Positive Dog Training for Newbies

Positive dog training was developed under the principles of Skinner's operant conditioning. While it's not a new technique, it didn't get enough popularity until the nineties.

Former students of Skinner, psychologists Keller and Marian Breland, pioneered commercial applications of operant conditioning when they created Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE) on 1942. ABE was the first company that offered positive training services.

The huge popularity of traditional training prevented ABE to succeed in dog training. So, the Breland's company was forced to look for new niches and ABE got focused on training animals for TV shows and commercials. Keller and Marian also pioneered dolphin training for aquaria and US navy.

Positive reinforcement is the main teaching way of these techniques. Positive reinforcement is not the same as reward, though this is a common misconception.

Positive reinforcement is the process that strengthens a behavior because a pleasant situation occurs as a consequence of that particular behavior. For instance, if you give a food treat to your dog when he lies down, he will tend to lie down more frequently to get that delicious treat. Thus, your dog will be learning to lie down through positive reinforcement.

On the other hand, if your dog lies down and you reward him after 10 seconds, he may not associate the action of lying down with the reward. He may think you gave him the treat because he was looking up, or moving his ears. So, you rewarded your dog but you didn't reinforce the desired behavior.

Some people think that positive trainers never teach to the dog that a particular behavior is unacceptable. This is a common and big misinterpretation. Practitioners of positive training do teach this to dogs, but they don't use punishment or negative reinforcement for that.

Clicker training is the most popular of these techniques in many countries. It is the same technique used by Keller and Marian Breland, and was popularized by the biologist and dolphin trainer Karen Pryor.

The main difference between clicker training and other positive techniques is the use of a clicker in the former. A clicker is just a small device that emits a click-click sound when squeezed. It is used to mark the exact moment in which the dog performed a desired behavior.

The absolute absence of negative reinforcement, punishment and training collars (choke, prong or shock) make of positive dog training a very friendly technique to both dogs and owners. This could be the main advantage of this kind of training.

Other advantages are that positive dog training is easy to understand and fun to carry out. Besides, these techniques are not only focused on obedience exercises. Instead, they are widely used to solve behavioral problems.

Detractors of these techniques claim that dogs trained in a positive way won't be able to respond properly unless they can see (or scent) a food treat. These people also claim that positive trained behaviors are not reliable under variable circumstances.

Although very common, those claims are not true. The efficacy of positive training is demonstrated each day by hundreds of service dogs for disabled people, police dogs, competition dogs and performing dogs.