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Myth: "Positive reinforcement doesn't work with all dogs."

Recently, I've been seeing some posts and comments on the internet (social media) that suggest or push the idea that positive reinforcement doesn't work for all dogs. I've seen comments like the ones below:

  • "Some dogs need a heavier hand."

  • "Certain breeds need you to be tough and be the boss."

  • "Every dog learns differently and the training needs to reflect that."

  • "I tried treat training and it doesn't work."

  • "Aggressive dogs or dogs that 'others have given up on' need a more balanced approach."

It's not super surprising because social media is not typically known for being a hotbed of well-researched and knowledgeable advice, buuuuutttt....All of these are variations of the same myth - that positive reinforcement is not effective or how "some dogs" learn!

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First, if you're not totally familiar with what positive reinforcement is, take a gander at this post from a while back. The short version, though, is this: positive reinforcement means we're giving something to see more of a behavior. Consider these examples:

  • You go to work because you get paid every couple of weeks. Even though I'm sure you love your job, the money pays the bills and keeps you going back!

  • A toddler goes potty in the big kid toilet and mom and dad hand out stickers, a special gift, or a trip to get ice cream.

  • Older kids do chores to earn more screen time with the TV, computer, videogames, etc.

What's that you say? The above are all human examples and don't mention a dog at all? That's because we humans learn in much the same way as our dogs! No offense is meant by this at all - it's just that every living thing on this planet operates under the same principles of learning and positive reinforcement is one of them! Humans, dogs, cats,


Second, training is a skill! It takes time to get good at it - just like any other skill! It might look easy and, sometimes, it might just look like we're handing out treats, but so much is going on and so much goes into training. An effective, efficient training plan doesn't come out of thin air - it's up to whoever is training the animal to consider all the factor involved and create a plan. This may not be needed (and often isn't needed) when teaching a Sit or Down or other basic manners; but, when it comes to behavior concerns like resource guarding, reactivity of some kind, or another undesirable behavior, this plan and the skills to create the plan are important for ensuring any training - positive reinforcement included - can be successful!


Finally, when I'm working with a client, there are often a few common reasons why positive reinforcement "doesn't work" or why we may think or say some of the myths I mentioned above:


1) The training is happening in an environment that makes the behavior more difficult to learn or practice.

This is a BIG one! More often than not, a dog is having a hard time learning something new or practicing known behaviors because we're asking it of them in an environment that is too distracting or that is concerning or stressful for the dog. If a dog is too distracted, too worried, too stressed, too overwhelmed, that dog is very unlikely to be interested in treats or toys or play or anything else they may normally like or be willing to work for in the quiet, comfortable environment of your living room.


If you're feeling like the treats aren't "working," move to a new spot in the park; move away from distractions or the things your dog is barking or pulling at; leave the park and practice some place less exciting. Above all, take your dog's inability to eat treats or play with a toy as information and use that information to understand where your dog is at with their skills and abilities!

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2) The dog is not motivated to do what is asked of them.

I typically joke that our dogs are always doing a calculation of, "What's in it for me?" I mean, aren't we all?

  • Dinner with the in-laws? Is there something good being served? Or are we going to just have to listen to the same story we've already heard six times before...? (Just an example; not that I have personal experience with this or anything...)

  • Stay in the cubicle job we don't like? Is the annual bonus good? Are they offering a promotion and pay raise? Or is there no sunlight, no fulfillment, and carpel tunnel from typing and mouse work?

  • Travel to a distant cousin's wedding? Is it in a city you'd like to visit for vacation? Is the timing right for a vacation/days off from work? Or is it a pandemic and you don't know that cousin very well anyway...?

More human examples because we ALL do it! Your dogs are no exception; if something doesn't pay off for them, they're not likely to keep doing that behavior or be interested in what you're asking of them. At some point during my private sessions with clients, I usually ask them what their dog likes - what motivates them? Answers range from treats to toys, petting and massages to high-pitched voices, chasing them (or a toy) to wrestling. I want to know and I want the pawrents to start thinking about what their dog is motivated by and willing to work for, so we have options at our disposal. If you have something your dog likes to offer every time your dog does something you like, you're going to see a lot more of what you like - the power of positive reinforcement, baby!


3) Too much is expected too soon.

One of the most common situations I encounter is a situation where a new puppy parent is asking for help with leash walking skills; they want to be able to take their new puppy for a walk like they did the dog they had previously or like they see other dogs in the neighborhood doing. The expectation is that their 12 week old puppy have the skills and confidence of the adult dog they were familiar with or the adult dogs they see walking in the neighborhood.


Looking at walking on a leash alone, there are so many factors that go into it:

  • Getting the puppy used to and comfortable with the collar, harness, and leash.

  • Getting the puppy comfortable with new things (socialization) in the great, big, wide world - gravel, pavement, grass, traffic noises, skateboards, bikes, the list goes on!

  • Getting the puppy as excited about the human end of the leash (something familiar to them) as they are about everything else going on outside the home.

We don't expect a baby to start competing in marathons the moment they begin crawling, so it makes sense that we need to adjust our expectations of what our dogs can and will do when they begin learning how to operate in this difficult human world!


4) The trainer isn't creative enough.

This isn't a dig at anyone; it's just fact! When we're tempted to say that positive reinforcement isn't working, I truly recommend looking at each of the three above to find out if your dog may be in one of those situations, but, on top of that...get creative! I can say with complete confidence that it was all on me when training with my dog went awry or things didn't work; my lack of creativity - in the training setup, the way of luring or shaping, the development of a training plan, etc. - is what caused us to see something "not working" for us! I can say that there are times I'm not creative enough or I'm in a training rut and I've had hundreds, probably thousands of hours of education and experience! We're only human, so don't get down on yourself - get creative instead!


Consider, also, the limitations Zookeepers have! They're literally working with wild animals in a captive setting and have limited options in terms of contact with the animals for the safety of themselves, the people visiting the zoo, and the animals themselves. If animals at the zoo can be taught to offer tails or limbs for a blood draw, smile for a teeth-brushing, and move from an enclosure into a kennel or crate - all while using positive reinforcement, I think we can be creative enough to come up with ways to teach our domesticated animals to do the things we like, too!

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The fact of the matter is, our dogs learn the same way we do; before turning away from positive reinforcement or before believing someone on the internet who says your dog needs something else because they are [aggressive, a dangerous breed, being an alpha, etc.], consider some of the points in this post! Or reach out! Let's see if we can tweak what you're already doing or approach your concerns from a different angle to see the progress you're looking for!

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