Types of Dog Training

Picture of a dog laying down

When it comes to dog training, there are many different approaches. Taking the time to understand the different methodologies is very important to ensure you select the right type of training for you and your pooch. As with people, each dog learns in his own unique way, and thus, what may work for one, may not work for another. In addition to this, learning rarely proceeds in a linear fashion, meaning setbacks will occur on the road to teaching your dog some new and improved canine skills. Finding the right system to teach your dog some tricks can take some time. What are the types of dog training, and which one is best for my dog?

What are the Theories Behind How Dogs Learn?

There are two different learning theories that form the basis of most effective dog training programs. Each training system bases its methods on one or the other of these theories. They are as follows:

  • Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is the theory developed by Dr. Pavlov after years of intensive work training his dogs. A physiologist by profession, Dr. Pavlov started his studies in dog behavior by observing how his dogs would respond to the ringing of a bell with the presentation of dinner each day. Over time, Dr. Pavlov’s dogs began to equate the sound of the bell ringing to the time they would receive their meals. With repeated practice, all it took was the ringing of this bell for the dogs to begin to salivate as they had come to associate the bell with the appearance of food.

Through repeated efforts over a sufficient period of time, Dr. Pavlov was able to teach his dogs a specific response to an external stimulus. The bell was of no significance to the dogs until Dr. Pavlov helped them to associate the sound with the giving of food. The reinforcement of this connection ensured that ringing bells would always yield a reaction from the dogs.

This initial exercise lays the foundation for the concept of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning makes use of an external cue which could be a smell, sound, or sight to elicit a response in a dog based purely on the interaction with the cue.

There are several examples of classical conditioning that we can identify with today. Survivors of traumatic incidents often suffer from PTSD, and classical conditioning is seen to be at work when a loud noise triggers feelings of anxiety and intense panic in them. In the dog realm, many dogs learn to associate the sound of a doorbell with company, or you putting on your shoes with the opportunity for a walk.

  • Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning bases its premise on teaching a dog to have an involuntary reaction to a produced stimulus when exposed to it over time. Operant conditioning instead gives a dog choices to make with each choice having a corresponding outcome for the animal. It is based on four distinct quadrants that are employed to help the dog learn to make decisions that lead to desirable outcomes. 

What are the Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning?

The four quadrants of operant conditioning are as follows:

  • Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a method by which a dog is given a reward when exhibiting a desired behavior or trait. This reward could be a treat, praise, or even an activity or toy. Positive reinforcement can be as simple as switching something the dog has that you don’t want him to have for something that dog finds more desirable, a concept known as trading up.

Experts agree that most dogs respond very well to positive reinforcement, and that this particular type of training is exceptionally effective. Today, positive reinforcement, by far, is the most highly recommended technique for helping dogs to learn more appropriate social behaviors, cues, tricks, and skills.

For positive reinforcement to work its most effectively, you will need to be sure to only reward the behaviors you want to see and disregard the things you want to change. The theory is that over time the dog will naturally gravitate towards behaviors that yield a reward and release actions that are ignored or unwanted.

  • Negative Punishment

Negative punishment is the opposite of positive reinforcement. Instead of giving something the dog wants when a desired behavior is exhibited as with positive reinforcement, negative punishment takes something the dog values away for an unwanted response. This quadrant is often misunderstood because we naturally equate the word punishment with hitting, yelling, scolding, or even violence. Negative punishment does not involve anything other than removing something the dog values when an undesirable action is displayed.

Though positive reinforcement is the best teaching tool, negative punishment is the second most effective method for teaching appropriate behavior to dogs. Among the negative punishment scenarios you may recognize are leaving the room if your dog barks at you or attempts to nip at your hands, turning away from your dog if he jumps up on you, or discontinuing playtime if your dog is too exuberant or rude to other dogs.

Though the word punishment is included in this quadrant, the desired result isn’t to cause harm. You are trying to teach your dog that a different behavior might yield a better, and more desirable, result.

  • Positive Punishment

Positive punishment sounds like a contradiction in terms and is the quadrant that often is the most difficult for people to understand. With positive punishment, physical pressure or force is exerted when an undesirable action is seen. The word positive, in this case, means you are adding a consequence or unwanted behavior that teaches your dog what you do not want to see repeated in the future.

An analogy from the world of mathematics can help this training concept to become clearer. With negative punishment, you remove something from the dog that the dog wants. Positive punishment does the exact opposite; it adds something the dog finds painful, unwanted, or unpleasant. There are several different examples of this quadrant’s methodology. They include shock collars, hitting, chain or prong collars, yelling, slamming down cans filled with rocks or coins, spraying a dog with water, and alpha rolls.

Positive punishment is off-putting to most owners and most professional dog trainers as well. It is not considered to be an effective method for training and can have the opposite effect, potentially leading to further and worse behavior problems down the road. Positive punishment can leave a lasting negative imprint on your dog and may even cause irreparable damage to your bond.

When compared to other methods of training, positive punishment has caused such problems in dogs as increased aggression, physical injuries, and heightened stress levels.

  • Negative Reinforcement

The final quadrant of operant conditioning is negative reinforcement. The principle of negative reinforcement is to apply a consequence the dog dislikes until the desired behavior is seen then the painful or unpleasant punishment is ceased. As with positive punishment, negative reinforcement is not an effective training method and can leaving lasting and even more undesirable effects on your dog. It is not uncommon for dogs trained using negative reinforcement to become shut down and very fearful. What some people may see as calm, quiet behavior is actually complete terror.

A few examples of this type of training method are pinning a dog until the undesirable behavior stops and repeatedly shocking a dog until the dog ceases the negative action or returns home.

What are the Most Popular Types of Dog Training Today?

When it comes to training your dog the things you want him to know, you have lots of options from which you can choose. Many owners prefer to try the 100% positive route by using no force and relying solely on rewards-based methods such as toys, treats, and praise. Others base their training program largely on positive reinforcement methods with a sprinkling of negative reinforcement mixed in as well when warranted. Though not as commonly seen today, some owners utilize all four quadrants proposed by operant conditioning.

If you’re trying to decide on the right training program for your dog, here is a list of the most popular methods today:

Alpha Dog Training

The premise of alpha dog training is helping your dog to understand where he sits in the hierarchy of your home. It is based on pack theory and is taught through the frequent use of positive punishment. Among the techniques used to teach the dog to submit to the “alpha” (normally, you) are “corrections” like the alpha roll, shock collars, or vibrating collars.

The foundation of alpha dog training is the establishing of rules for your household that the dog is then required to obey. While positive punishment is the primary tool used in this style of training, some trainers opt to blend in some positive rewards as well, referring to their training program as “balanced training.”

This type of dog training traces its roots to outdated observations of pack tendencies amongst wolves as detailed in an essay written by Rudolph Schenkel in 1947. The term alpha wolf was derived from a book by biologist L. David Mech who devoted a lot of his career to the study of wildlife.

After years of careful consideration, it has been declared that Schenkel’s findings are not completely accurate, and thus, should not be used as the basis of a training system for dogs. Since the paper’s publishing in 1947, scientists have discovered a few key things. Firstly, the study involved only wolves in captivity and not the wolf in his natural habitat. It has been revealed that wild wolves like to gather in families. The so-called alpha wolves make the rules simply because they are the oldest, and therefore the most experienced, in the family grouping. Competition for rank does not occur in this dynamic.

In addition to this, Dr. Mech, the man credited with coining the phrase “alpha wolf,” has since expressed regret that his findings are still being discovered and circulated. He has shared that though dogs and wolves belong to the same species, they differ in several key areas: behaviorally, socially, and genetically.

Alpha dog training relies on the concept of dominance. When dominance is exerted over a dog, the dog quickly becomes fearful and trust is broken. This causes the relationship between the dog and his owner to be degraded and may lead to future instances of aggression in the dog.

Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement goes by several different names including rewards-based training, R+ training, or force-free training. This type of training system is entirely reliant on the use of positive reinforcement, basing its techniques on such items as praise, treats, toys, and beloved activities in response to the offering of desired responses.

When training using positive reinforcement, it is a good idea to use a word or sound as a marker to communicate to the dog that the response given is what you would like to see again in the future. This can be as simple as the word “yes” or the click of a clicker to offer the reinforcement the dog needs for a connection between the reward and the action to be formed. Timing is critical to establish this connection. A split second too late can lead to confusion.

However, the types of rewards offered to dogs vary according to what they respond best to. Some dogs are pleased with praise while others require treats, toys, or a rousing game of ball in the backyard.

However, some dogs are better motivated by a favorite toy or simple affection and praise from their owner. They key is to find what your dog loves and reward them with it for good behavior.

Positive reinforcement training is very versatile and can be applied to everything from housetraining a puppy to competitive obedience and even the foundation principles for agility. Best of all, dogs typically love R+ training and learn to look forward to their sessions with you. Among the benefits of force-free training are excellent results, an enthusiastic and responsive dog, and an increased bond between you and your pooch. However; be forewarned, positive reinforcement training takes time, and you will need to display much patience along the way.

Clicker Training

Clicker training is quite similar to positive reinforcement techniques; however, there are some distinct differences that are worth considering. Positive reinforcement training can easily be done without the use of a clicker; a marker word will achieve the same goal. Proponents of clicker training feel that the use of a clicker is more precise, and since the sound is the same every time, a dog more readily interprets the clicker with the forthcoming reward.

To clicker train your dog, there are several steps you must take. You must first begin by doing what professionals trainers refer to as “charging the clicker.” To do this, simply click then reward your dog with a treat. Do this ten times in a row, so your dog begins to associate the click with the treat. This is essentially classical conditioning in practice.

Once your dog understands the role of the clicker in the training process, you can then start clicking then rewarding your dog each time he offers the correct behavior. If you are trying to teach a new skill like a sit, you would place a treat above your dog’s head to encourage him to assume the desired position. When his bum is placed on the floor, you would then click and give the dog a treat. Continue this practice until your dog will reliably give the desired response without the need to be clicked and rewarded. You can then replace the clicker with a specific word as a cue such as “sit.”

E-Collar Dog Training

A training style that falls within the positive punishment camp, e-collar training is a means of using discomfort and sometimes pain to eliminate behaviors you don’t want to see again. E-collars are often used to teach dogs a reliable recall. E-training is based on the use of a collar that transmits an electric shock, unpleasant sound, or citronella spray when an undesirable action is performed by the dog. Most often, these tools are operated by a remote.

Unfortunately, e-collar training can be quite problematic. In some cases, dogs trained using this method will show averse reactions and may even begin behaving aggressively. Though e-collar training does a good job of teaching a dog what not to do, it does nothing to teach the dog the appropriate action you are looking for. In many cases, e-collar training leads to dogs that are confused, shut down, and extremely fearful.

Model-Rival Dog Training

The model-rival dog training is not a commonly seen system but is quite interesting and can be a highly effective tool. In essence, this training technique is exactly what it says: through the use of a trained dog, your dog is challenged to follow that dog’s lead, mimicking their behavior and receiving a reward for it.

The efficacy of this training method is based on the innate sociability of dogs and their desire to mimic behaviors that reap rewards. This particular style of training was introduced by Irene Pepperberg who first developed it for use with parrots.

Relationship-Based Dog Training

The premise of relationship-based dog training is that dogs have emotions that should be considered when helping a dog to learn new skills. This means breaking down concepts into easily understandable steps while maintaining a positive and stress-free environment for the dog.

To most effectively utilize these techniques, it is recommended that you do your initial training sessions in an environment that offers very few distractions, so your dog is easily able to maintain his focus. Once your dog has mastered the new skill in that environment, you can then increase the level of difficulty or introduce a few distractions to “proof” the behavior.

In order for this method to be successful, you must take great care to allow your dog to set the pace for every training session. To do this, you will need to commit to understanding your dog’s body language and signals of communication, so you can better comprehend when he is feeling anxious or stressed. The benefits of this training cannot be denied as the foundation of the system is strengthening the bond between you and your dog.

Science-Based Dog Training

Science-based dog training is the opposite of relationship-based techniques. Instead of being reliant on the emotions of your dog, science-based dog training seeks out fact-based methods to yield the desired behaviors. While relationship-based training is focused on feelings, science-based methodology is dedicated to the mind.

Through evaluation of how dogs think and what tools work to achieve which results, science-based trainers are able to develop a system that includes both punishment and rewards to yield the right outcomes. Because dogs are all individuals who are motivated by different things, this type of training is fluid, requiring additional study and constant revision. However, it is also quite precise and effective because it is tailored to meet the needs of the dog that is sitting right in front of you.

Picture of a dog standing

What is LIMA?

LIMA is a term that is often utilized in dog training circles. It is an acronym that translates to the following: Least Intrusive, Minimally Averse. The LIMA approach hinges on utilizing training methods that are based on positive reinforcement and that seek to comprehend the dog as an individual while avoiding the use of punishment to achieve the desired outcomes.

How Do I Decide What is the Best Type of Training for My Dog?

With such a large range of training methods available to you, it can be very challenging narrowing down your program to only one. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you navigate your options and try to select the right training techniques for your best canine pal:

  • What are your own needs and desires?

It’s important to evaluate your own wishes and to carefully consider what you feel to be right for your dog. There are some types of training that others may have success with that you simply aren’t comfortable with, and that’s okay. The right program for you is the one that is best suited to your needs and that of your dog.

  • What needs does your dog have?

Some dogs are naturally very soft and will wilt under aversive training techniques, causing regression in your training efforts. Other dogs are hard-headed and will buck against softer training methods. You need to take stock of your dog’s personality and what techniques are likely to yield the best outcomes for you both. 

  • What resources are required?

Training methods and classes can be very expensive, consuming a lot of your budget and your time. It is important to take careful stock of how much you can money and time you have to dedicate each day to training your dog. If time is of the essence, some training models just won’t work for you. If money is the greater problem, it may be a better option to select an inexpensive home training method such as positive reinforcement or clicker training.

  • What are your goals?

Setting goals gives you something to shoot for and will also help determine what methods are going to be the most effective for you. If agility trials are in your future, positive reinforcement will help lay a foundation that will be very helpful to you and your dog in this sport in the future.

What is the best type of training for my dog? There are many different options from which you can choose, but the bottom line is the best training program is the one that keeps learning fun, your dog engaged, and helps to build your bond as a team.

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