Positive Reinforcement Training – Does it Work for the Working Group?
This article was written by Chelsea Murray of Pawsitive Futures Dog Training (www.pawsitivefutures.com) Chelsea offers basic through advanced training, behavior modification and specializes in dog powered sports such as canicross and dryland mushing that she does with her Alaskan Malamutes.
Positive Reinforcement Training – Does it Work for the Working Group?
By: Chelsea Murray ATDI, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP
The working group is full of mentally and physically strong dogs who were bred to do difficult jobs in extreme environments. They are all dogs who need a firm hand so they know who is in charge, right? Wrong!
This commonly held belief about working dogs is driven by a popular belief in “Alpha theory”. Alpha theory was originally derived from a study in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss Animal Behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel(1). He concluded that wolves in a pack in confinement will necessarily fight to gain dominance. This study has since been taken out of context and has been erroneously applied to domesticated dogs, which are a different species altogether, separated by at least 20,000 years, and when left to their own devices tend to form loose, transitory social groups, rather than packs with a true alpha(2). This incorrect association leaves people with the misinformation that they need to show their dog who is the boss and be the alpha leader.
Training methods that use fear, intimidation, and pain to change a dog’s behavior have been around since the domestication of dogs. And the “need to be the boss” mentality is a common misconception amongst many in the dog world including with working breeds. Having a heavy hand (technically called positive punishment) is a quadrant of operant conditioning (along with positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment) and is frequently viewed as effective because, with good timing, people can see quick results at stopping unwanted behavior with some dogs. However, punishment-based training will lead to many negative consequences in dogs with most temperaments.
For dogs with softer temperaments (yes those do exist in working breeds!), punishment can be psychologically damaging leaving us with dogs who are fearful and mistrusting of humans. For dogs with resilient temperaments who can generally handle punishment, continued “corrections” can cause dogs to become desensitized to the pressure, meaning they will need increasingly severe corrections in order to achieve the desired result, leading us down a dangerous road to unethical treatment. Furthermore, some of those resilient dogs, whose behavior may appear to be suppressed temporarily may erupt aggressively the next time they are stressed, or when a human does something inappropriate, because the emotion driving the unwanted behavior is left untreated and they learn to associate the punishment with unintended situations. For example, a dog who is punished for stress signaling (such as growling), may respond by reducing its growling and instead reacting to a threat by biting seemingly out of nowhere(3). These dogs are all left with emotional fallout and are unfairly labeled as stubborn, incorrigible, and hard-headed, which furthers the support for the use of punishment. In reality, these poor dogs are often just responding to an unnecessary threat that an owner, trainer, or handler is placing on them.
But despite our knowledge of the dangerous risks associated with using punishment-based methods including increased anxiety, induced avoidance behaviors, and even escalated aggression(3-6), some people continue to use them. So why is that?
For one, the people who use punishment methods are often rewarded themselves for using them. With punishment, a dog’s undesirable behavior can be temporarily suppressed. The handler then sees that the punishment has worked in that moment and they feel good about its success. Because the person has been reinforced for this behavior, they are more likely to do it again. Another reason that people use punishment-based training is because it can lead to immediate results. However, positive reinforcement can be just as quick when used correctly and many do not realize that while punishment may work to interrupt or alter a behavior in the moment, it can actually worsen undesirable behaviors in the long run. Since many people have used these methods over a long time and because many working dogs are tough and resilient, owners may be lucky enough to not see any immediate major emotional fallout and may not make a connection between these tough methods and the emotional side effects seen later down the road. Owners who are just entering the breed may feel pressured to use methods recommended by mentors or breeders. And for some long-time breed fanciers, change is hard. When something has worked for them in the past, why go down a completely new route and learn a new method?
While positive reinforcement methods may not be as familiar to many working group dog owners, these methods are becoming increasingly popular within the group because they can be just as effective and do not come with the side effects that punishment-based methods do(4). Positive reinforcement training allows us to become a leader by building a relationship with our dogs based on trust, respect, and kindness. Those that don’t have as much direct experience in the benefits of positive reinforcement can take comfort in knowing the overwhelming majority of modern behavioral research has shown positive reinforcement to be a powerful, safe, and effective quadrant of operant conditioning. In a recent study, positive reinforcement was shown to be MORE effective than punishment methods and balanced methods (using both positive reinforcement and corrections) in training a dog to come when called as well as general obedience training(7).
Another difference in positive reinforcement and punishment-based training methods is that punishment creates dogs that are less likely to offer behaviors, leaving dogs that are stressed about trying new things and leaving them with a big unanswered question — “What can I do?”. This is an important question that our dogs look to us as trainers to answer. We have to remember that we have taken dogs into our lives and into competition and are asking lots of unnatural things from them. Training should help answer that question for our dogs. When we reinforce a behavior, we are telling the dog what we like and are increasing the likelihood that the desired behavior will happen again. Don’t we all want more good behavior? Don’t we all want our dogs to know what to do and to have them do it?
As leaders to our dogs, we need to be strategic and mindful in setting up our training sessions. With some forethought, we can control the environment in each training session so that our dog is able to make good choices. Our goal for each session should be for our dog to be successful and for the session to end before frustration sets in. I often recommend that people conduct their training sessions in an environment where their dog is likely to be successful or that will accommodate moving to an area of lower stimulation if needed and I generally limit sessions to no more than 5 minutes in length, with breaks in between, so that our dogs can end without getting frustrated or tired. When learning new behaviors, we also want to keep in mind the three Ds (Distance, Duration, Distraction) and try to work on improving each of these aspects of a behavior one at a time until we have mastered each level.
But just because modern positive reinforcement dog trainers are proponents of using lots of food, praise, and toys, does not mean that this style of training is permissive. It does not mean we just throw cookies at our dogs and ignore or tolerate bad behavior. As a trainer, we need to take the dog’s inappropriate behavior into thought and change our training session or environment to help the dog make better choices. That means, when they make a mistake, we treat them with kindness and compassion and help them learn to do better the next time around. Over time, through history of reinforcement, our dogs rehearse fewer undesirable behaviors because they learn which behaviors are more rewarding. As a bonus, we have a better relationship with our dogs who are happier and more engaged learners at the end of our trusted lead.
More effective, more humane, and more engaged… sounds great, right? So, what’s the hold up? Let’s dissect a few of the common concerns regarding positive reinforcement and how they may specifically relate to our working group dogs:
“These dogs have jobs, some of which can be dangerous, and they need to do what I command!” To start, let’s take a look at the word command. Word choice is important because it impacts our frame of mind. Dogs are not robots but are living, thinking animals with motivations of their own. So instead of commanding them to do something, why don’t we ask them. Let’s teach reliable behaviors and build a relationship of trust so that they are excited and motivated to do what we ask. Because if they are, then the job will be performed with even more enthusiasm than if they are fearful of a harmful or frightening consequence. For example, positive reinforcement techniques are the dominant form of training for many of the most complex behaviors that dogs can be trained for, such as medical alerts, explosive scent detection, and even performing complex behaviors seen in movies. In fact, recent research shows that military service dogs trained with discipline-based techniques were more distracted and had lower performance of their tasks than those trained with positive reinforcement(8). Likewise, positive techniques have proven to be effective for many of the activities that our working dogs are often bred for such as snow/water rescue, herding, service work and mushing.
“Many working breeds are stubborn and independent. They need to know there is a consequence for them.” As much as I can, I encourage dog owners to avoid labels. When we label our dogs, we jump to interpretations and are more likely to misunderstand why the dog is exhibiting a given behavior and what is reinforcing the behavior. For example, dogs are often labeled as “stubborn” when they don’t know a behavior as well as the human assumed they did or when they choose to do nothing in fear of doing the wrong thing, which in turn could result in punishment. Instead, I always like to look at the behavior involved and assess what is driving that behavior. I decide what behavior I would like the dog to do instead of what they are doing. I then use management to prevent the unwanted behavior from happening and use structured training and reinforcement to teach what I DO want. When I hear the word “independent”, I think of a dog who is thoughtful and does not pay much attention to their owner. Thoughtfulness is a great trait to have in a dog. A dog who is thinking is making choices; we just need to teach them how to make good choices. If a lack of a connection is our problem, then only positive reinforcement can help the dog learn that working with a human is a fun and worthwhile experience. Ditch the labels, analyze the behaviors and reinforcers, and take the time to teach your dog!
“My working dog is strong and has high prey drive. They need corrections to get them to stop chasing.” This concern often comes into play when referring to both leashed walking and off-leash walking. Both problems have the same solution — teaching stronger responses to essential cues! Positive interrupters or attention-grabbers, a strong recall, good loose leash walking and improving impulse control! Once you have the dog’s attention you can redirect them back to your side. This certainly takes practice and reinforcement but teaches the dog how to make better decisions on their own. This improvement in impulse control will positively impact the dog’s behavior outside of these conditions as well. Because when you are not around, don’t you want your dog to maintain its ability to make good decisions and control their excitement?
“You can’t control a dog with treats.” I call your bluff! Control is defined as the power to influence or direct behavior. Food (as well as toys and other reinforcers) can be used in many forms (luring, capturing, shaping) to influence and direct behavior in both an immediate capacity to handle something unexpected and in training to change behavior. Many people with large and powerful working breeds think of needing to control the dog physically. But when you analyze your training plans, you will often see that undesirable behaviors happening in the moment will reveal training holes where we need to do more work! What is the dog doing that you need help with? Pulling? Teach loose leash and release of pressure. Reactive behavior? Control your environment and work on a behavior modification plan to help reduces the dog’s stress and change their emotional response. Sitting in the ring? Teach a solid stack and stay. Growling at a judge? Take time to help your dog feel comfortable with bite exams through training and behavior modification! When we spend more time training and teaching the behaviors our dogs should be rehearsing, we need less control.
Each day more and more dog owners are joining ranks with modern dog training and are choosing to train without pain. Dog owners and trainers alike are following the research on positive reinforcement training techniques and are becoming leaders to their dogs through trust and partnership. Using management and positive reinforcement training not only helps you teach a behavior reliably and put it on cue, but it creates a thoughtful dog that enjoys working, valuable traits in working dogs both in the show ring and out on the job.
For more information about positive reinforcement training for your working dog in the show ring you can follow Show Dog Prep School and Positive Training For Show Dogs on Facebook. For information on manners, sports foundations, and working (backpacking and mushing) you can follow Chelsea at Pawsitive Futures on Facebook and Instagram and in the group Alaskan Malamute Training.
(1) Shenkel, R. (1946). Expression Studies on Wolves – Captivity Observations. Zoological Institute of the University of Basle. http://davemech.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ExpressionstudiesP.1-10.pdf
(2) Semyonova, A, 2003, The social organization of the domestic dog; a longitudinal study of domestic canine behavior and the ontogeny of domestic canine social systems, The Carriage House Foundation, The Hague, www.nonlineardogs.com, version 2006.
(3) Herron, M.E., Shofer, F.S., & Reisner, I.R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesirable behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117, 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
(4) Ziv, G. (2017) The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs – a review. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 19:50-60.
(5) Cooper, J. J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The welfare consequences and efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based training. PloS one, 9(9), e102722.
(6) Schilder, M., & van der Borg, J. (2004). Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85 (3-4), 319-334 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2003.10.004
(7) China, L., Mills, D.S. & Cooper, J.J. (2020) Efficacy of dog training with and without remote electronic collars vs. a focus on positive reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508.
(8) A. Haverbeke, B. Laporte, E. Depiereux, J.-M. Giffroy and C. Diederich, Training methods of military dog handlers and their effects on the team’s performances. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 113 (2008) 110–122