Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training III

A study finds people who only use positive reinforcement report their dogs are less attention-seeking, aggressive or fearful.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This is the third part in a series about positive reinforcement and dog training.

Research on using positive reinforcement in dog training, unlike this lady saying no to her dog
Photo: Christian Mueller/Shutterstock

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This week I’m looking at another questionnaire study of ordinary dog owners and the way they train their dogs. The study was conducted by Emily Blackwell and colleagues, and involved 192 dog owners that were recruited from three counties in the UK.

They seem to be typical owners of typical dogs, as the sample included a wide range of breeds, a mix of genders (neutered/spayed/or not), and a range of different ages. Owners were asked whether their dogs had attended training or puppy socialization classes, the methods they had used to train them at home, and about any problem behaviours the dogs might display.

In total 88% of the owners said they had done some training at home. The methods were classified into groups: positive reinforcement (the use of rewards), positive punishment (the use of punishment), and negative reinforcement (e.g. time out*, physical restraint).

Most owners used a combination, and 72% used some form of physical punishment as part of their training method. Only 16% of them used only positive reinforcement, which is similar to the proportion of owners in the study by Hiby et al, discussed last week.

The list of potential problem behaviours included 36 behaviours that could be seen as undesirable; owners were asked to say if their dog exhibited the behaviour, and also if it was a problem, since for example some owners might not mind if their dog jumps on them. 

The dogs that had attended puppy socialization classes were less likely to react to dogs outside the house. Interestingly, attendance at training classes was not linked to better behaviour overall. The authors say this may be because owners had previously attended classes and learnt how to train their dogs there. Another explanation, though, could be that it would depend on the methods taught during the class, and this wasn’t tested.

The type of training method was related to the dog’s behaviour. Remember that a small proportion of the owners used only positive reinforcement in training? It turned out their dogs were the least likely to display problem behaviours; they were less likely to show attention-seeking, fear, and aggression.

In addition, when owners used punishment, whether on its own or in tandem with other methods, their dogs were more likely to be rated as aggressive, and more likely to show fear (e.g. avoidance of unfamiliar people or fear of loud noises).  

Quote from the study by Blackwell explains there is an association between the use of punishment and more unwanted behaviours in dogs

The authors also looked at where the dogs had come from. Dogs obtained from rescue centres were more likely to show separation-related problems (separation anxiety) than those obtained from breeders. However, they were no more likely to be aggressive, fearful or attention-seeking. This is good news, since it counteracts the negative stereotypes some people have about rescue dogs.

Of course, the results are correlational, and do not prove a causal link. However, the authors think it is possible dogs learn to associate punishment with their owner or the context, rather than with their own behaviour, and hence become fearful or anxious. This in turn would lead them to exhibit more unwanted behaviours.

The scientists also found that control problems, such as pulling on leash and not coming when called, were not affected by whether or not people only used positive reinforcement. Because of this, they say their results suggest that punishment plays a role in the development of unwanted behaviours. Again, this could be due to fear and anxiety as a result of the use of punishment, but more research is needed.

They conclude that dogs trained without punishment have fewer behaviour issues.

Next week, we will look at whether or not people train small dogs differently from large dogs.

If you want to learn more about the science of dog training methods and get lots of tips for a happier dog, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

* Time out is actually negative punishment. In this study, time out and withholding food rewards (both negative punishment) were included in the negative reinforcement category, as per Table 1 in the study (page 209). Examples of negative reinforcement included in the category are holding the dog still and physically pushing into position.

Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. A. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3(5), 207-217. DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008

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