Why Don't More People Use Positive Reinforcement to Train Dogs?

Everyone who has a dog needs to teach them how to behave. But why do many people still use methods that have risks for animal welfare?

How can we encourage more people to use positive reinforcement in dog training - like this woman teaching her cute dog to high-five
Photo: Corey Terrill/Shutterstock

A new paper by myself (Zazie Todd) looks at the barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods by ordinary people. To understand how people make decisions about dog training, we need to understand people’s attitudes to different methods and what influences them, as well as people’s knowledge and technical ability in using those methods.

Humane dog training methods use positive reinforcement and negative punishment. They are also known as reward-based methods, positive reinforcement, or force free methods, and they basically involve giving or withholding rewards contingent on the dog’s behaviour.

There are many reasons to use humane methods rather than aversive ones (which, technically speaking, are positive punishment and negative reinforcement). The use of reward-based dog training methods is associated with better welfare, and there are some indications it may even produce better results (see the dog training research resources page if you want to delve into the literature).

Some behaviour problems are due to fear or stress, but aversive methods do not resolve this (and may even make it worse). Some problems occur because the dog does not have appropriate ways to engage in normal behaviour (e.g. chew toys). And training with positive reinforcement can be a good way to provide cognitive enrichment, which is important because good animal welfare includes positive experiences.

But studies show most ordinary dog owners use a mix of positive reinforcement and positive punishment to train dogs – so-called ‘balanced’ dog training. From an animal welfare perspective, it’s important to understand why many people continue to use aversive methods at least some of the time – and how we can bring about change.

A dog sits for a treat. Why don't more people train dogs with positive reinforcement? Research investigates.

Many different factors will affect people’s attitudes towards training methods and the actual methods they use. The paper considers these factors, and in some cases it draws on the literature related to children and parents’ use of corporal punishment, which has been more extensively studied.

Many people (including some dog trainers) still use the idea of dominance to train dogs. Unfortunately, this frames the dog-owner relationship in antagonistic terms, and so may encourage people to use aversive methods.

There is no regulation of dog trainers, and no requirement for education. This means some people who hire a dog trainer may get out-dated advice. Some trainers may not be clear about the methods they use on their website, which may make it difficult for people to find a reward-based trainer.

Amongst dog trainers who do use reward-based methods, there are a few points of disagreement. One relates to the use of no-reward markers. This is a word or phrase (e.g. “Too bad!” or “Oops”) that signals to the dog the behaviour they did was not the one requested, and hence they didn’t earn a reward. Some dog trainers use them, and some don’t. For most people, errorful learning with prompt feedback is more successful than error-free learning (the exceptions include those with amnesia). But we simply don’t have good data on this for dogs.

Another point of disagreement relates to the use of negative punishment. Negative punishment means withholding a reward so the frequency of a behaviour goes down. One example is withholding rewards when a dog does not perform the right behaviour (which is inevitable some of the time). Another example is the use of ‘time out’. Evidence-based parenting programs teach ‘time out’ as a non-aversive way to improve children’s behaviour. We know there are some common mistakes parents make, and it seems likely dog owners make some of the same mistakes with their dog (for example, using many warning cues instead of just one before implementing the time out).

Why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs? Illustrated by this cute Siberian Husky puppy in a cardboard box
Photo: Anucha Pongpatimeth/Shutterstock

The legality or otherwise of certain methods (such as electronic shock collars, which are banned in a number of countries) will affect perceptions of whether or not it is okay to use them.

The different positions taken by professional bodies, including veterinary associations, dog training associations, animal behaviour associations, groups that train working dogs, rescues and shelters, may also affect people’s perceptions of social norms about dog training. Some organizations have clear position statements on dog training methods. But when some organizations include aversive methods as a ‘last resort’ it may give people the mistaken impression they are sometimes necessary, or that there is not a scientific consensus on the best methods to use.

There’s also an issue of competency, since technical expertise etc. may affect the success of attempts to train with positive reinforcement. We don’t know how dog trainers or owners make decisions when they think positive reinforcement isn’t working; that is, whether they take advice or find someone with more expertise, or whether they decide to use positive punishment instead.

Veterinarians also have an important role to play in referring dog owners to trainers and animal behaviourists. Advice for veterinarians stresses the importance of positive methods, but again some organizations allow for some methods to be used as a ‘last resort’.

Of course, many factors relating to dog owners themselves will also influence their choice of training methods. These include their technical skills and the reinforcement they use (which will affect their success rate), their knowledge of dog training methods, methods they have seen promoted on TV and elsewhere, people’s ability to read their dog’s body language (e.g. to recognize if the dog is fearful), and personality characteristics.

Unfortunately the quality of information in dog training books is highly variable and the same likely applies to other sources of information such as TV and the internet.

All of this shows that encouraging more people to use humane dog-training methods is a complex issue. But a model from social psychology known as the reasoned action approach (and its predecessor the theory of planned behaviour) has been quite successful in predicting people’s intentions and behaviours in a wide range of topics – including parents’ attitudes to and use of corporal punishment. This would be a good fit for investigating what influences people’s choice of dog training methods.

I would love to see more research on the best ways to encourage people to use reward-based training methods, and how best to teach them. As an update, this 2019 study shows the importance of dog trainers building people's confidence in using positive reinforcement.

What do you think would encourage more people to use humane dog training methods?

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Todd, Z. (2018). Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Dog Training Methods. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.  25C(28-34).

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The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium

Two upcoming events in the BC lower mainland, featuring Chirag Patel.

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium 2018

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium will take place in Burnaby, BC, on 2nd and 3rd June 2018, featuring Chirag Patel, world-renowned behaviour and training consultant, and star of the UK TV show Nightmare Pets SOS.

As well, there will be talks from Karen van Haaften DVM, Kim Monteith, Claudia Richter DVM, Rebecca Ledger PhD - and myself.

I'm really looking forward to it!

And before that, on 31st May, the BC SPCA Pet Behaviour Speaker Series is hosting 10 Things Your Dog Wishes You Knew, featuring Chirag Patel, Dr. Karen van Haaften, and Kim Monteith. This event at The Historic Theatre in Vancouver will include live dog demonstrations.

Is Scent Enriching for Shelter Dogs?

Research investigates the effects of enrichment using the scent of coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian.

Dogs have excellent noses, like this one belonging to a Shih Tzu dog. Researchers tested the effects of scent enrichment on shelter dogs and found  it reduced signs of stress.
Photo: chaoss/Shutterstock

Animal shelters are stressful environments for dogs, and so anything that helps them to be less stressed is beneficial. Scientists from Hartpury University Centre tested the effects of presenting scent-infused cloths to shelter dogs. The results are promising and suggest scent enrichment may work well for shelter dogs.

Study authors, John Binks and Dr Tamara Montrose, say
“In our study we found that shelter dogs showed reduced vocalisations and movement when exposed to cloths scented with ginger, coconut, vanilla and valerian. In addition, we found that dogs exposed to coconut and ginger slept more. Since excessive vocalisations and activity may indicate stress in kennelled dogs, as well as being behaviours that can be found undesirable by potential adopters, our study suggests that these odours may have application in rescue shelters to reduce stress and enhance adoption.”

Enrichment means adding things to the animal’s environment that are designed to improve welfare, for example by allowing the animal to engage in species-specific behaviour, encourage use of the environment, get more exercise, encourage learning, and decrease boredom and abnormal behaviour. Since shelter dogs spend a large part of their day in kennels, enrichment is important to improve their welfare.

Dogs have impressive noses (and vomeronasal organs) and, as we all know, they spend a lot of time smelling things. The scientists say enrichment works best if it targets an animal’s primary sense, so it is surprising there isn’t more research into scent enrichment for shelter dogs.

The experiment used the smells of coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian because they are safe for dogs, easily available, and have been found to be beneficial for other animals, such as wombats, sea-lions, Javan gibbons, cats and rats (read about different scents that cats like).

15 dogs took part at a shelter in Gloucestershire, England. Most were medium-sized dogs and two were small.

The dogs were presented with scent on a cloth put in their kennel for a few hours per day. There were two control conditions: an unscented cloth (to provide a comparison for the different smells), and no cloth (to control for the effects of the presence of a new item). The unscented cloth control condition took place before the presentations of smells, and the no cloth condition took place after.

Each condition took place over three days, with a two day gap between them.

Cloths were prepared an hour in advance by adding a few drops of essential oils or fragrance oils, and then kept in a ziplock bag until they were used. The experimenter wore gloves to ensure they did not accidentally transfer any other scents to the cloths. Dogs were given half an hour to get used to the item, and then observed for a two-hour period, the latter half of which was during the shelter’s opening hours for visitors. This was in the middle of the day when feeding and exercise did not happen, so the dogs' behaviour would not be affected by waiting for the next meal.

When the scented cloths were present, dogs vocalized less. Since barking, whining etc. can be signs of stress, this suggests they were less stressed. Dogs also spent more time resting and less time moving when the scents were present. For the ginger and coconut scents, dogs spent more time sleeping.

These results suggest the scent enrichment helped the dogs be less stressed.

There was also an effect of time of day, in that when the shelter was open to visitors, dogs vocalized more, stood more, and spent less time resting. They were also at the front of their kennel more.

The scents were always presented in the same order. This was so that other dogs taking part would not have their scent contaminated by one of the other smells wafting in to the kennel. This means there is potential for an order effect. However, because the dogs were presented with the controls before and after the different scent conditions, it does seem that the results are due to the scents.

The scent enrichment used in this study would be easy to use at a shelter, although more research is needed with a larger number of dogs. The results are very promising, and suggest the use of these scents can help shelter dogs to be less stressed.

You can follow Dr. Tamara Montrose, one of the authors of the study, on twitter.

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Binks, J., Taylor, S., Wills, A., & Montrose, V. T. (2018). The behavioural effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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Interview with Dr. Marc Bekoff on Canine Confidential

Dr. Marc Bekoff on dogs, emotions, citizen science and his new book, Canine Confidential.

Dr. Marc Bekoff - seen here with dog Minnie - interviewed about his book, Canine Confidential
Dr. Marc Bekoff (right) with Minnie. Photo: Tom Gordon

Dr. Marc Bekoff’s new book, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do is out on 13th April. I was thrilled to interview him over email about why he wrote the book and the importance of observing dogs.

Zazie: Why did you decide to write Canine Confidential?

Marc: There are many reasons, and in reality, I've been writing this book for many, many years. I bring a unique perspective to the study of dogs in that I was trained in ethology and have done long-term field work on free-ranging dogs, wild coyotes, and various birds including Adélie penguins in Antarctica.

Among the most important reasons are: to emphasize how important it is to watch dogs and to learn as much as one can about different aspects of behavior; to emphasize that there is a good deal of individual variability among dogs so speaking about "the dog" is misleading; to stress that dogs display multiple intelligences and don't only "live in the present"; to show that dogs are not dumb-downed wolves; to provide a lot of detailed data in accessible prose to non-researchers, information that can be used to allow dogs to be dogs as much as they can be in an increasingly human-dominated world (in many ways, dogs are captive animals whose freedoms are severely restricted); to discuss how dogs sense their world via smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste, and why they should be allowed to exercise their senses and to sniff to their hearts' delight; to let their walks be for them, not for us; to dispel myths such as dogs are unconditional lovers (anyone who's rescued a dog who has been abused knows this to be so), peeing and marking are the same, growling is always aggressive, it's a bad idea to hug dogs or to play tug-of-war or to "get down and dirty" and to romp around with them (when we do it must be on their terms, of course), that dogs (and other nonhuman animals) don't display dominance (they do, but we shouldn't dominate them to get them to live in harmony with us), that they always circle before they lie down, that intense play-fighting always or usually escalates into fighting (research shows this actually only very rarely occurs); that dog parks are a bad idea across the board (they're not, but only dogs who like going to dog parks should be taken there); to provide trainers with information that can be used to enhance the dog's life when they work with their clients, canine and human, and to strongly suggest that trainers observe dogs outside of the context in which there is an issue; to strongly suggest that people select certified trainers and to choose someone as carefully as they'd choose a neurosurgeon; and to stress how important it is to allow dogs to exercise their senses, their muscles, and their hearts.

I mix in a good deal of the latest research on various aspects of dog behavior with numerous stories, and take a descriptive "anatomical" approach to naming the dogs with whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and watching. For example, readers will meet Bernie and Beatrice "the butt-ers," Tammy "the tongue," Louie "the licker," Harry and Helen "the happy jumpers," and Peter "the pecker-pecker." All names, canine and human, have been changed to protect the guilty.

I also write some about human-human interactions and how they reveal a lot about their dogs and the people themselves. It's just a coincidence that this is The Year of the Dog, and I'm thrilled that my book was published in this special time. Of course, every day should be "the day of the dog" because we are so fortunate to have them in our lives.  They should only be as fortunate to have us in their lives.

Zazie: The subtitle of the book is Why dogs do what they do, and in it you answer lots of questions about why dogs do things, like ‘what are they doing when scent marking?’ and ‘why do they roll in stuff?’ How did you pick the questions, and are there any of the topics that are particular favorites?

Marc: I selected the different topics based on many decades of studying dogs and their wild relatives, by cataloging questions that I've been repeatedly asked when talking with people at different venues, and also by paying attention to those areas that are important to understand to give dogs the very best lives possible. Among my favorites are play behavior -- how dogs are able to play fairly and have fun-on-the-run as they engage in frenetic "zoomies" and low-key play -- and topics centering on the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of dogs and other animals. I also really enjoy listening to people talk about their dogs and also other people at the dog park and their friends. Dogs can be social catalysts for bringing people together and really get people talking about things they don't typically share out of the places where they bring their dogs for exercise and to have fun with other dogs. Sometimes I'd politely excuse myself when someone was sharing TMI (too much information). 

"Among my favorites are play behavior" - Dr. Marc Bekoff on Canine Confiential and dog play, like these two Labradors with a stick
Photo: Gerald Marella/Shutterstock

Zazie: You write a lot about the emotional lives of dogs. How do we know which emotions dogs experience – and what more do we need to know?

Marc: That's a great question. There are ample detailed data from many ethological perspectives and a growing number of neuroimaging studies that clearly show that dogs are emotional beings who experience joy, happiness, sadness, grief, pain, disgust, jealousy, and likely guilt. The bibliography and the notes in Canine Confidential are lengthy and filled with up-to-date data from ethological and neurobiological studies. These data clearly show that the real question at hand is why emotions have evolved, not if they have evolved. The reason I write that it's likely dogs display guilt is because we really don't know if this is the case quite yet. An oft-repeated error in both scientific essays and the popular press goes something like, "Research has shown that dogs don't display guilt," and a study by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz is cited as evidence. However, she did not show that dogs do not display guilt, only that we are not very good at reading guilt in dogs. I include an exchange with Dr. Horowitz about this point, with which she totally agrees. She wrote, "My study was decidedly NOT about whether dogs 'feel guilt' or not." Readers will be pleased and surprised to see how much we really know about the emotional lives of dogs, and I also point out where more research is needed. One can be sure that dogs are sentient beings who care about what happens to themselves, their families, and their friends.

Zazie: The book is full of lovely stories about dogs, including your own dogs. As a writer, do you most enjoy writing about the scientific research or about the anecdotes, or do you prefer writing about both together?

Marc: I really prefer writing about both together, as I do in my book and in numerous essays that I write for Psychology Today about dogs and many other animals. It's always interested me that many anecdotes are supported by empirical data that are collected at a later date. I also write a good deal about the importance of "citizen science," and that's why I encourage people to become ethologists and "naturalists in the dog park" if they go there with their dog(s).

Zazie: One thing that’s clear from this book is that people tell you stories about their dogs at the dog park, or email you stories about their animals. Are there any particular topics that people tend to talk to you about the most?

Marc: Not really. What I love about the stories I'm told is how wide-ranging they are. Quite often, the questions I'm asked and the stories I'm told focus on a particular dog and their human, and the unique relationship they've formed. Once again, there not only is a good deal of within species variability among dogs, but also among their humans and in the dog-human relationships that are formed. I feel very lucky to have people share their stories with me in person and via email and the occasional letter, although sometimes when I open my email inbox I feel overwhelmed. But, that feeling disappears rapidly as I learn more and more about dogs and their humans.

Zazie: You say that even though we don’t know everything about dogs, we still know enough to be able to give them rewarding lives. What are the most important things we can do for our dogs?

Marc: Love them, respect them, meet them at least half-way, develop mutual tolerance, and learn as much as you can not only about dog behavior but about the unique individual(s) with whom you chose to share your home and your heart. And, let them be dogs as much as possible. There's no reason to be helicopter guardians, yet people say "No" or "Stop that" far more often than they say "Good dog" or "That's ok." In some ways, my books can be viewed as a field guide to freedom in which I encourage people to unleash their dog as much as possible. Choosing to live with a dog (or other animal) is a "cradle to grave" commitment and we must remember that we are their lifelines.

A dog is a "cradle to grave" commitment, says Dr. Marc Bekoff about his new book Canine Confidential. Picture shows a happy Leonberger
Photo: Shutterstock

Zazie: At the end of the book, there is a really nice appendix that teaches people what ethology is and how to do it. What can people gain from becoming ‘citizen ethologists’?

Marc: They can gain a lot. By becoming fluent in dog they not only can learn some nitty-gritty details about dog behavior, but also about how unique each dog is. It's also a lot of fun to do these informal studies, and I love it when people come to me and ask me how to become an ethologist. In the book I tell stories about how people have told me that learning to "speak dog"  and to try to think like they do has helped them not only to understand their dog, but also how this information improves their relationship with their canine companion. Learning about dog behavior and dog-human relationships is a win-win for all.

Thank you, Marc, for taking the time to answer my questions!

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do is published by Chicago University Press.

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list or subscribe to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats.

Bio: Marc is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has won many awards for his scientific research including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. Marc has published more than 30 books and three encyclopedias, and writes regularly for Psychology Today on "all things dog" and various topics focusing on animal cognition, animal emotions, and compassionate conservation. His homepage is marcbekoff.com and, with Jane Goodall, ethologicalethics.org.

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Companion Animal Psychology Book Club April 2018

"How Dogs Love Us answers the age-old question of dog lovers everywhere..."

Book Club: How Dogs Love Us. A dog on the bed with a book and marshmallows

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for April 2018  is How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain by Gregory Berns.

From the back cover,

"The powerful bond between humans and dogs is one that’s uniquely cherished. Loyal, obedient, and affectionate, they are truly “man’s best friend.” But do dogs love us the way we love them? Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns had spent decades using MRI imaging technology to study how the human brain works, but a different question still nagged at him: What is my dog thinking?

After his family adopted Callie, a shy, skinny terrier mix, Berns decided that there was only one way to answer that question—use an MRI machine to scan the dog’s brain. His colleagues dismissed the idea. Everyone knew that dogs needed to be restrained or sedated for MRI scans. But if the military could train dogs to operate calmly in some of the most challenging environments, surely there must be a way to train dogs to sit in an MRI scanner."

Will you be reading too?

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