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If you’re a new dog owner or are in the process of researching dogs and dog breeds with a view to getting your first dog, training and how to train your dog probably feature very heavily in your research.
There are a huge number of books, guides, website pages and other media dedicated to providing dog training advice to beginners and experienced trainers alike, covering everything from the very basics of how to teach a dog a command to the psychology and science behind how dogs think and learn.
However, when it comes to dog training advice and direction produced within the last twenty years or so, the vast majority of it has one thing in common: it is based on the principle of positive reinforcement as the training method.
In fact, positive reinforcement dog training tends to be either strongly recommended or even not mentioned at all as it is assumed to be the default in most dog training guides, and many dog owners and trainers have never tried, or even in some cases, heard of, other dog training approaches.
This is certainly the case in the UK, and positive reinforcement dog training tends to be the norm in most other developed countries too, although countries like the USA see a little more variety in terms of different schools of thought on dog training.
There are many good reasons why positive reinforcement training for dogs is so widely used, recommended and followed, and why it tends to be the default; but it can be useful and interesting to learn the basics of some of the other dog training approaches that used to be more widely used instead and that are still applied in practice by some trainers too.
With this in mind, this article will provide a basic introduction to the ethos of positive reinforcement dog training, and that of four other different dog training approaches too. Read on to learn more.
If you’re not even sure what type of training structure and model you used on your own dog, the chances are that it was positive reinforcement!
So, what is positive reinforcement dog training? Here’s the basics.
Positive reinforcement training is based on the principle of teaching the dog what is wanted of them by using positive feedback – praise, treats, rewards like play and affection – to let them know when they’ve done well. This helps to keep the dog alert and engaged hoping for a reward, and also enables them to build up strong mental connections between doing what they’re asked and getting something good for it.
When it comes to times when the dog gets things wrong or misbehaves, the perfect execution of positive reinforcement means providing no response or negativity, or simply telling the dog “no” or correcting them but without punishing them.
Negative reinforcement dog training is the flipside of positive reinforcement, and this was actually historically the most widely used and recommended dog training method up until two to three decades ago.
Negative reinforcement is, as you might expect, based on the principle of punishing the dog for bad behaviour or getting things wrong, whilst making good behaviour, learning a new skill or being compliant simply expected, and not deserving of a reward.
What form the punishment took varied depending on the trainer and perceived offence, but might range from a telling off to physical chastisement, including potentially the use of shock collars, smacking the dog, and other ways of deliberately causing them pain.
As you can probably understand, negative reinforcement dog training is highly unpopular today and considered by many individuals and professional bodies to be cruel and abusive.
Additionally, it is simply not effective; dogs do not learn quickly or comprehensively by means of punishment. Fear is not a good learning device, and does not make for good canine/human relations either.
Dominance training, sometimes known as alpha-dog training, isn’t very widely used in the UK but is rather more common in the USA, and is the basic approach taken by well-known celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan – whose training approach is not without controversy.
The principle of dominance training is based on the canine pack structure and alpha dog role (itself something that is widely misunderstood and not necessarily applicable in full to domestic dogs) and involves the trainer positioning them as the alpha dog, and demanding the respect and compliance of their actual dog by means of asserting dominance and reinforcing their relative pack positions and behaviours.
For instance, the other dog would be expected to defer to the “alpha” trainer, look to them for direction, wait to be told they can eat when food is provided, and so on.
You might not have heard of operant conditioning dog training, but you’ve probably heard of clicker training; and this is a type of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning training for dogs is based on the principle of building up a dog’s mental connections between cause and effect, so that they associate one thing with another – a command with compliance with a reward.
There is a lot in common between operant conditioning and positive reinforcement training, and significant overlap. However, the divergence from basic positive reinforcement that occurs with clicker training and other forms of operant conditioning training is that a tool (such as the clicker and its audible sound) is the lynchpin of the training approach. Over time, the sound of the click (or other conditioning tool) itself triggers the dog’s mental reward pathways because it has been conditioned to associate the sound of the click with good things.
Mirror training is clever, complex, and hard to achieve by inexperienced trainers, but it is very effective in certain working applications and reflects one of the ways in which dogs naturally learn.
Mirror training means enabling and encouraging the process of a dog learning things through observation and experience, usually involving a dog in training observing and mirroring the behaviour of an experienced older dog.
Sheepdog training often involves mirror training, and dogs of all types – particularly very intelligent breeds like the Border collie – learn by observation or mirroring all the time, whether you want them to or not!
These are not the only five dog training methods and principles around of course, but they do represent five of the best-known and historically, most widely used.
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