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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 you're doing this instant, that cue is ingrained in their muscle memory and a dog that has learned a solid response to No in their every day life stands a much better chance responding quickly and appropriately to the cue than a dog who has only ever head the word in an emergency. They typically counter that if they respond to No, why wouldn't they respond equally well to "Come" or "Here". To which I point out that from an energy stand point, it is much easier for the dog to come to a stop as opposed to completely changing directions and momentum. Hence why I say- "No! Here!" in that specific order.

My first training mentor was having a discussion with me and the other apprentices early in my career. Like all young, idealistic trainers all of us were struggling with the use of P+ and aversives. My mentor posed me a question to which I had no answer. How do you stop an undesirable behavior with R+ only? Unsurprisingly, she had us stumped. We did note that an alternate desirable behavior could be asked for instead. To which she replied- but what if you simply want to stop a behavior so the dog can collect themselves and think? How do you achieve that with only R+ training. Yes, we could act for a Sit instead and that Sit would allow the dog to collect themself and think. But again, with requesting an alternate behavior you are struggling against a dog's momentum.

A Difference in Criteria:

When I hike off leash with my dogs (three sighthound breeds- Azawakh, a Saluki, and a Taigan) I have very strict criteria. The dogs need to pause and wait for me if they start to go around a bend in the trail that would take them out of sight. They should auto-recall to me if they see a dog or a person. They must return when I call them (in exchange I let them run hard and freely most of the time). They are not allowed to chase any game.

I know some people who prescribe to solely R+ training that have very different criteria who hike with their dogs off leash. They will let their dog wander through the woods nearby but out of sight for hours. The dogs don't always recall promptly. They allow their dogs to chase game (likely I suspect because they couldn't recall their dogs away from the game if they tried).

To me, in those circumstances, I wouldn't consider my dogs off leash ready. Yes, I utilize low-level e-collar training with my dogs. However, I do occasionally hike with the Azawakh without them wearing their e-collars and I expect identical behavior when they are wearing their e-collars to when they are not. A this point, I could likely let the Saluki off without an e-collar backup, but the young and impulsive Taigan stays on leash if I forgot to charge the e-collars because he is not yet able to meet the criteria I require for my dogs to hike off leash. Notice all the ducks in the video, yet none of the Azawakh (despite not wearing their ecollars) give chace.

Often you will have people state that terriers, sighthounds, scent hounds, and many primitive breeds can never be off leash outside of a fenced area because they will run off, get hit by a car, chase game, etc. To me, many of these statements are a difference in criteria between trainers that utilize a full array of training tools versus those trainers that limit themselves. Certainly I know talented R+ trainers who have trained sighthounds and primitive breeds to meet my criteria for off leash hiking without use of an e-collar. However I feel this is largely impractical for a typical dog owner (see point above).

Thus, many R+ trainers either limit their dog's opportunities (X dog can never be trusted off leash) or change their criteria (I will off leash hike with my dogs, but they may not immediately respond to every cue). I, personally want my dogs to have a full breadth of opportunities available to them and I don't want the dog to need to be four years old before they're reliable (see dog training doesn't have to be slow).

Limited Scope and Breadth of Applicability:

Almost not one uses an Akita as a demo dog. Similarly, to my knowledge, myself and a puppy owner are the only ones who use Azawakh for demo and neutral dogs for professional dog training and assessment work. I think, potentially some of the reason that you typically see professional trainers own the same breeds of dogs (Goldens, Labs, GSD, Malinois, Border Collies, and a few others) is that most available and popular training techniques focus on utilizing food or toys to motivate and reward dogs. Often, when working with breeds outside of the realm of popular Sporting and Herding breeds the advice that you will see is that first you must build your dog's food or toy drive, before you move on to being able to work on bigger training challenges. Afterall, if you can't reward your dog, it's not ethical to train them and R+ trainers typically argue that dogs will only turn down treats when overwhelmed/shut down.

However (and I do feel this is more a problem with common R+ culture rather than the philosophy itself), I feel that this mindset misunderstands what motivates breeds other than popularly worked and understood breeds. I often dislike working with traditionally biddable breeds who will do absolutely anything for a piece of kibble. Firstly, I feel that often their level of food drive is taken to an almost unfair level (where it is really becomes aversive to the dog to withhold food). Secondly, I often find those dogs will power and blunder through a task without taking the time to actually understand the criteria and thus results without food on your person become difficult to repeat. Certainly those are issues that can be worked through and they are issues that many trainers have become adept at working through sheer exposure.

I would argue the fixation on food (or sometimes toy) rewards that is common in the R+ community partially blinds them to using less traditional means of reward. I commonly work with breeds where the work itself is rewarding. Remove access to the work and you have applied an aversive. Pause to reward with food, thus halting their enjoyment of their work, and you have yes, applied an aversive. When Anubi runs flyball the food is not his primary reinforcer, the running and work are. If I ran out of treats he would finish a run, party with me, get petted, and then immediately line himself up for more fun. This isn't a paradigm that is acknowledged often by many in the R+ community.

Partially, this is because strictly R+ methods have quite frankly not been extensively utilized with less common breeds. Some of that might be because a breed is rare, but I suspect, more often it is because a dog without endless food motivation is more difficult to train when only utilizing a system that relies on food rewards.

Within the dog sports community, you can point to some trainers who have been impressively successful with only R+ methods. Agility is the most common poster child for this. However you see it in other sports to like Shade Whitesel in Shutzhund. No one (anywhere) is saying that you can't be successful with R+ training at a high level in sports. However, if you were to watch a sample of the top competitors train in any sport, you would find only a small percentage of those handlers actually trained dogs R+ only.

[R+ trainers] don't understand that dog sport competitors who train with all-positive methods need a very specific type of dog. They need dogs that are compliant and have a very strong food or toy drive.
If these same trainers were given 10,000 average family dogs, they would be lucky to be able to train and compete at a high level with one of those dogs. All-positive methods only work with specific dogs and are usually trained from a very young age. I would be surprised if these trainers could produce your average family pet with consistently compliant off-leash obedience.
With that said, I'm certain that not one all-positive trainer could ever have trained and certified any of the police service dogs that I handled in the 10 years I was a K9 officer.
In fact, it's safe to say that these all-positive trainers could never train and certify one single patrol dog anywhere. They simply couldn't do it. But they will lead anyone who will listen to believe they could. The people who claim these things are simply trainers who either lack the experience to know what they are talking about.

Unrealistic, Lab Setting Expectations:

I spoke to this topic some in my introduction, but in my opinion, one of the biggest downfalls for the R+ only philosophy is that it sets unrealistic expectations for everyone involved.

As a human, we go through life and there are inherent reinforcers and punishers. Candy is sweet and so we eat it because we feel good. The stove is hot and hurts us, so we don't touch it. As children we learn the consequences of our actions. If we don't turn in our homework all quarter, we fail the class. Is that inherently punishing for some children? No, but it's likely that their parents will make it a punishing and aversive experience for them. They might be grounded. They might need summer school. But regardless, the child faces some type of punishment that makes them less likely to repeat the behavior.

If school instead took an approach where they solely applied a series of rewards and ignored children not doing their homework it might work for a large percentage of children. Those children might be motivated enough to pursue an ultimate reward. Or, if they did not find the reward (grades, candy, verbal praise, etc) motivating enough, they may instead choose to sit in class (or perhaps not even attend) and pursue tasks that they found more rewarding. You'll note, that is not typically how school is conducted.

Yes, humans have a greater capacity for reasoning and understanding than our canine companions. You can explain in words why school is important and why they should pay attention. However, the parallels still hold true. If you want a dog to do something they find unappealing (for whatever reason) and you cannot get the dog to perform the action, no matter how you change and improve your reward it could be:

1. The dog doesn't understand the task, which I would agree with R+ trainers is the case the majority of the time.

2. Or, it could be that the dog finds something else far more motivating.

How do you cope with this scenario? You could remove any items or activities the dog finds motivating (P-). You can use the Premack principle - essentially you can bargain with the dog - you give me what I want and then I will give you access to what you want. Or, you could make it less reinforcing for the dog to self reinforce (P+). EX: dog is on a long line. You call the dog. The dog turns to sniff the bushes. You give the dog a leash bump. You call the dog. Understanding if they turn back to sniff the bushes they will receive another leash bump, the dog recalls to their handler.

Ultimately, as much as you try, you cannot control your dog's entire world and it is hubris to attempt to do so. There are a variety of ways to approach a dog that is not performing a desired outcome despite various R+ approaches. But ultimately, that is the piece that many lose sight of - life is so much more complicated than just the R+ quadrant of Operant Conditioning.

Willingness to Give Up Without Pursuing All Options:

Trigger warning- discussion of behavioral euthanasia.

Preface- I'm not against behavioral euthanasia. I have a friend who pursued that option, when no other options were left available to them and I think it was the kindest thing they could do for that particular dog. However, in the past several years I have been witness to a number of behavioral euthanasia cases where I feel not all avenues were remotely explored.

Vandal at a flyball tournament

I have a good friend with a very talented and impressive sports dog. I've traveled with said dog, I've handled said dog. She is a fulfilled, enriched dog living an incredible life. Said dogs is also highly reactive and in her youth she had bitten. My friend took this dog on as a foster, knowing her history. She first worked with an R+ trainer and continually left feeling frustrated and the dog continued to have severe leash reactivity. Eventually the R+ trainer told my friend that she needed to carefully consider her options for the dog (ie consider behavioral euthanasia).

My friend then took her to a trainer that told her frankly that they could try a prong collar to correct the behavior. One of two things would happen. They dog would come up the leash and redirect the bite on her (one of the reasons I very rarely use a prong with reactive dogs) or the dog would take the correction and her brain would turn back on (like throwing a glass of water on a hysterical person). There wasn't a likely other outcome. My friend shrugged and figured she had nothing to lose by trying the prong since the other option was euthanasia. The dog reacted, hit against the prong, and immediately her barking and snarling subsided. My friend was able to call the dog to her, get her attention, and actually make progress in decreasing the dog's reactivity in that one session. It was more progress than she had made in a series of lessons with the other trainer. A prong collar, an aversive, saved that dog's life because it granted both the owner and the dog a chance to collect themselves and be in control.

Another trainer, one that I follow, but am not close to took on a dog. Like my friend's dog this dog was a talented sports dog, but the dog was also exceedingly troubled and would lash out at housemates and handlers alike when under pressure. It was clear the dog had no coping strategies for dealing with pressure. This could be clearly observed in the videos that were posted. The trainer kept working with the dog for a prolonged period, but all the attempts made were made from one single training perspective (no outside behavior consultation was sought). The trainer didn't even utilize R+ accepted methods like drag leashes in the house. From what I could observe, the approach seemed remarkably one dimensional and the dog made no progress. And one day the dog disappeared. The trainer addressed this months later after their grief had subsided and said they had felt they had no choice but the euthanize.

Yet another local trainer to me (all of these trainers are semi-local to me) had a terrier that was prone to escaping and also when hiking was prone to running off. After a neighbor once again returned the terrier to them they publicly stated that they knew that's how the dog would die, running off [and getting hit by a car or killed or eaten], but at least he would die running free doing what he loved. I just about flung my phone across the room after reading that statement. Again, a trainer that would rather see their dog dead than utilize balanced training options to try to make the dog's recall more reliable.

The takeaways from those latter scenarios that have echoed endlessly through my headare that there seems to be a notable contingent of R+ trainers that would rather put a dog down than pursue any type of balanced training method.

On Point Marketing:

The R+ movement is absolutely phenomenal at marketing. They have sold the public on being the only "science-based" dog training (see below). The have sold aversive equipment as kind and gentle. The Gentle Leader is not gentle. If a head halter was inherently gentle, you wouldn't need to counter condition it with the vast majority of dogs. The Easy-Walk Harness (and other front clip harnesses) is not easy on the dog's joints. Perception and emotion are key to selling R+ strategies. A head halter feels kinder to us because after all, it's just like a halter on a horse. And ecollar feels bad to us because after all, we don't want to shock our dog. And if you must use an ecollar then obviously vibrate is the more "ethical" option.

Unfortunately, our feelings and human sensibilities don't matter to the dogs' perception. I have seen many dogs that have found head halters and even harnesses aversive. I have seen many dogs flinch when an ecollar-s vibrate function is utilized but don't bat an eye at low electrical stimulation (shock, if you prefer the more sensationalized language). What ultimately matters is the dog's feelings about how aversive a training method is. And just because you can counter condition a head collar to be less aversive, does not invalidate the dog's initial reaction of aversion.

Inflammatory language is often used in regard to training tools. They are abusive. Attempts from balanced trainers to explain why they use the work "e-collar" fall on deaf ears and it is proclaimed the trainers are simply trying to excuse electrocuting dogs with shock collars. Now truly, there is sensationalism on both sides. Often balanced trainers will call proponents of R+ methods cookie pushers or clicker fanatics. However, I think most on both sides of the divide would generally agree that the followers of R+ training have ultimately succeeded far more widely in the marketing game. And marketing and perception are truly king.

But Science Says...

This is actually a topic that has been addressed far far more comprehensively by renowned dog trainer Ivan Balabanov than I am capable of addressing in this post. While this video is long (and has had a fair amount of controversy from the force free contingent of dog training), it is thoroughly worth an hour of your time.

Ultimately the crux of the argument is that while R+ trainers have claimed science in dog training as solely their purview, results are often over-extrapolated or over-applied and there is a fair sized body of work, which is rarely discussed, supporting the use of aversives in dog training.


This is likely the longest blog post I have ever written. If you made it all the way through, kudos to you. It was perhaps excessive, however, to my memory, I cannot recall anyone ever comprehensively tackling the training philosophy divide and addressing some of the protentional concerns with the R+ training phenomenon.

This is a discussion that weighs on my mind frequently when I have clients coming to me from R+ trainers that are at whit's end. I tried to be fair and not overly harsh when addressing the topic, but my goal was to be honest as I have experienced this in my career as a professional trainer.

Ultimately there is a lot of hurt on all sides of this issue and I confess, when someone tells me that by using aversives in any circumstance that I'm abusing my dogs and harming my dogs and our bond, I can't help but object strenuously.

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