By Jeff Stallings
There’s an on-going flap over two dog training philosophies, positive reinforcement vs. punishment: Using food treats to compel a dog to behave correctly versus using pain or fear to accomplish the same.
What gets lost in the sometimes contentious back-and-forth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dog training. Each puppy and dog is unique, or as my dog-adoring mother used to say “a snowflake distinct among snowflakes”. So while innate behavior instincts are similar across the species and breeds, each dog must be viewed as a distinct creature.
We must also make a distinction between objective training on the one hand and behavior modification on the other; I employ different modes of training for each of these broad categories. Positive reinforcement, with judicious use of well-timed treats, is ideal for objective training, such as teaching a puppy to sit/stay or training a dog to high-five. Behavior modification, which addresses ingrained problems such as aggression, leash-pulling or separation anxiety, is rarely effective when limited to food-based training.
Most of my clients hire me to address problem behaviors. I never use fear or pain to train a dog because fear is counterproductive 100% of the time, and pain is unnecessary except in extreme cases of dangerous aggression. That said, to quickly modify dog behavior there must be a consequence for inappropriate behavior. (Some trainers will advise you to simply ignore a dog’s bad behavior, yet I don’t know of any parent who employs this tactic on their kids!) Note that in regards to dog training, “consequence” is not the same as “punishment“: I do not advocate inflicting pain in any way. But there are far more expeditious ways to teach a dog not to jump on people, for example, than ignoring the behavior.