top of page

Addressing the Divide in Training Philosophies

I have started this post so many times that I've lost track. Inevitably I abandon it no more than a paragraph or two into what is a deeply complex subject. This is a subject that is polarizing and thus exceedingly hard to discuss while acknowledging the best intentions of both sides of the divide, which I truly believe exist.

I consider myself a Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive trainer. I've discussed this in previous posts. The definition of LIMA has recently been changed by CCPDT, which was the organization that formalized LIMA guidelines in the first place And, with the adjustment, I will note I squarely no longer fit under the officially defined LIMA umbrella. I feel many would call me a balanced trainer, that's fine too. But ultimately at the end of the day my core tenet is my aim to find the solution that does the least amount of harm and that considers the situation holistically from every perspective. I want to find what does the least harm to the dog emotionally, mentally, and physically as well as finding what does the least amount of harm to the dog's owner emotionally, mentally, and physically. Over the years, it has become clear to me, that solution doesn't always look like we think it should.

Is a firm leash bump to make chasing cars undesirable to a dog actually more harmful than management and slow counterconditioning (CC) failing while the dog is not yet fully trained? If during this CC process the dog slips their collar, chases a car, is struck, and dies, was the training process actually less harmful since it introduced more time and occasion for safety measures to fail?

Additionally, from the beginning of time, all organisms experience an aversive and then begin to avoid it in the future. It's an integral part of all organisms' learning processes. Small child touches the hot stove (despite repeated warnings and precautions from their parents), small child gets burned, and small child no longer touches the hot stove. Might this instance have fallout in the future? Perhaps the child is overly afraid to cook? It, might. But isn't the understanding that hot stoves carry with them danger more important than the potential for fallout? When did we get to the point where we don't want things that should be considered dangerous and aversive to dogs to not be considered dangerous and aversive? Is sparing the dog's feelings really worth the dog's abiding artificial sense of invincibility?

Now, I am not saying that we should just let our dogs experience danger and pain and aversives unchecked. We should be a safety net for them so they can fail safely and learn how to process and deliberate independently. If we intervene every time the dog might experience discomfort or is pushing past a boundary we have set, it is possible (and in my experience, likely) that what the dog simply learns is that when the going gets tough, the human will handle it and the dog can tune out.

With my litters, once the puppies are following their mom readily, I take them on controlled adventures. On these adventures, I have to remind my husband that should a puppy lag behind he should not scoop that puppy up and return the puppy to the pack. Instead, we wait for the puppy to realize that by getting distracted and not paying attention to their family, that they got left behind. Invariably the puppy begins to pay more attention so as not to get left behind.

Now, I'm not walking so fast we're leaving puppies behind on purpose We're not walking so long that the little puppies get tired and have to lay down for a nap. We're always monitoring where the puppies are. However, much of the point of the exercise is for the puppies to learn that it is their responsibility to stick with their family where there is a safety net if the puppy truly panics or is so tired they can't problem solve, but otherwise it is an early opportunity for baby dogs to learn how to problem solve and have some agency in their life.

And I do think that is part of the problem with some of today's modern training philosophies. By aiming for "errorless training" you lose opportunities for the dogs to learn to overcome adversity and streamline problem solving to include fewer potentially harmful choices. You also take away a dogs agency- to make a choice and to be wrong and to learn from that experience so they can choose better in the future. Consent is something that is so increasingly discussed in the training world, but giving dogs agency in their day to day life is very rarely touched upon.

It truly is a fascinating dichotomy, this focus of the force free training movement on consent while also taking away a dog's abilities to cope with pressure and aversives and create more dependency as discussed above. In the dog world consent largely focuses on cooperative care - teaching a dog to consent to handling procedures they likely find inherently aversive.

Cooperative care is a process by which an animal is taught through incremental criteria to hold still for a procedure (nail trim, blood draw, grooming, teeth brushing, etc) and they will be rewarded with food. It was a process that was largely created by zoo keepers to make medical procedures like blood draws more possible (with less use of tranquilizer) with less conflict. This is incredibly important when you have an animal that outweighs you by ten plus times. Through using this incremental system, zoo keepers have accomplished remarkable things like animals submitting to medical procedures in exchange for food rewards. Here is one example.

This process has been brought to the dog training world. And it absolutely has it's place. However, there is a marked difference between being a professional zookeeper that is being paid 8 hours, 5 days a week to care for and work with these large animals (and part of that time of devoted to training cooperative care) and a frazzled pet owner who has to drop the kids off at school, work, then has to pick up their kids from school, drop the kids off for sports/art/etc, walk the dog, pick up the kids again, magically get dinner on the table, and then also somehow find time to work on cooperative care. The zoo keeper absolutely has the luxury of time and should a blood draw become necessary they can always resort to tranquilizers. In the video above they actually discuss how long the process takes (and how careful they have to be working with large animals and how carefully managed the setting is) and that usually simply isn't realistic for a pet dog owner. Zoo animals have carefully controlled settings and safety precautions and the luxury of time. That's just not the case for a lot of dog owners. Real life for dogs and their owners is messier than the controlled setting of a zoo.

Is it fair to ask your average pet owner to work daily cooperative care sessions? Is that truly the most minimally intrusive, least aversive option? To me it surely can't be. Yes, then you get into an argument of ethics. If the dogs isn't the focus maybe the family shouldn't have a dog. That statement is hugely based in privilege and is often levied at people who are balancing a lot more than just canine care in their lives. And, it also doesn't account for sometimes life just getting away from you. What if you have a couple that has a couple of dogs, hikes with them multiple times a week, takes them to a pub weekly, and suddenly they have to care for their sibling's children after their sibling fell critically ill. What's your solution there? Something has to give and I can tell you at the top of my list would be dog training sessions.

All positive/force free training is, when it comes down to it, a philosophy of privilege - most of all privilege of time. So what happens if someone doesn't have the time to devote to cooperative care sessions or counter conditioning a behavioral issue (this isn't even accounting for the fact that the average dog owner doesn't inherently have the skillset for either)? I often see trainers tell owners to make time, to stop making excuses, that it's a problem that their dog isn't a priority. But none of that actually solves the problem. It just makes an already stressed person feel awful.

This leads me directly to the first in a series of my problems I have encountered with many of the popular R+ only/all positive/force free methods and the R+ training community.

Consistency in Training Philosophy and Values. Internal Consistency and Limiting Hypocrisy in Training Philosophies:

Often R+ trainers preach against the use of aversives when training dogs while simultaneously being willing to verbally berate (use positive punishment ie an aversive) their owners for making a choice the trainer disapproves of, such as the above example.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have diffused an argument in an online group where an owner innocently posts a usually beautiful picture of their dog wearing a prong collar or ecollar and a R+ trainer feels the need to berate the original poster because of their training tool choice. Usually I make a point in asking that if they believe all dogs thrive with only positive reinforcement, not punishment, why do they not apply this philosophy equally with the dogs' humans.

Most times the self-righteous commentors will delete their comment. Other times the commentor will double down and say that the person is showing harmful behavior and deserves to be punished (verbally). To which I generally reply- what makes it right to punish (verbally) humans when they are unsafe, but not dogs? I have yet to receive an answer.

I must say, one of the most uncomfortable environments for me is the agility world. In one evening I watched a prominent R+ competitor drill running contacts. When the dog became over aroused, the handler scruffed the dog and reset them physically in line with the dog dog walk. No one seemed to bat an eye, but I was taken completely aback by the blatant hypocrisy of the matter. I later watched another prominent competitor take her dog outside the building and leash correct the dog hard (again for over arousal). To be clear, my problem here is not the correction, but the hypocrisy of the handler.

For me, use whatever training philosophy works for you and your clients (dogs and humans alike). But if you come for me, berating my methods, you best be ready with an explanation when I counter your verbal attack with questions about why you are not consistent in your philosophy between dealing with dogs and dealing with people.

A People Business First. A Dog Business Second:

So many animal people aren't "people people". They go into their profession (whether it be groomer, trainer, vet, handler, breeder, shelter worker) to help and handle animals, but they have little time for our understanding of those animals' humans.

When I was at the training center their mantra was that we were a people business first and a dog business second. Even having working in a people industry for almost a decade prior to working with dogs, I at first struggled to see what this meant.

I have always wanted to help make a change in the world. I love making a difference in a dog and their owner's lives. In high school and college and for years afterwards, I worked professionally in technical theatre. No, I wasn't performing open heart surgery, but I saw over and over again the difference the performing arts can make in people's lives. Whether it be providing that "odd" child an outlet where they feel seen, or giving an actor that is struggling mentally a voice, or a community for the disenfranchised, or presenting a difficult message to the public in a format that forces discussion- theatre changes lives. Theatre changes people. It helps them.

Dog training changes lives too. It changes dogs. But it changes people too. Without honoring the humans who own the dogs, you cannot fully and adequately honor the dogs. It is not reasonable or kind to firstly tell a person they're not trying hard enough. And secondly berate them for not being able to follow through on intensive months long incremental training plans.

Small, Technically Applied Aversives Now Prevent a Systemic Problem Later:

When I get contacted by a new client about a behavioral issue that is been ongoing for multiple years (especially cases that have had an ongoing issue for 4+ years), one of the things I aim to determine was what was the inciting incident that made the owner finally reach out for professional help. Unfortunately, usually the reason is because the behavior has escalated to causing serious harm (I try to always praise lavishly the owners who seek guidance before such conflict arises). In essentially every case, the behavioral issue is much harder to tackle once the dog has practiced the behavior for an extended period without intervention. Not only is the habit ingrained but both dog and owner have also suffered emotionally and mentally for an extended period.

How I prefer to address problems by tackling them definitively early before both dog and owner are dealing with protracted stress.

Let's take the car chasing example from earlier. Let's say the client dog is a 9 month old Border Collie who has always been excited by motion but not obsessive about it (the owner can redirect with a treat). However in the past two weeks, as his herding instinct comes into its own, the dog has jumped the fence to chase a bicycle and slipped his harness once successfully to chase landscaping truck.

I go out with dog and owner on leash and a school bus passes and the dog snarls and lunges and spins and almost backs out his harness. I ask the owner if I can put a slip lead (which the dog cannot back out of) on their dog and take the leash. The owner usually either gratefully hands the leash over or cautiously hands the leash over, concerned that I might let their dog escape.

We leave the neighborhood sidewalk and find a nice quiet park that overlooks the road. We remove the dog from proximity to their triggers and so some tricks to get the dog engaged and focused again. We start to learn marker words and focus around minor triggers (quiet sedans driving past). I see a landscaping truck approaching the same time I see the dog's ears perk. As he starts to pull and bark, I leash correct him hard, give a firm NO, use the leash to pull the dog back, and stomp in front of the dog making him back up further.

The dog sits, completely taken aback as the landscaping truck passes. I tell him "Good boy, let's go" and I move him further back from the road, giving him more distance to cope, and we go back to working tricks and the beginning of marker words. A skateboarder rolls by now well over 50' away, the young dog starts to per up and stare hard. I bump the leash lightly, add some leash pressure, and lean over the dog slightly. The dog responds to this pressure promptly having experienced a firmer correction previously. He scoots away from the spatial pressure. The dog's lock broken, I mark "Yes!" as the dog scoots away, reward with a treat, and then go back to tricks. We end the session there.

I am a firm believer in not adding a physical correction for a dog until they have an alternative behavior and good foundations. My exception? If the dog is performing an unsafe behavior, especially one that could lead to the dog's injury or death or a person's injury or death. In those cases, it is less harmful to add an aversive to stop the dangerous behavior than it is to allow the behaviors to perpetuate and cement. Additionally I would argue that the short-term stress of application of an aversive is far less damaging than the prolonged mental and emotional stress for both the dog and the person.

Yes, when you use an aversive to a suppress a behavior that does not fix the behavior. But it does stop the behavior and give you time to implement a positive reinforcement behavior modification strategy.

I choose to use an aversive early versus "as a last resort" when emotional and mental damage has already cemented.

If you look at the dog world, there are more widely accepted philosophies that concede that there are times when short term harm is less harmful than the likelihood of systemic harm in the future. The whole concept of spaying and neutering all animals that won't be bred is an example of this concept. You alter a dog to prevent future unwanted puppies that may be abandoned or may be placed in ill suited homes and in both cases will end up in the shelter system. A surgery, while it might feel drastic, can prevent future problems down the line. (As a note, I do not feel that every pet dog breeds to be spayed or neutered, but I do feel this is an example many people understand.) This is an example of an accepted procedure (within the US) that follows a similar strategy to the example I outlined above.

Management is NOT a Long Term Solution. Management Always Fails:

I keep baby gates on my kitchen. I don't want to have to train my dogs to flawlessly keep off the counters. If I leave the gate open, I shoo the dogs that have ventured into the kitchen away, no harm done. If we go to someone else's house I keep an eye on my dogs and utilize targeting/place to keep the dogs out of the boundaries of the kitchen.

Why do I manage this rather than train a permanent solution? I find it tedious training an automatic leave it and if my dog sneaks in and eats my butter...oh well. Where I get firm is when management fails and I find the dog in the kitchen doing something dangerous. For instance, within the first month that I brought Gem home I came downstairs to find her in the kitchen, on the stove, eating a pot of macaroni I had left covered and behind gates. Neither of the gates were open but there she was. She saw me and started to bolt. I grabbed her collar, threw a leash on her, put her on a mat in the kitchen, stood on the leash so she stayed in a down, and repeatedly put the macaroni on the floor in front of her. She tried to eat it once, I leash bumped her, and repeated the exercise until she showed no interest. I then put the pot back on the stove and walked her on leash up to the pot (at no point did she try for the pot). I then dropped the leash and left the kitchen with her still behind the gates. She went back to the mat and lay down. When I opened the kitchen gate, she ran out. She will still venture into the kitchen when I leave the gate open, but she's never jumped the kitchen gate again and I've never found her on the stove since.

Why was I so emphatic and borderline harsh with her in this circumstance? The potential of damage was too high when management failed. If she had managed to bump a burner she could have burned herself, yes, but even more than that, she could have burned down our entire home. It was a very dire infraction and should you doubt it, I can attest to clients who have had their home burn down because their dog jumped on the stove. It's a serious matter and I really needed jumping on the stove to be aversive.

You can long term manage non-destructive and innocuous problems, but you cannot simply manage harmful behavioral issues. Such behavioral issues can include leash and barrier reactivity, frustrated greetings, resource guarding that escalates to biting, chasing (cats, small dogs, cars), bolting, and more.

Yes, management is an important part of any behavior modification plan. It is what allows owners to live successfully with their dogs while the behavioral issue is resolved on a more permanent basis. Managing a scenario so that the dog can't practice the problem behavior is crucial. However, outside of the confines of a carefully controlled training facility, very quickly you will see cases where management begins to break down.

I have on many occasions seen people ask local trainers for advice on how to calmly get their reactive dog from their apartment through the halls and elevator to outside. The trainers' responses? To ridicule the owners for ever putting the dog in that position in the first place. But here's the thing, what are the owners supposed to do? Maybe the dog wasn't reactive when they got her, maybe they had no choice but to move into such a scenario. No, in an ideal world the dog wouldn't be subject to trigger stacking daily, but this will never be an ideal world.

Management fails. Even when you stop taking your reactive dog for walks you get the dog that comes up to your fenced backyard and starts fights. Or the gate gets blown open. Or your dog digs our or a dog digs in. Or. Or. Or. There are a hundred scenarios where management might fail, so if you are relying solely on management long term to keep your dog safe, you need to look into getting a more comprehensive behavior modification program started.

In such cases to do the least harm as a trainer in behavior work you are obligated to find a solution through behavior modification. And if behavior modification is beyond the scope of what you train you are obligated to refer to a trainer that can deal with such behaviors. We must, as ethical trainers, move away from considering management a complete solution because eventually management will always fail dogs and their humans

Disparity in Ability Between Skilled Practitioner and an Average Owner:

I have good timing for clicker training. I have good timing for counter conditioning, for duration marking, for a leash bump. I can watch a dog and praise them for choosing to walk away from the annoying puppy (a choice most average dog owners wouldn't catch and wouldn't reinforce). I have multiple well-trained and well-behaved dogs that can model good behavior for green dogs. I work with hundreds of dogs every year. More often than not, a typical pet owner is working with one, maybe two dogs. By virtue of extensive experience, I am capable of reliably achieving more behaviors with dogs I train than an average owner.

Dog training is a profession, where I feel like often people feel there is little skill involved. Training a sit or a down is often relatively straight forward and well within reach for most dog owners. However, creating a well adjusted dog that is capable of recovering from pressure, that is low in anxiety, and quick to tackle challenges is a feat that can take some skill (and can be aided or hurt by genetics) and I truly think expecting any owner to be able to achieve this without guidance a rather unrealistic expectation.

Additionally, taking concepts like clicker training and other forms of classical conditioning, counter conditioning, desensitization, and more and transferring them to daily life with pet dogs I think is important. However, assuming that an every day dog owner can take such concepts and apply them consistently and accurately on a daily basis with minimal experience in training is a rather large ask of an owner. Asking an owner to remember to bring a clicker and treats and carry the clicker and food and leash in such a way that everything is accessible and then remember to click at the right time and not to click at the wrong time requires so much nuance I truly wonder how this ever became a common place expectation in the first place.

I generally suggest using verbal markers with my clients, which are less accurate but far more accessible for owners. For treats we talk about high value treats that don't require refrigeration that can live in their coat pockets or with the leashes. Working with dog owners require understanding that changing their own habits can be hard and even getting treats in an accessible place can be a challenge for owners. People don't deserve to be mocked and belittled for this challenge and that's not even allowing for people with memory issues and other disabilities. If I can't get owners to take treats along reliably, we switch gears. Usually we move towards working with the Premack principle (you can reward a low probability behavior by granting access to a high probability behavior) to reward with freedom and the environment. For some dogs we can primarily use praise and petting as opposed to food motivation.

Putting the onus of applying skilled techniques solely on an owner to me sounds like you are setting them up for failure. I think also, such techniques, when not paired with fair, appropriate application of aversives, can take an extensive amount of time for owners to achieve the desired behavioral changes they wish to see in their dogs. This can ultimately lead to a lot of frustration on the owner's part and they end up attending week after week of training feeling hopeless.

Taking the car chasing example that I have used throughout this post. With appropriate aversives applied at the right time in the case of dangerous behaviors, I can see a notable and lasting difference in a dog's behavior within a single session. Does that mean the owner can now walk the dog without the dog lunging for cars? Usually not (in the case of a brand new behavioral issue, sometimes!). However, it does put the dog in a state of mind where it is safer and also more effective to work positive reinforcement methods. If, I do not use an aversive in that circumstance, should managing the trigger distance fail (see above) the only possible solution I have is to pull the dog away, get out of sight of the trigger, and wait for the dog to calm down. This can be such a slow, frustrating process for the owner and while we try to prevent dogs going over threshold, it unfortunately does happen at times.

Now, aversives are often not the needed answer. Just like with R+ methods where you can have your timing wrong and reinforce the wrong behavior, with aversives (P+) methods you can have the wrong timing and increase a dogs anxiety or fear over a trigger. A dog can be so over aroused that upon a leash bump they redirect that nervousness up the leash and actually put teeth on their handler. There's a lot of potential for fall out from both philosophies and I would love to see both sides promote working with a skilled trainer to lay the foundations so an owner simply needs to upkeep the already learned desired behaviors.

Dog Training Doesn't Have to be Hard and it Doesn't Have to be Slow:

There is belief that if training is quick and easy, you're wrong (and often a bad person). In today's busy, hectic world, sometimes we need easy when the alternative is struggling and nonetheless failing. That being said, there is an increasingly popular narrative that trainers that use P+ methods are simply lazy and trying to take shortcuts. They state there are no shortcuts to a trained dog. To which, I must confess that I have no other response than to say that statement is utterly false. Dog trainers have all sorts of hacks that make training faster.

I have well-behaved, experienced adult dogs. I absolutely encourage my puppies to watch and learn for the adults. That is so much easier than training my puppies without that resource. I catch/capture behaviors I want to see repeated every single day. My dog lays down, I tell them "Good Down". They look at me even when something exciting is happening? I tell them "Good Watch." If is far easier to praise natural behaviors than to do individual training sessions to teach said behaviors.

I am a lazy dog trainer. I know a lot of my friends think I'm crazy when I say that since I keep so busy, but I don't spend twenty minutes a day training each of my dogs like trainers tell you is necessary. I take what shortcuts are available to me and make my life easier and I don't feel bad about it. The idea that dog training isn't worthwhile unless you struggled and worked hard for it trending makes me very uncomfortable.

Additionally, it also seems at odds with what many R+ trainers claim (see consistency of training philosophy above). If you are managing your environment (antecedent arrangement) with baby gates, then why should training keep off be a long and difficult process? If you are laying good foundations and supporting a dog's agency and emotional resiliency, why when working through a behavioral issue that arises must it be a struggle? Shouldn't in many cases that issue be easily and quickly resolved by falling back on known foundations?

There are R+ methods that are easy to implement and I fully support every owner in capturing behaviors and But at times the kindest thing to do is save the human the stress of a prolonged training plan and save the dog the prolonged conflict and stress with their human during that prolonged training plan by utilizing P+ techniques to stop problem behaviors before they become deeply ingrained.

R+ Cannot Stop a Behavior. It Can Only Reinforce an Alternate Behavior:

One question I often ask R+ trainers when discussing training philosophies is: What do you do when your dog is running for the street, there are cars coming, and you have tried calling them, you've tried yelling "cookie", or utilizing your emergency backup cue, but the dog is still baralleling toward the street.

Usually people I talk to will then either tell me that they don't know what to do. Or, they will tell me they would try yelling at the dog (No, Uhuh, etc). From there, usually they ask me what I would do. I respond that I would yell "No." Then I would call the dog. They scoff at that. What if the dog doesn't stop (like in my scenario). I point out that because my dogs are used to No as a cue that means- stop what