Reward-Based Dog Training Isn’t Just for Sunny Days

Answering common questions about dog training methods and why reward-based methods are for all dogs.

Reward based training isn't just for sunny days, but also for dogs with issues.
Photo: Dora Zett/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I earn a small commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Get Companion Animal Psychology in your inbox.

Back when I had two dogs, Ghost and Bodger, I had a lot of questions about the information I saw about dogs and especially on how to train them. It just didn’t fit with the kind of pet owner I wanted to be, or with what I knew from my background in Psychology. Learning more about dogs and cats, and sharing that information with people, was my main motivation for starting Companion Animal Psychology. And here we are, seven-and-a-half-years later, and on my 500th post.

Some common themes in my inbox over the years tell us about changes in how we think about pets, and in dog training in particular.

Questions about dog training methods

The most common questions I get are about dog training methods. One set of questions is from people wanting links to share with others they hope to persuade to stop using electronic collars, leash jerks, or other aversive methods. I typically share seven reasons to use reward-based training, the results of a study on reasons to ban shock collars, or something about positive reinforcement. For those who are keen to dig into the science, there is my list of dog training science resources which I update regularly (and which you can always find via the tabs at the top of the page).

One of the nice things about this first set of questions is that over the years, they have changed from being questions about how to convince friends or family to also include questions about bringing about wider change, such as by changing bylaws or local or state government regulations. If you want inspiration on this, check out the BC SPCA’s AnimalKind program, and my own post on promoting reward-based training methods.

Reward-based methods aren't just for sunny days and easy dogs and puppies. They are for all dogs.

Training dogs with behaviour problems

Another set of questions goes something like this: “It’s all very well to use positive reinforcement with easy dogs, but my dog has behaviour problems. What do I do then? Surely I have to punish the behaviours?”

But the thing is, reward-based methods aren’t just for sunny days and easy dogs and puppies. They are for all dogs. They are perhaps even more important for dogs with behaviour problems, because many behaviour problems are caused (at least in part) by fear, anxiety, and stress, and aversive methods risk making fear, anxiety, and stress worse.

That’s why, if your dog has a behaviour problem, you should stop using aversive methods (positive punishment and negative reinforcement).

As Prof. Daniel Mills, Dr. Christos Karagiannis, and Dr. Helen Zulch (2014) write:
“Often, owners feel the urge to punish their pets when they do not behave as they would like. Punishment not only potentially exacerbates an animal’s anxiety and/or frustration, but also impacts on the dog’s perception of the individual as a consistent source of security (secure base), affecting its wider coping capacity. It is therefore not surprising that physical punishment is significantly associated with all forms of dog-related aggression (ie, toward owner, unfamiliar people, and other dogs).”
This is also the case for children, where there has been far more extensive research on the effects of physical punishment.

Dr. Ilana Reisner writes (2017:216),
“Considering that problem behaviour is often associated with anxiety, the behaviour itself may be aggravated by positive punishment. Rather than learning an alternative behaviour, a physically punished and aroused dog tends to focus only on his own pain and self-defense – true as well for children who are physically punished.”
Using aversive methods may increase fear, anxiety, stress, and aggression, and also risks affecting your relationship with your dog, who may associate the punishment with you.

Reward-based dog training works

Another part of this second set of questions about reward-based methods is that some people are thinking, do they really work? To which the answer is, of course, yes.

Reward based dog training isn't just for sunny days and easy dogs, but all dogs
Photo: Dora Zett/Shutterstock

There is a misconception that somehow positive punishment is more effective, an idea that people seem to especially apply to try to justify the use of shock collars. But it’s simply not true. And yes, there is evidence that positive reinforcement is just as effective at teaching recall as a shock collar (Cooper et al 2014). On the topic of shock collars, Dr. Sylvia Masson et al (2018:75) write,
“…there is no credible scientific evidence to justify electronic collar use and the use of spray collars or electronic fences for dogs. On the contrary, there are many reasons to never use these devices. Better training options exist, with proven efficacy and low risk.”
So even when a dog has behaviour issues, there’s no reason to use aversive methods. But we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that all dog owners know this, and know how to use reward-based methods instead. And because dog training involves technical know-how, people may need help and support to be confident in using positive reinforcement.

Sometimes we have to prioritize the training we're going to work on first. See my guide to how to prioritize training for a new rescue dog for more on this. 

Positive reinforcement feels like magic

One of the best things about positive reinforcement training is that, although there’s science behind it, it can feel like magic.

In one of many encouraging real-life stories in the book From Fearful to Fear Free, Dr. Wailani Sung writes about a Boxer who at first was very fearful at vet visits, but responded well to treats and liver paste. She writes (p47)
“For me, it was rewarding to see him change from a dog who required three to four people to restrain him to one whose owner could give him treats with only one technician lightly restraining him during an exam.”
I always like to read success stories about dogs (and cats) whose lives have been changed by the use of reward-based methods. In those success stories, we can all see that there is hope. Sometimes when a dog has behaviour issues, people need to be able to see that hope.

For myself, I have a similar story with Bodger, who was terrified of the vet when we first adopted him (and wasn’t too keen on us handling him either). He, too, once had four people sit on him to restrain him at the vet. It’s amazing now to think back to those early days and how much has changed.

I think hope is what helps people to see that there really is no need for aversive methods. Reward-based training is not just for sunny days, but for all our pets, even when times are hard. It’s not magic, but it feels like it. 

This post has been so popular, there's now a tee to match: Reward-based methods aren't just for sunny days tee and hoodie.

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."

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

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. 

Useful links:

Becker, Dr. Marty, Radosta, L., Sung, W., Becker, M. edited by Kim Campbell Thornton (2017) From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias. Lumina Media.
Cooper, J. J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The welfare consequences and efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based training. PloS one, 9(9), e102722.
Masson, S., de la Vega, S., Gazzano, A., Mariti, C., Pereira, G. D. G., Halsberghe, C., Leyvraz, A.M., McPeake, K. & Schoening, B. (2018). Electronic training devices: discussion on the pros and cons of their use in dogs as a basis for the position statement of the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (ESVCE). Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
Mills, D., Karagiannis, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). Stress—its effects on health and behavior: a guide for practitioners. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 44(3), 525-541.
Reisner, I. (2017) The learning dog: A discussion of training methods. Chapter 11 in The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People. Edited by James Serpell. Cambridge University Press.

This post was last updated in February 2023.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Follow me!

Support me