Training Dogs with Positive Reinforcement, Sept 06 | Train Dogs with Positive Reinforcement


Animal Tracks is a series of articles exploring the human/animal connection from Noah’s Ark Animal Foundation in Fairfield, IA. For information about dog or cat adoptions, visit or call (641) 472-6080.

My affinity for dogs was strong, unwavering, and readily apparent by the time I was five years old. This attraction was almost certainly genetically pre-determined by generations of ancestors (including my parents) smitten with canines.

My father bought a service station in 1950 and for 30 years kept dog biscuits (and an occasional ham sandwich) at the front desk in case someone drove in transporting a dog. The scene that followed was nothing short of Pavlovian. A car pulled into the drive, the service bell rang, and from inside the car window, great sticky strands of anticipatory drool would begin to form and hang from the dog’s lips, streaming down the side of the car, slowly coursing into a congealed wad at the bottom of the door. My father not only loved dogs but was also a shrewd businessman; he was the proprietor of the town’s one and only carwash.

The customers’ dogs were undeniably happy to see him. Their tails wagged like high-speed auxiliary windshield wipers as they strained to push their noses through the narrow opening of the car window, snuffling and snorting in joyous expectation. A few minutes later, these same animals, riding in the back of pickup trucks and in the front seats of cars, barked and growled at other people passing by on Main Street. They never exhibited this behavior toward my father. He was their friend—and they were as well conditioned as any B. F. Skinner textbook rat.

When I acquired my first puppy at eight years of age, I discovered for myself the magic my father already knew. I used food to teach my beagle how to sit up, roll over, play dead, say his prayers, and more. He worked hard for microscopic tidbits and learned anything I could think of to teach him. Training was fun. Not only did he learn quickly and happily, but in the process, he was classically conditioned to like hanging around with a rambunctious eight-year-old child.

That early training experience has stayed with me over the years and has become my touchstone in working with dogs and owners. I often ask my classes to identify priorities for their dogs. They want their dogs well behaved, and they want them to be obedient. They want an impeccably reliable recall. Rarely do I receive the most important response of all —“I want my dog to like people.” The most obedient dog on the planet is not likely to survive beyond youthful adolescence if he develops issues with people.

Dogs trained with positive reinforcement will perform well because they are motivated, rather than intimidated. While having fun in class, they will learn to be consistently obedient. They will have amazingly reliable recall and, in the process, they will learn to like being with people. Training methods that rely primarily on physical force or punishment are liable, unfortunately, to have the opposite effect. If dogs are surprisingly quick to make a positive association with someone who hands them infrequent biscuits and ham sandwiches through the car window, then it is not hard to believe that just as quickly, they may learn to make the unpleasant association of intimidation and pain with the person who is delivering. At best, the dog may learn to avoid the individual. At worst, he may generalize this unpleasant experience to all people and draw the sometimes irreversible conclusion that people are likely to cause him pain and are not to be trusted.

Scientific journals are full of research that supports the use of positive reinforcement vs. punishment in training for both animals and people. Positive reinforcement yields very solid and long-lasting results for co-workers, spouses, children —and dogs. Why, then, would anyone choose to use intimidating or painful training techniques? Why would we risk damaging this unique and unparalleled relationship when it is simply the best and most wonderful aspect of living with a dog?

Most pet owners want to do what is best for their dogs, and in order to be informed about training and behavior, they take classes, read books, talk to their friends—and they watch television. Some of this information promotes positive training and helps them learn how to create and enjoy a relationship of mutual trust and respect with their dogs. Other information encourages outdated methods of intimidation, domination, and force, all in the name of training.

Owners may feel overwhelmed, inexperienced, and confused by the conflicting information they hear and see, and will need to be “critical consumers” of this information. If it sounds unkind, it probably is. If you think it might hurt the dog, it probably will. If it looks unsafe, it might be. If you wouldn’t want others to see you do it, then don’t do it. Disclaimers of “don’t try this at home” should be carefully scrutinized. “Dog-friendly” training can be done safely and easily, anywhere, anytime. It can be effectively carried out by trained professionals, pet owners, and even children, at home in the comfort of your living room, or on the concrete drive of your local service station.

Sue Pearson has a Master’s degree in Education, is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, and is the owner of Spot & Co. Dog Training in Iowa City.