Kristin is a dog agility instructor and competitor with 20 years in the sport.
The Great Debate: Positive vs. Punishment-Based Training Methods
In a recent Facebook group geared towards dog trainers, an instructor posted inflammatory comments affirming punishment-based training methods in opposition to positive training methods. He hoped to goad other posters into an argument. None of the other participants wanted to debate the well-worn topic, but the trainer’s eagerness to forward the use of punishment in dog training got me thinking about the decades-old debate once again.
For those unfamiliar with the controversy, it’s rather simple. Dog training philosophies fall along a spectrum from using all punishment to train a dog (no treats, no praise) to using all positive reinforcement to train a dog. (See image below.) As recent scientific studies continue to prove the power of positive methods, the current popularity pendulum is swinging toward positive methods and away from punishment-based methods. Trainers often believe strongly in their method and sometimes want to stand up for their side.
This debate has been played over and over on training forums, email groups, in-person, and social media for decades. I’ve been involved in my share of discussion and debate on the topic myself. The reason is, unlike this young trainer who failed to rile up another debate, my personal experience goes back almost fifty years and includes both sides of the argument. I admit when the young trainer posted the taunt, I typed a response. I wanted to share my experiences and my favorite thing about positive training.
However, after I typed my post, I deleted it. This trainer wouldn’t be swayed by my argument. His mind was made up. My post would only have fed into his anger with those who use other methods—not assuaged it or helped educate him or anyone else in that particular forum. Instead, I decided to write about why I’m a positive trainer on my own blog.
How Training Methods Have Evolved Over Time
My personal philosophy falls far into the all positive side and has been developed after decades of training dogs. I started back in the day when most trainers, including myself, fell more toward the all punishment side of dog training. I got into dog sports (obedience) as a teen in the 1970s. The old Koehler method was the training philosophy of choice where I took classes, and I employed it happily and rather ignorantly. There were lots of collar and verbal corrections and very little praise. Treats, play, and other rewards were forbidden.
As time progressed, so did training methods. Eventually, I ran across clickers, and I used them in conjunction with the old Koehler tools—a mix that is often called a "balanced" approach. Later—and as those methods failed to work well for me and my sheltie in the new, fast-paced sport of dog agility—I switched to a heavily positive training paradigm. I am not “all-positive,” which would indicate zero negatives (no verbal correctionss, no negative markers, no letting the dog know a mistake has been made, and no luring). I use some of these, based on the individual dog’s personality, but I work hard to limit them and turn to reward-based training as often as possible. Yes, I fail. Sometimes frustration and old habits make me far less the trainer I’d like to be, and those who know me know this. But overall, I range much closer to the positive end of the spectrum than the punishment end.
After switching methods, what sold me hook, line, and sinker on positive training was the incredible change in my dogs. Those trained with positive methods were so much more eager to work. They LOVED their jobs. And, my bond with them, which I thought was deep and beautiful, increased tenfold.
Now, if before I changed to positive methods someone had told me my bond with my dogs wasn’t as strong as it could be, I would have been livid. How dare they! Of course I had the deepest bond possible with my dogs. But, how would I have known another level existed if all I had ever worked with were methods doused with punishment? How could I know the depths and power of the positive?
Yet, even as important as a deeper bond and dogs who live to do their jobs are, I have yet to reveal the biggest benefit I found to positive training.
The Problem With "Take It Off the Top"
When I trained using the old-school methods, one of the sayings I often heard from other trainers was, “Get a dog with lots of drive, so you can take it off the top.”
This saying has a sinister undertone: If you want a dog who can handle competition, you need a dog who has lots of drive and an excitable personality, so when you use punishment to get the needed behaviors, the dog will still have enough personality left to perform proficiently, albeit at a less excited level. In other words, you correct a high-drive dog down to a dog who can still perform versus correcting a lower-drive dog down to a wilting flower.
When I switched to positive training, something incredible happened to my dogs. Without stomping on their personalities—without changing who they were—my dogs performed the behaviors regardless of their level of drive. For my high-drive dogs, I had performances with happy eyes, wagging tails, and eagerness to play. When we’d leave the competition ring, they’d jump on me for sheer joy of the work. They performed for the thrill, not out of fear. For my shyer dogs, I received more enthusiastic responses. No longer wilting flowers, they were willing partners in crime.
My dogs performed with their personalities fully intact. They oozed joy as they worked. They oozed their individual essences. Because I switched from a more punishment-based system to a more positive system, my dogs felt free to be themselves within the framework of play, fun, and work. My dogs’ personalities also changed in our every day, at home, lives. And, yes, this transfers directly to a much deeper bond with my dogs. And I got all of this without sacrificing a bit of performance ability.
So what’s the biggest positive in positive training? A dog whose personality blooms at all times whether that personality is shy and quiet or boisterous and hyped-up. There’s no “taking personality off the top” or “peeling layers off the onion.” There’s only confidence-building, play, games, fun, and a well-behaved dog.
I Chose to Let My Dogs Blossom
The debate will continue to rage, perhaps forever. There's an ongoing joke that if you put a hundred trainers in a room and ask them how to train "sit," you’ll get a hundred different answers, and this is pretty much true. There are a million different ways to get a behavior from a dog. Trainers who fall more toward the punishment side of the spectrum love their dogs and are loved by their dogs as are those on the positive side.
I, however, choose to stand where my dogs blossom without having to pull off petals.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.