Positive Only Trainers – The Myth

There is a lot of unknown information out there about dog training and it can be scary choosing the right dog trainer. We encourage you to do your research and want to share some helpful insight on the “positive only” myth that sounds great, but in reality is a farce and a marketing gimmick.

Dog Training 101 – The Basics

Even a brand new dog trainer must have a basic understanding of a few things; operant conditioning, classical conditioning, dog drives/motivations and basic needs. I’m going to try to keep my explanations short so we can really delve into the myth that is positive only dog training.

Classical Conditioning

A learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired: a response which is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone. Discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence. Discovered by American psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Dog Drives/Motivation

A dog is an animal, it is driven by a few things in life (which is a whole other debate), we call these drives. The main drive we will talk about is food.

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Basic Needs

Just like humans dogs have basic needs, think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Dog’s can’t ever reach self actualization, but they have physiological needs (food, air, water), safety needs, and belongingness needs (being a part of a pack).


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To break this down very quickly classical and operant conditioning are how animals learn. Their drives and needs are the rewards in the training process.

Teaching a Behavior to A Dog

To teach a behavior to a dog you will use classical and operant conditioning. The way we do is through classical conditioning first then we start operant conditioning. The first thing we teach is that the word “Good” means food/reward. We call this a marker, in relation to classical conditioning this is the first stimuli. It elicits a physiological response in the dog of happiness, because hes been fed food and (most) dogs love food. This is the beginning of our communication system. I’m going to attempt to teach this dog with positive reinforcement only.

The marker, “good” = food = happiness.  

Once we have conditioned the dog to understand this we can start working on behaviors and commands such as sit. We lure the dog into a sit and mark the behavior with the word “good”. The dog feels good we feel good! Now we are starting to introduce operant conditioning to the dog, He does a behavior and he gets rewarded! This is positive reinforcement.

This graphic explains the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning and specifically how it is used in dog training. Read it over and pay attention we are about to dive into this…

Let’s get further into the dog we just taught to sit.  Now I am attempting to get the dog to sit but he won’t do it. So I withhold the food until he does. This is negative punishment. Are you starting to see where I am going now? This “positive only” trainer just used negative punishment to teach the dog to sit. What I’m saying here is that unless I treat the dog for EVERYTHING (both desired and undesired behaviors) he does I’m using negative training techniques.

Uh oh, now withholding the food is no longer working to get the dog to sit…. What are we going to do? I’m going to pull up on the leash. I just added pressure to the dog. This is positive punishment. I’m trying to get the dog to follow the pressure of the leash into a sit. I just punished the dog. He finally sits because of the leash pressure pulling his head up. I release the pressure. Damn it! I just applied negative reinforcement to the dog. I’m a terrible “positive only” trainer. You know why…?

Because Positive Only Training Is a Lie

It is impossible to be 100% positive when training a dog or anything/person/living being. No matter what I do I am using positive or negative influence on them to achieve the desired behavior. Did you know that we subject ourselves to positive punishment and negative reinforcement every time we get into the driver’s seat. The seat belt alarm! It goes off, it is punishment for not having the seat belt on, we put it on and ah sweet release, negative reinforcement.

Positive only learning simply isn’t possible. We use the science of physiology and psychology to train dogs. “Positive only” is a marketing gimmick that trainers who either don’t understand the science behind dog training or those who want to gain clients by giving them a happy warm fuzzy feeling by lying to them. Be wary of the “positive only” trainer because they may have no clue what they are doing or they are just lying to you.

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