There are many schools of thought on how to train a dog. We turned to Rover’s Dog People Panel member and certified dog training expert, Nicole Ellis, to help us sort through the various types of training.
I’m a certified dog training (CPDT-KA) who uses positive reinforcement methods to work with dogs. You’ll see that term—positive reinforcement—quite often when researching dog training but what does it really mean? And what other options are there?
These are serious considerations when looking for a trainer to work with you and your dog. There are so many ways to train and communicate with dogs, methods that vary wildly in their theory and practice. Not every style is right for every dog but one thing we can be sure of is that, as a dog owner, you want the best for your pet.
I’m going to break down the main schools of thought on dog training and the various methods used in them.
Positive Reinforcement Training
As I mentioned earlier, this is the method I choose to use when training my own dogs, as well as my clients’ dogs. The theory with positive reinforcement training is that the good behavior we want to occur brings good things (like treats or praise) and therefore, a dog is more likely to repeat a behavior. For example, walking calmly next to you and not pulling on the leash gets a reward—such as treats, verbal reinforcement or some head scratches. I personally love this form of training because in teaching dogs our desired behaviors, we strengthen our bond together.
One misconception about positive reinforcement training as that it always requires treats. While I do use treats when teaching something new or every now and then as a special surprise, most of the time a positive reinforcement can be a verbal “good boy!” or a belly rub.
Clicker training is often also known as operant training. Some positive reinforcement trainers mix in clicker training. I use it for certain behaviors and with certain dogs. Clicker training can easily be grouped in the positive reinforcement category as it relies on the same basic principles. Clicker training relies on a device, usually a clicker, to mark the exact moment a desired behavior occurs to reward for the behavior. The first step is to teach the dog what a clicker means: you’re doing what I want and the click is your reward.
Dominance, Pack or Alpha Theory Training
This theory suggests dogs see their families as packs and follow a social hierarchy, such as in wolf packs. It is believed that dogs need to respect their human and submit to them.
While research shows that pack theory has been debunked by experts, it is still in practice by many trainers. It can also fail to address underlying causes of a behavior and actually cause more stress making issues and the pet’s health worse.
Often, prong collars and other training collars are used (see E-collar training). This type of training may also use “alpha rolls” a form of pinning the dog to the ground. Alpha training usually follows strict protocols: the dog isn’t allowed on any furniture including couches or beds, the dog never gets on eye level with you and he must wait until you exit a door first. All of this is is followed because you are the higher pack member.
Trainers who use this approach may use prong collars, e-collars, shock collars or other tools that may mimic a nip or quick bite. The mentality here is to correct unwanted behavior with a negative association – if a dog pulls on the leash he gets a quick correction by a prong collar. The problem with this is that it relies on telling a dog what not to do instead of teaching what to do, which can lead to other behavioral issues. If you are going to use an electronic device, I highly suggest consulting a professional that specializes in this so you understand how to use it properly and get your timing accurate. Keep in mind that there are many other alternatives that put dogs under less stress and pain.
The word balance can be confusing as we sometimes think of the word as a positive word. Balanced trainers are in the middle of the spectrum as they use a mixture of dominance and positive reinforcement training. So a dog that pulls on leash may get a quick shock but once he stops pulling, will get a treat.