Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training VII: Summary and Conclusions

The best way to train a dog is by using rewards, but many owners continue to use aversive techniques.

The science of dog training, illustrated by a white GSD in the water
Photo: Aneta Pics/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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This is the final part of the series on the scientific research on dog training methods used by ordinary dog owners in ordinary situations. Over the last few weeks, we have looked at five separate studies. The conclusion of all of them is that reward-based training is best.

Two separate questionnaire studies by Hiby et al and Blackwell et al found that dogs trained using only positive reinforcement are more obedient than dogs trained with punishment. Dogs whose owners used punishment were more likely to have behaviour problems such as fear and aggression.

A study of training small dogs versus large dogs by Arhant et al confirmed that greater frequency of punishment is linked to aggression and excitability. These problems are even worse in small dogs, which are trained with less consistency and respond more negatively to punishment.

These studies relied on owner reports of their dog’s behaviour. Is it possible that they are biased somehow; for example that people are more inclined to say their dogs have a problem in order to justify the use of punishment?

It’s unlikely there is a systematic bias, since the questions were different in each study. Nonetheless, a study by Rooney and Cowan got independent assessments of behaviour by videotaping interactions between owners and their dog, including a training session on a novel task. The reported training history affected the dog’s ability to learn the new task – dogs that had previously been taught using more rewards were better at learning. In addition, owners who used more rewards during the training session itself were more successful at training their dog. 

Sometimes people make an argument that reward-based training is okay for dogs that are pretty good, but just won’t work for dogs with problems. Bad dogs, the reasoning goes, need to be shown - via punishment - that what they are doing is wrong.

However, Herron et al’s study of dogs that had been referred to a behaviourist found that the use of punishment often led to an aggressive response. In other words, using punishment can have unintended – and unsafe – consequences. 

Another thing I sometimes hear is that reward-based or clicker training is okay for in the house, but not the real world. However, this is simply untrue. All of the studies here looked at ordinary dog-training and the way the dogs behaved in everyday life, and they all show that reward-based training works the best.

Also, some people say “it’s more balanced to use both rewards and punishments.”  I don’t know what balanced is supposed to mean in this context. In fact, in the study by Blackwell, the use of both rewards and punishment led to the most aggressive dogs. An aggressive dog isn’t very balanced.

Why does punishment have this effect? Punishment is stressful for the dog, causing a rise in stress hormones. This can cause a dog to become fearful or aggressive. It is also possible that stress hormones interfere with learning. In contrast, with positive reinforcement, the anticipation of a reward motivates a dog to learn and helps to build a better relationship between dog and owner.

Little white dog in a pink hat and scarf, happy because of science on positive reinforcement and dog training
Photo: Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock

It is important to note that punishment is something aversive from the dog’s perspective. Sometimes people talk about discipline or corrections rather than punishment. We have to ask ourselves how it feels to the dog. So a yank on the leash or a bop on the nose is a punishment even if the owner prefers to call it a ‘correction’. 

Along the way, we have found out about two other important characteristics of a training programme: patience and consistency. Owners who were patient with their dog performed much better at teaching the dog a novel task. Owners who were inconsistent with their dogs, and sometimes let them get away with things that were meant to be forbidden, had less obedient dogs. 

In conclusion, these studies show that the use of positive reinforcement only is the best way to train a dog. Sadly, this research also shows that just 16-20% of owners take this approach. Most dog owners continue to use punishment, with about 50% using punishment more often than rewards.

In fact, a new 2017 literature review (that includes the studies discussed in this series) also concludes that reward-based training is the best approach.

Please spread the word: reward-based dog training is the way to go, and it’s not too late to learn.

If you liked this post, 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."

What kind of reward motivates your dog the best?

You might also like: The ultimate dog training tiphow to choose a dog trainer, and why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs?

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. 

Arhant, C., H, Bubbna-Lititz, A. Bartels, A. Futschik and J. Troxler (2010) Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123:131-142.
Blackwell, E.J., Twells, C., Seawright, A. and 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, 3:207-217.
Herron, M.E., F.S.Shofer and I.R. Reisner (2009) Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesirable behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117:47-54.
Hiby, E.F., N.J. Rooney and J.W.S. Bradshaw (2004) Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare, 13, 63-69.
Rooney, N.J. and S. Cowan (2011) Training methods and owner-dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132:169-177. 

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