we should.

Fortunately, for us and for our dogs, modern science prevailed and brought us out of the dark ages of dog training. In the 1970’s and 80‘s marine mammal trainers started going public with what they had learned. They had quickly realized you could not put a choke chain on a killer whale and any sort of “correction” could result in an injury to the trainer or the animal just leaving. They had to find another approach to achieve their goals. Karen Pryor’s book, Don’t Shoot The Dog, published in 1984, revolutionized our understanding of the science of learning - and applied to “anything with a brainstem”. Enter the positive training movement. A complete change in attitude came along with the new science. Dogs were now given cues instead of commands and the primary “correction”, if one existed, was loss of the opportunity to earn a reward. If a person could teach a killer whale to do a back flip with only a whistle and a bucket of sardines, then surely our pet dogs could be taught basic manners without the use of a training collar. And basic manners were just the beginning of what dogs have been taught with positive methods.

The Science of Learning

In it’s simplest terms, traditional, military style, training focuses on “correcting” undesirable behaviors: The dog remains standing when told to sit so the leash is “popped” to “correct” the dog for the mistake. Modern, positive, training focuses primarily on rewarding desirable behaviors: The dog sits when asked and is then given a treat and/or praise as a reward for compliance. Both methods can be effective, so lets look at the pros and cons of each.

Correction Based Training


Generally fast results if effective, basically simple concept if applied correctly.


High probability of “fallout” - dog becomes fearful or aggressive, physically taxing on dog and handler, handler must be physically able to make corrections, requires special collar, easy for humans to become “correction happy” and jerk the dog often and for no reason, may permanently damage dog-human relationship, damage to the dog’s neck/throat is common, ineffective and abusive if done with poor timing or technique.

Reward Based Training


Much of it can be done “hands-free”, can be done by anyone (children, adults, elderly, etc.), long lasting effects, fosters cooperation and respect, does not require special equipment (except perhaps a clicker), little risk if done with poor timing or technique, is generally fun and pleasant for dog and handler.


May take longer to accomplish some goals, requires handler to be patient and precise for best effect, requires handler to learn more about dog behavior and training.

When you consider this data, the choice between correction based training and reward based training seems perfectly clear. Modern science shows us that dogs can easily learn without force, fear, pain, or intimidation; that force-free training is safer, kinder, and has more long lasting effects than traditional methods, and that we can have more trusting and cooperative relationships with our dogs when we use force-free methods. Why then do we persist in “correcting” our dogs? Why are traditional obedience classes still common? Why is the public fascinated by TV trainers who advocate correction methods based on the dominance theory? After 30 years, why aren’t we getting it?

The Positive Paradigm

A commitment to reward based training requires a paradigm shift. Whether, like me, you see dogs as spiritual beings in dog bodies, or you view them as “just dogs”, these creatures share this planet with us and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. There is no reason to use pain, fear, force, or intimidation when less invasive and less aversive methods will work just as well and with fewer risks. But it takes effort to break old habits, to see things in a new light, to let go of “tradition”, and to open ourselves up to seeing the world from another’s point of view, especially when that “other” is another species. Examining ourselves, our history, our motives, and our desires can be taxing. It’s just easier to keep doing it the old way, without thinking.

We are a culture that defends our freedoms vehemently, including our right to own dogs. We also recognize the need to protect those that can’t protect themselves. Every state in the country has laws defining and prohibiting animal cruelty and abuse. Yet little abuses happen daily right under our noses and we overlook them by calling it “training”. Training collars, including those that produce an electric shock, are available for sale everywhere and could easily be considered tools of abuse, yet we condone their use in the name of “training”. Funny thing is, those that advocate the use of these items have developed a wide range of euphemisms to describe them - slip chain, power steering, nick, tap, buzz, tickle. If they are so safe and effective, why do they need to hide behind these obfuscations? Let’s tell it like it is and stop the madness!

Hopefully, by now I have convinced you to throw away your “training collars”. But then what? Those were your primary means of communication and control of your dog. As a necessary step in the paradigm shift, you may now feel powerless to control or train your dog in any way. Good! That will prompt you to look for new ideas and options. When I first made the switch away from traditional training, it took me a full year of having my dogs not wear collars at home to break myself of the habit of grabbing those collars any time I felt the need to reposition or stop my dog. That feeling of helplessness was instrumental in my learning to communicate with them better and to actually teach them words for the things I needed from them - inside, outside, wait, touch my hand, move out of my way, etc.

Learn to listen to your dog

Dogs do what works for them. If barking at the door gets you to let them out, then they will keep barking at the door. But if barking at the door never gets your attention or gets you to go to the door, eventually your dog will give up barking at the door in favor of a more rewarding behavior. Behavior that is rewarded tends to increase. Behavior that is not rewarded tends to fade away. You can’t really teach a dog what NOT to do. You can only teach what TO do. Make a point to notice what your dog is doing right - resting at your feet, playing quietly, waiting patiently, following you. These are behaviors we want to reward. Your dog will tell you if your training efforts are on track and working.

To be clear, positive training is not passive or permissive. It takes a great deal of attention and discipline to be consistent, active, and creative when it comes to raising our dogs with positive methods. It’s easy, and perhaps reflexive, to just say “No!” It takes knowledge and practice to be proactive and patient.

Where knowledge ends, violence begins. This could not be truer than in dog training. Every time a person yells at a dog, yanks a collar, or swats a rump it is a clear indication of the limits of their knowledge. When we don’t know what to do to accomplish our goals or solve a problem we get frustrated and upset. So the obvious solution to most, if not all, of our dog problems is educating ourselves. The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller are great places to start. We must learn how dogs “work” and to apply the science of learning effectively if we want to live in harmony with them and treat them humanely. Our society continues to shift away from corporal punishment and authoritarian methods with our children, so the day is sure to come when those methods are no longer accepted or tolerated with dogs. And that can’t happen soon enough if you ask me.



Preparing for a new puppy


You’ve done your homework, decided the time is right to get a puppy, and chosen the right puppy.  Now it’s time to prepare yourself and your house for the new arrival.  Yup, just like you would get ready for your new baby! Prepare a safe place for your puppy.You’ll likely want a crate for sleeping and an exercise pen (X-pen) or baby gate to create a safe containment area on an easy clean surface.  I suggest having the crate in your bedroom at night and the pen near your main living area.  If you don’t have an appropriate floor surface available, get a remnant of vinyl flooring from your home center or carpet store to use under your X-pen.  You will use the X-pen as a long-term confinement area for times when you can’t watch the puppy for a few hours.  You can use the crate at night, and for short periods like taking a shower or talking on the phone.  Rid yourself of the mindset that a crate is punishment; by using it properly, it will instead become your dog’s favorite safe haven.

Puppy-proof your house.Any areas where your puppy will be permitted access should be thoroughly examined from puppy eye level for potential hazards.  Remember your puppy is a baby, your baby, and you must keep that in mind and act accordingly (just like having a human baby, isn’t it?)  Remove, contain, or block access to power cords or loose cables.  Remove breakables.  Clear off the coffee table.  Put up any papers, books, remotes, or other items that could be chewed.  Remove throw rugs and loose pillows.  Pin up or tie back draperies if needed.  Get your children in the habit of picking up their things and closing their bedroom doors.  Having done all that, I still recommend that your puppy should never be outside of his pen or crate without direct supervision until he has learned proper potty and chewing habits.

Puppy-proof your yard and garage. There may be even more potential puppy dangers outside than in your house.  If your yard contains any potentially poisonous plants you’ll want to remove them or block your puppy’s access to them.  Use fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides sparingly and cautiously.  Garages often hold many substances which are poisonous to dogs; spilled antifreeze is a classic example.  If your dog gets a foreign substance on their paws, they will instinctively want to lick it off.  Never leave your puppy in the yard unsupervised.  They can be injured or stolen, and unmonitored they can develop bad habits like barking and digging.  You need to teach your puppy how to act in the yard as well as in the house.  Make sure your fence is secure so your pup can run and play safely.  If you don’t have a fence, you’ll need a long line (20-30’ heavy cord) to allow your pup more freedom while still maintaining safe control of him.

Plan a puppy schedule.You should take your puppy out to potty every time he wakes up, eats, drinks, plays, and about every hour or two in between if possible.  Until the pup is 4-5 months old, he will need to eat 3 times a day.  Choose a two hour window for morning, evening, and mid-day feedings; do not get lazy and simply leave a food bowl down all day long.  You’ll also want to schedule several training and play sessions each day.  Puppies have short attention spans, so keep these sessions to less than 5 minutes for the first month or so, but try to have a short “lesson” every hour or two.

Have some resources handy.You’re sure to have questions daily so get yourself some good dog books.  If you have kids, I suggest this one:  Living With Kids and Dogs… Without Losing Your Mind by Colleen Pelar.  Other good references are After You Get Your Puppy by Ian Dunbar, and Positive Puppy Training Works by Joel Walton.  You can also join my Start Puppy Training list on Yahoo.  Check your area for positive puppy kindergarten classes as you will want to enroll as soon as possible.

When the big day arrives for the pup to come home with you, use these Tips For Success to get off to a good start.

Written by Cricket Mara, The Pawsitive Dog, LLC

How to choose a "Positive" trainer

I consider myself to be a positive trainer, but these days it seems like a lot of people who aren't still say they are.  The term came about as an alternative to the "traditional" or military style training, which relied upon force and "corrections" as a major component.  At the time, positive trainers were shifting away from the use of force and focusing on rewarding "good" behavior instead of punishing "bad" behavior.  But I guess no one wanted to refer to themselves as a "negative trainer" :-)  Reminds me of my husband's comments about political candidates.  They all say they are "tough on crime" because no one would vote for someone who said they were soft on crime, now would they?  Traditional trainers that use food and toy rewards may call themselves "positive".  Some call themselves "motivational" trainers.  These days there are folks that refer to themselves as "balanced" trainers.  But what does all this mean to you, a pet owner, when trying to choose the best trainer for your dog? I think you have to look deeper than the labels and the sales pitch and examine your own beliefs and philosphies and look for a good match.  You, like me, may feel very strongly about using only techniques that do no physical, mental, or emotional harm to the dog.  But even that can become a moral quagmire for some.  Does swatting your dog on the nose or rump constitute harm or abuse?  What about the sting of a shock collar?  Do you spank your kids?  See how complicated this can be?

My biggest problem with the labels that some trainers use to describe themselves is that they are misleading to the public and rely upon euphemisms rather than telling it like it is.  I recently viewed a trainer's website that was attractive, well organized, and she claimed to be a positive trainer.  However the site also included the words discipline and "X-factor".  While something about the site gave me a leery feeling, I thought it best to ask, so I talked to the trainer and was told she used "remote collar training".  That's the modern, nice term for a shock collar.  Granted the collar technology has improved over the years, but the basic premise is the same - the dog does something you don't want and it receives a shock, aka correction, "tap", pulse, etc.  If these collar trainers are so convinced that they are using a safe, humane, dog friendly device, why are they tap dancing around the truth?   Why hide behind pretty prose and gentle sounding words?

Maybe you're okay with using electricity to teach dogs.  I'm not.  I believe the risks are far too great and that we owe it to our dogs do better than to shock them if they make a mistake.  How would you feel if your teacher shocked you, even just a little, every time you made a mistake in class?  Would you like the teacher?  The class?  The subject?  Didn't think so.  Why should it be any different for your dog?  There are so many better methods available, they just may require that you give more of yourself than a slight depression of your thumb :-)

Now there are also some positive trainers out there that are giving good positive trainers a bad name.  That's because they have focused so much on the food and rewards that they have forgotten to set limits for the dog.  They remind me of the parents and teachers that want all the kids to win and have fun without creating boundaries and teaching self-control.  The end result can be a bunch of bratty kids and dogs.  Positive training is NOT passive or permissive.  It really takes some knowledge AND skill to balance rewarding desirable behaviors with creating boundaries so that undesirable behaviors aren't also rewarded.

A good positive trainer knows how to use food rewards effectively without creating a dog that only listens when he sees the treat.  A good positive trainer always looks for the least invasive solution to any problem.  Positive trainers do NOT use "correction style" collars like slip chains (choke collars), prong/pinch collars, or electronic collars (excpet for vibration only collars for deaf dogs).  They will not hit, grab, shock, pin down, cuff, collar jerk or yell at your dog.  True positive training is "force free" - it does not rely upon your ability to out muscle your dog.  You don't have to be bigger, better or faster.  However, it may rely upon your ability to out-think your dog :-)

I'm not perfect, yet <g>.  I get frustrated with my dog sometime.  I still lose my cool now and then and raise my voice.  I'm working on it.  But my goal is to communicate clearly with my dog in a way that leaves us both feeling good.  I gain respect by giving respect.  I don't expect him to be more perfect than I am, but I do expect cooperation if he is to have the things he wants in life.  My philosophy is pretty simple: Reward behaviors you like and ignore or prevent behaviors you don't.  That's because behavior that is rewarded tends to increase and behavior that isn't rewarded tends to disappear.  No punishment needed.  I quit calling myself a positive trainer.  I found it meaningless in todays world.  Instead I call myself a Canine-Human Relationship Consultant and describe my methods as "force-free".  Is that a perfect, consise description that will tell you if I'm a good match for you and your dog?  Hard to say.  But I'm always willing to explain why I do what I do and give clear details about it.  I have nothing to hide when it comes to my work with dogs.  I hope your trainer is the same.

Master leadership for dogs... but not Cesar Millan's way!

I confess, I'm not a Cesar Millan fan.  I get tired of explaining why I'm not a "dog whisperer" and generally prefer to avoid the topic.  But when I heard an ad for Cesar's new "Mastering Leadership" DVD on my favorite radio station I felt my blood pressure rise.  The thought that thousands of people will be using his methods on their dogs made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  Does this mean I don't think "leadership" is important?  Absolutely not!  It's just how we get there that makes a big difference to me.Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the man personally.  In fact, I think he's witty, entertaining, and has done an excellent job of marketing himself and his program.  And, he actually has some pretty valid points about the failings of the average human when it comes to understanding and interacting with dogs.  Unfortunately, he also says some things that are completely false, or at best, inaccurate and many of his techniques are NOT dog-friendly.  The big problem is that the average pet owner can't tell the difference between the "good" and the "bad" in what he says and does.  They get swayed by his confidence and buy into the whole package, often to the detriment of themselves and their dogs. As appealing as a "quick and easy solution to all your dog problems" may be, I feel we owe it to our dogs to get to know them personally rather than imposing a "one size fits all" solution on them and hoping for the best.  We need to be able to observe and "listen" to the feedback our dogs give us.  That's really the only way we have of knowing we are on the right track.  There are many ways to suppress behavior ("make my dog stop barking") and most of them are not very kind to the dogs.  If we shift our focus away from stopping the bad behavior and instead focus on creating the behaviors we want, we will become better leaders and have happier dogs.  You see, leaders lead.  They don't follow behind and correct the mistakes we make or punish us for making mistakes.

If you're having trouble with your dog and think Cesar Millan may have the answer you've been looking for, I urge you to use the money you would have spent on his products to instead consult with a positive trainer in your area.  Get some one-on-one time with someone who can evaluate your dog and your situation and help you learn to lead in a positive way.  You and your dog will both be much happier in the long run.

It has been said that great leaders are not defined by their skills or their knowledge, but by their ability to promote feelings of confidence and security in others.

Bridge & Target Training Overview

Bridge & Target Training is a very simple and clear way of communicating with animals.  It's easy and fun for you and


your dog.  There are two "bridges" and three "targets" in the system.  Once mastered, the possibilities are endless. The completion signal, or "terminal bridge", tells your dog that he has just successfully completed the task you have assigned him. This is cause for some celebration as dogs enjoy being "right" as much as humans do.The progress signal, or "intermediate bridge", tells your dog he is on the right track toward completing the task you have given him. It's easy for dogs to get confused, be distracted, or lose confidence when learning new skills or performing complex tasks. This signal helps him stay focused and know that he IS doing a good job so far. It's a key piece to communicating clearly with them and being supportive of their learning process. It takes only minutes to teach you and your dog the "bridges" so you can get started communicating more clearly.

The three targets, your hand, a target "stick", and a place marker (like a Post-It) we call the "station" target, allow us to clearly explain to the dog exactly what we want him to do. We also teach the dog names for many of his body parts.

When you put all these pieces together, you can then explain to your dog that you would like him to stand with his hip against the wall touching his "station" target, or move his shoulder toward the target stick, or place his chin in your hand and then help him, with the bridges, to know he is on track and when he has succeeded.

This method gives dogs confidence in trying new things and reduces the learning stress and confusion that is common with many other methods.  The dog is always a willing participant in the process.