Karen B. London
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Positive Training Is Better
It’s not news, but it is science
Positive training, positive results

I hardly think it will be a shock to anyone reading this, but according to a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, positive training techniques are better than negative methods. Specifically, they promote less stress in the dog, and are better for the dog-person relationship.

A soon-to-be published study called “Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog-owner relationship” supports the beliefs of many trainers, behaviorists and guardians that there are substantial advantages to training with positive reinforcement.

In this preliminary study, researchers compared the behavior of dogs being training with positive reinforcement (desired behavior results in the appearance of something positive such as a treat or toy) to those being trained with the use of negative reinforcement (desired behavior results in the disappearance of something negative such as pressure on the leash or body). The data were collected in advanced dog training classes at two different training centers and the behaviors of interest were sitting and walking nicely on a leash.

The dogs being trained with negative reinforcement performed more behaviors that indicate stress in dogs (such as licking their mouths and yawning) and more lowered body postures (the tail down and either the ears lowered or the legs bent in a crouching posture) than dogs being trained with positive reinforcement. The dogs trained with positive reinforcement gazed at their guardians more often than the dogs trained with negative reinforcement. This suggests a stronger connection in those pairs, although the authors acknowledge that those gazes could be a result of dog looking for the reinforcement.

The researchers conclude that positive training techniques are less stressful for dogs and likely better for their well being. This matches my experience with dogs and the people training them. How about you?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Bernadett Miklósi | February 20 2014 |

Dear Karen B. London,

I really liked your article and I would like to ask a question. Which method was more successful? With which method the trainers get their goals earlier? I always thinking about this because if we could reach our goals with negative reinforcement earlier than with positive reinforcement it is not insignificant (I think). After the problem got solved there no need to be any training and there would be no tension between the dog and owner anymore.
I was just thinking loud... :)

I look forward to your response,

A dogtrainer from Hungary, Bernadett Miklósi (maybe you no about my Dad, Adam Miklósi).

Submitted by Karen London | February 27 2014 |

Helló Bernadett, and köszönöm (thank you) for writing. Your question about which method was most successful is a good one, but this study did not consider training success, so it is not possible to answer based on this study and the particular methods used in it. I understand the importance of reaching training goals sooner, and I think it is especially important to prevent owners from becoming frustrated or giving up, which can be very harmful to everybody.

However, I consider training an activity that owners and dogs share for the whole life of the dog, so I don't think reaching a single goal such as the dog knowing to sit or to heel on cue means that tension is gone. Dogs can always learn new things such as tricks or sports activities or new skills for new challenges in life, and many dogs are trained throughout their life. Even if training is short-lived, negative experiences that affect the relationship could have lasting effects, and positive experiences can also have long-term consequences. I suppose that if someone's main goal in training is speed, than evaluating techniques based on that could lead to different decisions than if the goals of training success and relationship success are equally balanced. More research is needed in these areas, and questions like yours are good candidates for research.

Thanks again for commenting and providing a thought-provoking question! I can see that the tendency to think about animals in a creative way and ask good questions is something that you and your dad share!


Submitted by Sue Coffman | February 20 2014 |

Absolutely - positive reinforcement training works wonders! My dog is a rescue who was abused. He exhibited a lot of crazy behaviors and took a long time bonding. I used, and continue to use, positive reinforcement training with him, and he has transformed from an aloof, non-responsive, fear-posturing dog into a happy, loving "velcro" dog who herds me to bed every night just so he can get more snuggle time. He still has a lot of room for improvement, but we tackle one behavior modification at a time, and he's doing beautifully - and almost has me trained to his exacting specifications! Most important, he's joyful, happy and loving.

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