Why You Need To Reward Your Dog in Training, According to the Experts

Dog obedience training and behaviour modification should use reward-based methods, according to a new position statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.

A mixed breed German Shepherd dog lies in a field, looking happy
Photo: xkunclova/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Dog training is not regulated, and against a backdrop of misinformation and out-dated ideas, it can be hard for dog guardians to know where to seek help. As the science has changed over the years, so have our ideas about the best ways to train dogs. And so today the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) publishes its new, highly-anticipated position statement on humane dog training.  

The statement was written by the veterinarians and doctoral-level animal behaviourists in the Society. It provides guidance on the best ways to train dogs, which are both humane and fun. 

The statement begins,

“Evidence supports the use of reward-based methods for all canine training. AVSAB promotes interactions with animals based on compassion, respect, and scientific evidence. Based on these factors, reward-based learning offers the most advantages and least harm to the learner’s welfare.”

The position statement is based on the scientific evidence on dog training and reviews the issues that have been found with aversive methods. Unfortunately, the use of aversive methods has both short-term effects on the animal, which can often be seen through the dog’s body language, and long-term effects that persist after the training session has ended.  

Aversive dog training methods rely on positive punishment and negative reinforcement and include prong collars, electronic shock collars, shake cans, shouting, alpha rolls, and leash jerks.   

Reward-based methods involve positively reinforcing behaviours you want (e.g. with treats or play) and removing the rewards for behaviours you don’t like. Reward-based trainers may use a combination of capturing, luring, and shaping to teach the animal to do particular behaviours. They may also use a marker (such as a clicker or verbal marker) in training.   

Reward-based training offers the most advantages and least harm to the learner's welfare. A quote from the AVSAB position statement

Reward-based training is highly effective, and some studies show it to be more effective than aversive methods. AVSAB explain that reward-based dog training methods are also better for the human-animal bond. Meanwhile, studies show that using aversive methods can cause stress in dogs.  

The statement is not just about teaching basic obedience, but also about using behaviour modification to deal with behavioural issues. Here too, they say, 

“There is no role for aversive training in behavior modification plans.”

And they also say there are "no exceptions" to this, even for dogs with aggressive behaviours. Most common dog training issues can be resolved with positive reinforcement and management (such as making changes to the environment). While these can also be part of the treatment for more complex behaviour issues, it may be necessary to add behaviour modification, additional management and environmental changes, and sometimes medication. 

The statement includes an FAQ that answers common questions, such as which training methods are considered reward-based and which are aversive. There is useful advice for veterinarians on how to choose dog trainers to refer to, and the role of the vet in dealing with behaviour issues in dogs. 

The statement concludes,

“Based on current scientific evidence, AVSAB recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems. Aversive training methods have a damaging effect on both animal welfare and the human-animal bond. There is no evidence that aversive methods are more effective than reward-based methods in any context. AVSAB therefore advises that aversive methods should not be used in animal training or for the treatment of behavior disorders.”

There is also a reading list for those who want to learn more about dog training or the scientific evidence on dog training methods.

The position statement on humane dog training can be downloaded here

It joins a set of position statements from AVSAB which also cover positive vet visits and puppy socialization. The position statements are designed to be used by veterinarians and can be downloaded from the website or you can order colour copies from them.  

The new position statement will no doubt be very influential. Thank you to the members of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior for their thorough assessment of the literature and for these clear guidelines on dog training methods. 

If you liked this post, check out my books Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, which include plenty of tips for training and enrichment—and the science of why they matter.

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. 

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