Why Do I Train Using Positive Reinforcement?

Simple… I strongly believe it’s the kindest way to train animals.

For a long time, mankind has modelled canine handling methods on dominance theories, thanks to the original dominance theory which was produced by Rudolph Schenkel in 1947. Schenkel was a Swiss animal behaviourist who studied captive wolves in the 1930s-1940s and concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance and the winner is the alpha wolf. This theory was then supported by David Mech, another animal behaviourist who carried out studies on captive wolves in the 1970s. Mech’s book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species detailed how wolves in a pack will dominate each other for alpha status within the pack. Mech went on to live with an observe a wild wolf pack near the North Pole the late 1990’s and discovered that actually wolf packs to not live in a dominance based group, in actual fact they live in family groups and care for each other in a similar way to a human family. Mech concluded in 1999 that:

“the typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group in a division-of-labor system in which the female predominates primarily in such activities as pup care and defense and the male primarily during foraging and food-provisioning and the travels associated with them.”

The difference between these studies is that the original wolves studied by Mech (and Schenkel) were held in captivity, with limited resources and they were unrelated, a combination of factors which further scientific investigation has discovered was causing these wolves to live under extreme stress. The wolves held in captivity were not fighting to establish dominance, they were in fact fighting for survival in a limited resource and competitive environment. I have huge admiration for the efforts Mech has since made to discredit his original dominance theory.

For decades now, humans have based how they handle the domestic dog around these original dominance theories, because wolves and dogs share 99% of the same DNA so they must be the same animal. The dog and the wolf simply are not the same. “It is that the wolf and domestic dog had an ancestor in common” and genetic evolution has ensured that the domestic dog has evolved into a completely different creature. Dominance based handling methods are based around the thought that our domestic dog today thinks of their human guardians as members of their ‘pack’ and that their behaviours are driven by social rank. We now know that dog’s behaviour is driven more by reinforcement – the dog that counter surfs isn’t doing so to dominate his humans, he has rewarded or reinforced his own behaviour by finding something rewarding on the counter and is likely going to keep looking there in case he strikes lucky again. The dog that pulls on the lead isn’t doing so because he wants to be the pack leader, he has established that pulling on his lead quickly gets him to where he wants to go. The more we reinforce behaviours the more likely they are to be repeated. This is true even if we do not mean to reinforce undesirable behaviours.

Training an animal using positive reinforcement will typically be a longer journey than the use of traditional punishment-based methods but using kind, ethical positive reinforcement will ensure your dogs’ welfare is never compromised. Punishment appears to be an effective way of ‘correcting’ an animal because they will likely not repeat an action if it has had a negative consequence for them. Studies are now evidencing that dogs handled using harsh, forceful, punishment-led techniques are suffering higher levels of cortisol (stress hormone) release than those trained using positive reinforcement (Coren, 2014). A study by Hiby et al (2004) concluded that dogs trained using punishment techniques exhibited a higher number of potential problematic behaviours such as barking at people and dogs, aggression towards people and dogs and fear in many different situations. Interestingly, the same study found dogs trained using punishment-based methods and/or balanced methods (combination of positive reinforcement and punishment) were found to be less obedient than those dogs trained using positive reinforcement only.

Dog training (and the wider pet care industry) is a completely unregulated sector, which means there are still so many out there selling these barbaric techniques as a quick fix to all your problems. I was brought up in the 90’s with Border Collies and all we used to do was yell at them, punish them, put  ‘quick fix’ contraptions on them like headcollars and choke chains and ultimately, none of these things changed their behaviour or made them more enjoyable to live with. Having now seen for myself how both sides of the dog training industry operate I can say without ever looking back that I am firmly planted in the positive reinforcement camp.

Kathryn Burnside

Be More Dog Scotland


Coren. S (2014) The Effect of Training Method on Stress Levels in Dogs Available from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/canine-corner/201404/the-effect-training-method-stress-levels-in-dogs

Hiby. E.F et al (2004) Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare 2004 13:63-69

Miller. P, (2019) Debunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory. Available from https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/behavior/debunking-the-alpha-dog-theory/

Mech, L. David. (1999) Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203. Available from https://www.wolf.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/267alphastatus_english.pdf

Mech, L. David (2008) What happened to the term Alpha Wolf? Available from https://www.flvetbehavior.com/uploads/7/7/3/4/77348517/alphawolf.pdf 

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