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Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

Research validates positive reinforcement
By Pat Miller, November 2008, Updated June 2021

There was a time when behavioral research focused primarily on primates, wolves and rodents. Today, our domestic canine companions are increasingly being considered as valid subjects for studies intended to improve quality of life for dogs and their humans. Some of these studies were presented at the Sixth International Veterinary Behavior Meeting in Riccione, Italy, in June 2007, and reported in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior no. 2, issue 3. Of particular note are two that address the relationship between training methods and problem behaviors.

The first, “The Importance of Consistency in the Training of Dogs,” was conducted by scientists at the University of Southampton in the UK and the University of Life Sciences in Norway. This study evaluated punishment as a contributor to behavior problems, and the effects of reward, punishment and rule structure (permissiveness/strictness and consistency) on training and behavior problems. Information was collected via questionnaires from 217 dog guardians. Those who used strong and/or frequent punishment had a significantly higher level of training problems and lower obedience in their dogs. The study found that rule structure was important in achieving a well-behaved dog, but appears to be dependent on a low level of punishment in the training program.

A similar study, “The Relationship Between Training Methods and the Occurrence of Behavior Problems in a Population of Domestic Dogs,” was conducted at the University of Bristol in the UK. This study was designed to investigate the relationship between the occurrence of behavior problems and the type of training class attended and methods used. While the results suggested that attendance at any form of training class was likely to reduce the number of behavior problems in dogs, the study also found that dogs trained only with positive reinforcement exhibited fewer problem behaviors. Dogs whose owners used punishment in training were also significantly more likely to show a fear response to other dogs.

These findings are no surprise to positive trainers around the world, but it’s always good to have our personal and professional experiences and training philosophies confirmed by science.



Pat Miller is a certified dog behavior consultant, dog trainer and author of six books on dog training and behavior, and presents seminars worldwide.