The Best Training Method for Dogs According to Research
What Is the Best Way to Train My Dog?
Many dog owners are wondering what the number one method for training dogs is, but there are far more important things to consider than expecting quick results or obtaining guarantees. It is important to consider how these methods impact your dog's welfare.
Nowadays, there are several training philosophies, and choosing the best one may feel overwhelming because they can all sound very convincing. Ask yourself the following: Is it making promises on the outcome of the training and does it sound too good to be true? Ethical dog training shouldn't come with guarantees.
When it comes to well-known training methods, there are three important and very different methodologies that we will be discussing:
3 Common Methods of Dog Training
- Reward-based dog training
- Aversion-based dog training
- Balanced dog training
What each methodology encompasses is mostly a matter of what quadrants of dog training are used. Below, we'll break down the strategies behind each training method.
1. Reward-Based Dog Training
Reward-based dog training, also known as positive dog training, mainly focuses on providing rewards to reinforce desired behavior (positive reinforcement). Dogs that are trained this way tend to repeat desired behaviors because they have yielded an appealing outcome.
For example, a treat may be given contingent upon the dog offering their paw. After several repetitions, the paw-giving behavior gains strength, muscle memory sets in, and paw-giving starts to become a strongly established component of the dog's behavior repertoire.
Reward-based dog trainers are committed to avoiding methods or tools that are harsh or that physically or emotionally harm and intimidate the dog. These trainers may, however, use negative punishment which, despite the word "punishment" and "negative," simply means removing something that fuels a behavior in order to weaken it and extinguish it.
For example, every time a dog barks at an owner who is sitting on the couch, the dog owner gets up from the couch and leaves contingent upon the barking. Soon, the attention-driven dog should learn that barking doesn't work in garnering attention, so the behavior reduces.
While reward-based dog trainers are committed to using gentle training methods, caution is needed. Sometimes, dog trainers advertise themselves as positive-only, when in reality, they rely on choke, prong, or shock collars when they believe a dog "needs more."
2. Aversion-Based Dog Training
This style of training involves the use of aversion. In other words, dogs are trained through the use of pain, discomfort, and intimidation. Aversion-based dog training mostly involves the use of positive punishment and negative reinforcement.
Positive punishment consists of adding something the dog perceives as unpleasant in an effort to stop an unwanted behavior (punishment). Thorndike's Law of Effect claims: "responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation . . . ." For example, a dog is given a leash correction every time he or she pulls in an effort to stop leash-pulling.
Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, entails removing something for the purpose of making a behavior increase. For example, a dog that won't sit is pushed down on on his or her rump to force a sit. Now, most dogs don't like this kind of pressure. So if upon sitting, the pressure is removed, the dog soon may learn to sit more and more just to avoid the pressure.
3. Balanced Dog Training
Balanced dog training is often advertised as featuring the best of "both worlds." Trainers employ both reinforcement and punishment, meaning they tend to use all the quadrants based on specific circumstances.
For example, your dog may be given a collar correction when he or she pulls and a treat when they don't pull, or he or she may be continuously shocked with a shock collar until they stop chasing a cat and receive praise when they see a cat but don't chase it.
Additional Subsets of Common Methodologies
To further complicate things, there are several methods that are subsets of or overlap with different methodologies and are based on specific philosophies or the use of certain tools. These methods may belong more to reward-based or aversion-based methods depending on the underlying ideology. There are several other dog-training methods/philosophies and subcategories that may not be mentioned here.
1. Alpha/Dominance Training
The alpha/dominance training point of view is based on the belief that dogs have a pack mentality, therefore, dog owners must continuously assert themselves as the "alpha" or a dog may take over and attain rank. This is often referred to as "dominance theory." People who follow this philosophy believe that dog owners must show confidence and authority and are often told to eat first and walk first out of doors and tight passages to remind the dog that his or her position is lower in the pack.
Alpha rolls (pinning the dog on its back), scruff shakes (shaking a dog by the skin on the scruff), and leash corrections along with other aversion-based methods are often used to correct undesirable behaviors and put the "dog in his place."
This training philosophy dates back to Shenkel's studies conducted in 1947 on wolves in captivity and is based on the old idea that wolves have a tendency to fight within a pack in order to gain dominance. It was thought that winners of such disputes were "alphas." Cesar's Millan's popular TV show The Dog Whisperer, in particular, has promulgated such methods.
This training philosophy still persists considering that most recent studies conducted by David Mech have demonstrated that wolf "packs" in the wild consist of a family comprising a pair of adults called “parents” or “breeders” (and not “alphas” as previously believed) and their offspring.
For decades, dog behavior has been interpreted using a linear dominance hierarchy extrapolated from a wolf-pack model. This has led to the pervasive use of dominance constructs to incorrectly explain a variety of dog behavior problems. In particular, aggressive behavior has been erroneously equated with dominance.— Dr. Lore I. Haug, board-certified veterinary behaviorist
2. Clicker Training
Clicker training is based on positive reinforcement and heavily relies on the use of a noise-making tool known as a "clicker." Through a charging process, the clicking sound of this tool becomes a predictor of treats and its sound can be used to precisely mark desired behaviors and provides cutting-edge communication.
3. Electronic Training
Electronic training, also known as shock-collar training, on the other hand, is based on the use of corrections through the use of an electric collar that delivers a shock when the dog fails to perform a desired behavior. Electronic training falls under the category of aversion-based methods.
Not All Experts Agree on the Best Method
In dog training circles (almost as in political parties), dog trainers often oppose each other in their personal views and beliefs. It is not unusual to notice very heated debates over social media forums and in many comments sections on websites. In fact, among dog trainers, there is a popular saying: "Put three dog trainers in a room and the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is that the third trainer is wrong."
Every dog trainer has a strong personal belief that their training methods are the best, but are they truly? Being the "best" boils down to how a dog reacts and the safest, least-invasive methods.
What Do the Studies Say? Reward-Based Methods Win
Several surveys and a handful of empirical studies in the past have provided some insights on the impact certain training methods or tools may have on dogs. One of the most notorious surveys conducted in 2009 determined that confrontational techniques such as kicking a dog, growling at a dog, physically forcing a dog to release an item from his or her mouth, subjecting a dog to an alpha roll, staring down and grabbing a dog by jowls, and shaking a dog, in fact, triggers aggressive responses in at least a quarter of them.
Despite the fact that these surveys provide relevant information, their weak point is that they provide insights rather than relay information on objective measures; they also offer limited scientific evidence. A more comprehensive evaluation has been lacking, but a recent 2019 study is now filling the gap.
According to this 2019 study, 92 dogs were recruited and divided into three punishment-based (“aversive group”) and four reward-based (“reward group”) dog-training schools. A short-term welfare assessment was done by taking some video recordings of training sessions and six saliva samples. The videos were used to look for signs of stress-related behaviors in dogs such as panting, yawning, lip-licking, and a lowered body position. The saliva samples were meant to check a dog's cortisol levels, which is a hormone that is released in the bloodstream and spikes during times of high stress.
Results (not surprisingly) found that dogs subjected to aversion-based training methods showed a high frequency of stress-related behaviors and an average rise in salivary cortisol concentration at 0.10 µg/dL after training. Dogs trained using reward-based methods showed no significant changes in their cortisol levels.
Long-term effects in the aversion-based group were also noticed, which proves that the risk of stress due to cumulative exposure to aversive experiences is real. The dogs in the study that were subjected to such training were found to have more pessimistic "judgments" of ambiguous stimuli during a cognitive bias task. This study has, therefore, proven that dogs trained using punishment-based methods showed reduced welfare compared to dogs trained using reward-based methods.
Our results show that companion dogs trained using aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare as compared to companion dogs trained using reward-based methods, at both the short- and the long-term level....Critically, our study points to the fact that the welfare of companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods appears to be at risk.— Vieira de Castro et al.
- Guilherme-Fernandes J, Olsson IAS, Vieira de Castro AC. Do aversive-based training 756 methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2017; 757 196, 1-12.
- Vieira de Castro AC, Fuchs D, Pastur S, et al. Does training method matter?: Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. bioRxiv 2019:1-34.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Adrienne Farricelli