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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!

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

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!

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

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

I typically joke that our dogs are always doing a calc