Confidence and Emotions Affect People's Use of Positive Reinforcement to Train Reactive Dogs

Confidence in being able to use the technique, perceptions of the effectiveness of positive reinforcement, and the emotional toll of having a reactive dog all influence people’s choice of dog training method, a new study shows.

Confidence and emotion affect use of positive reinforcement to train reactive dogs, like this white Chihuhua lunging and growling
Photo: Balakate/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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If you’ve never had a reactive dog, then you’ve not experienced those grim moments of hanging on to the leash while your dog lunges and growls at other people or dogs. Feelings of anxiety and embarrassment are often compounded by negative reactions and comments from other people. But while reward-based training methods are the best way to resolve behaviour issues, they aren’t always what people use.

New research from Dr. Emma Williams and Dr. Emily Blackwell (University of Bristol) looks at the factors that affect people’s decisions about the dog training methods to use with their reactive dog. The study 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.

Dr. Williams told me in an email,
"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. This study shows the emotional impact that attempting to manage a reactive dog can have. 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."

Reactive dogs and training methods

Having a reactive dog that lunges, growls, and barks (or even nips and bites) at passers-by or their dogs is hard work and can feel embarrassing and stressful. For dog owners, having to deal with this behaviour may affect their quality of life. And failure to resolve the problem may significantly affect the dog’s quality of life, especially if people stop taking their dog for walks or continue to expose the dog to stressful situations.

But while we know that reward-based methods are the best way to train dogs, many people use aversive methods such as positive punishment that run the risk of an aggressive response or compromising animal welfare.

Behaviour problems are a common reason for dogs to be given up to shelters or euthanized. Encouraging people to use positive dog training methods could help dogs to stay in homes, reduce euthanasia rates, and reduce the frequency of dog bites. So it is important to understand what influences people’s decision to use positive reinforcement (see: why don’t more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs?).

The role of confidence, perceived effectiveness, and emotion in dog training decisions

The researchers conducted a survey of people whose dogs show reactive behaviour. 630 completed the survey in full, 93% of whom had heard of positive reinforcement, and 67% of whom said they were at least moderately knowledgeable about dog behaviour. The most common reactive behaviours were barking, lunging, and growling, but some dogs were also reported to snap, snarl, nip, or bite.

The results show that the most important factor in people’s decision to use positive reinforcement is how confident they feel about using it at home, followed by how confident they are to use it in public. The seriousness of the dog’s reactivity and advice from a dog trainer was also important. Perhaps reassuringly, these results show that what people see on TV or the internet and the opinions of their friends and family were not important factors in people’s decision.

The survey asked about people’s current use of different dog training methods, using example of each type rather than technical terms such as negative reinforcement. It also asked about future use of positive reinforcement, but not future use of other methods.

People were more likely to say they would use positive reinforcement in the future if they perceived the dog was likely to show reactive behaviour in future, had stronger beliefs in the effectiveness of positive reinforcement as a technique, and perceived that they would be able to use it successfully. As well, people who said they knew more about dog behaviour were more likely to say they would use positive reinforcement.

Trainers need to build people's confidence in working with reactive dogs, according to this study on what influences the use of positive reinforcement. Photo shows reactive white dog.
Photo: Balakate/Shutterstock

People’s perceptions of the severity of their dog’s reactivity did not affect their likelihood of using positive reinforcement in the future, but it did make them more likely to currently use positive reinforcement if they thought their dog’s problem was severe. Whether this difference means people did not expect to need it in the future (i.e. the problem would be resolved) or something else is not clear.

Current use of positive reinforcement was also affected by people’s perceived ability to use the technique and beliefs in its effectiveness.

Taken together, these results show the importance of beliefs that positive reinforcement is effective and that people are confident in using it both at home and in public.

If people had had previous negative experiences of using the technique, negative emotions, and if they were distracted, this reduced both their confidence in using positive reinforcement and their beliefs in the likelihood of it working. When people perceived their dog’s reactivity as more severe, they were less confident in using positive reinforcement but more likely to think they could manage the behaviour.

Negative emotions were particularly apparent in written responses in the questionnaire, where people wrote of feeling “stressed”, “nervous”, and “on-edge” because of their dog’s behaviour. Some people saw difficult situations as a “training opportunity”, and the scientists say this is a helpful framing.
People reported a wide range of negative emotions when they were not able to manage their dog’s behaviour, including feeling “frustrated”, “dejected and useless”, and “heartbroken.” Many blamed themselves, and said they felt like a failure or had “let their dog down.”

People were more likely to seek information from external sources (such as dog trainers, animal behaviourists, books, TV, and vets) if they perceived their dog’s behaviour problem as severe and likely to recur.

Implications for dog trainers

These results show the importance of teaching people about the effectiveness of positive reinforcement, and of building people’s confidence in using it. Although some may think this seems obvious, dog trainers are used to building gradual plans for the dog, but less used to gradually building people’s skills or helping them develop coping strategies for a stressful and emotional situation.

One of the difficulties of managing a reactive dog is that it is very hard to control the environment so as to stay away from situations that provoke the reactivity, as people and dogs can sometimes pop up anywhere. As well, other people can be disapproving and make negative or angry comments which are hard to deal with.

"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."

The scientists say it is important that dog trainers support their clients in varied situations to help build their confidence. Helping people to see tricky situations as training opportunities can help them to stay positive. As well, they suggest sharing success stories about the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. (See: reasons to be positive about being positive in dog training).

Another implication is that providing more information about dog behaviour is likely to help more people decide to use reward-based methods in future.

Because of the findings about severity of the dog’s behaviour, it is possible that fear appeals (e.g. mentioning the legal risks) might make more people use positive reinforcement. However, the scientists say this would have to be done with care as there are circumstances in which fear appeals have unintended negative effects.

I've written more about these issues in another post: to promote positive reinforcement, teach, engage, and amplify.


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. Negative emotions and bad experiences reduce people’s confidence in using positive reinforcement.

This means that providing support to build people’s confidence and prevent negative situations (or coach coping strategies for them) will likely increase the uptake of positive reinforcement methods. The people side of dog training cannot be neglected if trainers are to encourage people to use positive reinforcement.

If you have a reactive dog, check out this post on what to do if your dog is reactive to other people or dogs on walks.  

If you decide to get help, choose a dog trainer with care as dog training is not licensed. You will also find a useful resource at the Care for Reactive Dogs website. 

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

If you look back at your own learning about dog training, what helped to build your confidence in your abilities?

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, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Williams, E. J., & Blackwell, E. (2019). Managing the Risk of Aggressive Dog Behavior: Investigating the Influence of Owner Threat and Efficacy Perceptions. Risk Analysis

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