"Bad Dog?" The Psychology and Importance of Using Positive Reinforcement

Calling a dog a "bad dog" very often displays a lack of knowledge about dog behavior, says Marc Bekoff in this essay on the importance of positive reinforcement in dog training.

This guest post by Marc Bekoff is part of the Train for Rewards blog party.

"Bad dog?" The psychology and important of positive reinforcement. Photo shows GoldenDoodle.
Photo: Daniel Brachlow/Pixabay

"Eugene, you're a bad dog. Why did you try to fight with Melvin?"
"Monica, why did you attack Rosie? Bad dog!"
"Bad dog, bad dog, bad dog! Good dogs don't do that."
"My dog Joey was badly abused by other dogs and humans when he was young and learned that he had to fight back. He was doing what came naturally. Now that I've worked hard to socialize him to other dogs and to humans and to praise him when he doesn't fight back, he's learned that fighting fire with fire doesn't work. I always told him he's a 'good dog' when he didn't fight back."
"I learned that letting Henry know he was a 'good dog' when he wasn't reactive was the best way to teach him that fighting back wasn't the best strategy to use. I learned that positive training was the only way to go."

Calling a dog a "bad dog" very often displays a lack of knowledge about dog behavior

A new essay by Psychology Today writer Dr. Zazie Todd called "Confidence and Emotions Affect People's Use of Positive Reinforcement to Train Reactive Dogs" crossed my computer screen a few hours ago. I immediately read her piece and the research essay on which it was based published in the journal Risk Analysis by University of Bristol (UK) researchers Drs. Emma Williams and Emily Blackwell titled "Managing the Risk of Aggressive Dog Behavior: Investigating the Influence of Owner Threat and Efficacy Perceptions."


Dr. Todd's essay is available for free online. However, while the original study is not, I was able to read it and I'm glad I did. It's a significant contribution to the available literature on different methods used to train aggressive or reactive dogs, and clearly shows that positive reinforcement and force-free training is the way to go. (See "Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training is Best," "Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged?" and "Training Methods Affect the Service Dog–Veteran Relationship.") The first three quotations with which I began this essay are just a handful of many in which a human called or often screamed "bad dog" when the dog was simply doing something that was entirely dog-appropriate and appropriate to the situations in which they behaved aggressively. It's the way in which some dogs learned to respond to past situations in which they felt scared and unsafe, either because it was instinctive or because it worked.



The last two quotations are right on the mark. Joey the dog had to unlearn what had worked for him in the past, before he found a loving and safe home and was given plenty of opportunities to interact with other dogs, all of whom would have nothing to do with him when he did what came naturally to him. Henry's human also learned that using positive training and letting him know he was a "good dog" when he wasn't reactive really worked.

The abstract for Drs. Williams and Blackwell's study reads:
"Aggressive behavior in pet dogs is a serious problem for dog owners across the globe, with bite injuries representing a serious risk to both people and other dogs. The effective management of aggressive behavior in dogs represents a challenging and controversial issue. Although positive reinforcement training methods are now considered to be the most effective and humane technique to manage the risk of aggression, punishment‐based methods continue to be used. Unfortunately, there has been little scientific study into the various factors influencing whether dog owners choose to use positive reinforcement techniques to manage aggression in their dogs."

To remedy the lack of data, Drs. Williams and Blackwell used surveys completed by 630 people whose dogs showed reactive behavior, including barking, lunging, and growling, the most common behaviors, and also snapping, snarling, nipping, and biting. The people also were asked if they knew about positive reinforcement training (93% had), and 67% reported they knew basic aspects of dog behavior. The surveys were based on protection motivation theory (PMT), a theory put forth in 1975 by psychologist Ronald W. Rogers:
"to investigate the factors that influence owner use of positive reinforcement methods to manage aggressive behavior, in an attempt to understand potential barriers and drivers of use. In addition, the article provides an initial exploration of the potential role of wider psychological factors, including owner emotional state, social influence, and cognitive bias." 
PMT focuses:
"on how owner perceptions of threat related to the likelihood and severity of aggressive behavior, and perceptions of efficacy related to the effectiveness and personal use of positive reinforcement as a risk management strategy, influence both future intentions and current use of such training techniques." 

To the best of their knowledge, PMT has not previously been applied to the study of human-animal interactions.

The significance of this new study

"It is important for owners, and the practitioners helping them, to consider their own wellbeing and reactions as well as those of the dog. In particular, how this may influence the choices that they make and in turn, how their own responses can best be managed over the course of their training journey."
"The findings of this research suggest a number of practical implications applicable to practitioners working with the owners of dogs who display aggressive behavior. First, it is encouraging to note that even though trainers and some TV celebrities still expound the virtues of punishment-based training methods, this was highlighted as less important in the list of potential influences."
Dr. Todd nicely summarizes the results of this landmark study, one that has clear practical applications. She writes,
"New research from Dr. Emma Williams and Dr. Emily Blackwell (University of Bristol)...shows the importance of dog trainers building their clients’ confidence and abilities to use positive reinforcement has important implications for how dog trainers work with their clients." 
She also quotes an email from Dr. Williams in which the researcher wrote:
"When learning to use positive methods, people are likely to need practical support that demonstrates the effectiveness of reward-based training and also provides an opportunity to practice under expert guidance, so that people feel truly confident in using the techniques themselves in a range of challenging scenarios." 
To this end, the researchers conclude,
"the results suggest that increased perceptions of the potential severity of aggressive behavior in dogs may increase the likelihood that individuals will use positive-reinforcement methods."

Where to from here?

"Future interventions should focus on enhancing owner confidence in the effective use of positive reinforcement techniques across multiple scenarios, as well as helping owners manage their own emotional responses when they encounter challenging situations and setbacks."
Drs. Williams and Blackwell are well aware that more research is needed on the reasons why people choose to use different training techniques. However, their data clearly show that the emotional state and confidence of dog guardians plays a strong role in how they choose to deal with a reactive dog.

In her summary of Drs. Williams and Blackwells' seminal study Dr. Todd writes,
"This is an important study that helps us understand how people make decisions about dog training. The survey shows that when someone has a reactive dog, their future use of positive reinforcement to deal with the behaviour problem is predicted by their confidence in using it at home and in public and their beliefs in its effectiveness." 
Indeed, when people experience negative emotions and bad experiences it reduces their confidence in using positive reinforcement training.

In the title to my essay I put the phrase "bad dog" in quotes because it has to be emphasized that calling a dog a "bad dog" often indicates a lack of knowledge about dog behavior and can backfire when a person is trying to stop a dog from doing something. Sometimes a dog will behave aggressively because it's the dog appropriate thing to do, or at least it has worked for them in the past when they felt threatened or insecure. It's also essential to pay careful attention to each and every individual dog because they aren't all the same. Their unique personalities may come to the fore and they take action when things get iffy or tough. (See Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible). (affiliate links)


"I find it extremely interesting and important that a human's emotional state can play such a strong role in how they decide to train their dog."


This is among the many reasons why it's essential that people become fluent in dog, or dog literate. Along these lines, it's encouraging that two-thirds of the people who partook in Drs. Williams and Blackwells' study said they had basic knowledge of dog behavior. Concerning reactive dogs, for example, when a dog growls, it's not necessarily being assertive or aggressive. Growling isn't as simple as it seems, and sometimes it's entirely appropriate to the situation at hand. (See "Why Dogs Growl"). In many situations with which I'm familiar, calling a dog a "bad dog" is way too fast for me.

Dr. Todd ends her essay by noting that if your dog is reactive, you need to be very careful when choosing a trainer. Useful information can be found at the Care for Reactive Dogs website. Her cautionary statement is very important because globally there are very few if any regulations on who can call themselves a dog trainer. (See "Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon" and "Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It").

"Bad dog?" Marc Bekoff on the importance of positive reinforcement, pictured with dog Minnie
Dr. Marc Bekoff with Minnie


Stay tuned for further studies on the reasons why people choose different methods of training. Drs. Williams and Blackwells' study is just what is needed in an area in which there are few systematic quantitative studies. I hope their entire essay becomes available online sooner than later. It is that significant and should be required reading for all dog trainers/teachers. I also hope that people who decide to share their homes and hearts with a canine companion will at least read summaries of their results. I find it extremely interesting and important that a human's emotional state can play such a strong role in how they decide to train their dog. It's also essential to pay careful attention not only to the behavior of a dog but also to the nature of their relationship with their humans.

Dr. Todd writes, "The people side of dog training cannot be neglected if trainers are to encourage people to use positive reinforcement". (My emphasis) I totally agree. Drs. Williams and Blackwells' findings are consistent with the fact that dogs read us well. (See "Dogs Watch Us Carefully and Read Our Faces Very Well" and "Dogs mirror stress levels of owners, researchers find").

When we know more about dog behavior and dog-human relationships, perhaps especially in situations where reactive dogs do what seems to serve them best, namely, growl, snap, snarl, nip, or bite for whatever reasons, it'll be a win-win for all. I also hope that positive reinforcement training will prevail in these and all other situations where a dog needs to learn to be more social and less reactive and unlearn what might have worked for them in the past. The quotations from Joey and Henry's loving humans with which I began this essay are right on the mark. Fighting fire with fire doesn't work, and saying "good dog" or letting your dog know they're a "good dog" go a long way in helping them to learn what works and what doesn't. (See "For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.") Don't hesitate to sprinkle your dog with praise. It's not only good for them, but also good for you.


This essay was originally published on Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today site with the title "Bad Dog?" The Psychology of Using Positive Reinforcement.

For more on Marc Bekoff, see this interview with Dr. Marc Bekoff on Canine Confidential.  Read more guest posts on Companion Animal Psychology here.


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