Revisiting conventional vs. positive reinforcement

Some topics need revisiting over and over again.  This of course stems from the fact that I see the behavior repeated again and again when I am out with my dogs.  Today I was dropping my hubby off at  his car, we had met up at the park, he runs Luke and I do the old lady saunter.  As I pulled up to the curb I saw a woman walking three dogs, I see her often.  Her dogs were going off on a couple of other dogs that were walking past, she reached out the back and kicked one (Caesar style.)  My husband asked if I'd seen it and then asked why would she do that?  We then got into a big discussion; conventional vs. positive. 

First another quick story, I was shopping for furniture one day with my daughter and after spotting several items that I wanted I gave the sales lady who asked for my number one of my business cards. She thought it was cool that I was a dog photographer and told me about her young female labrador. She said that she was in the throws of finding a trainer and that she had attended a private class with one trainer already and wasn't sure she wanted to return. She told me about the trainer yanking on her dogs collar and becoming so aggressive with her young labrador that the young and very intimidated dog had squatted and urinated during the class.

She asked me if this was normal and I know she noticed me cringing as she finished her question. By the look on her face she knew my answer before I opened my mouth. My heart truly hurts when I hear stories like this, imagine the poor little lab in the hands of this brute? A client of mine several years back was told that she and her husband were going to ruin their dog which was a beautiful and gentle Golden retriever puppy. They were talked into leaving the dog for training and were not allowed to visit. When they did come to pick up their dog they found and underweight, emotionless shell of what they use to know as their bouncy and happy go lucky golden puppy, that's when I got the call.

I've been a dog trainer for a longtime. I was training dogs at the age of 13.  But way, way back then there was only conventional training. When I say conventional I mean the type with a choke collar, if the dog does not do what you ask you give them a quick yank on the leash to smarten them up. And the longer the disobedience goes on the harsher the yanks get which brews anger in the "trainer."

Amazingly enough to me there are still conventional trainers out there. With all the information written in magazines, newspapers and the internet about Positive inforcement training there are still the old collar yanking ones not willing to change their ways. I was introduced to positive reinforcement training  over 15 years ago. When I found out about it I felt like "why didin't I know about this sooner?" For the longest time I felt so guilty about the things I had done in the past but I finally had to let it go.

The years of conventional training I now look back on give me a better understanding of why I hate it and why I train the way I do. I am not a person who only knows one way, no I have been there and understand the difference big time. I think the biggest difference in conventional and positive is the emotion it creates. I remember being in the old classes where anyone who's dog was not performing properly slowly became angry at their dog. I watch people who rely on collar yanking now and see the anger in their reaction to non compliance.

This is where the conversation with my husband went, anger.  You could see the anger in the woman as kicked her dog and yanked it around trying to stop it from misbehaving.  It is far more than one way or the other; both methods of training come from a core idea and from that idea a person evolves.  

Positive reinforcement takes more patience and definitely a whole lot more thinking. I had a trainer friend of mine who was just learning about positive reinforcement tell me that she loved the way I thought things through when we were discussing a behavior issue. No two dogs are exactly alike and many times I would get a strange and new reaction behavior from a clients dog. I would then say "hold on, I need to figure this out." Why was this dog acting this way to a common behavior that I used on a regular basis, what was the difference here?

Dogs can do strange things and if you watch long enough and hear the guardian's explanation of background behavior it can almost always be explained. Not that the explanation always helps, sometimes you just need to move on from the cause to the solution. Often a behavior can be quickly solved by one tiny step from a guardian. I love dog behavior, I could honestly watch canines interact with other canines or with people for hours. I love the new guardians who have opted for using positive reinforcement, it has created a whole new breed of caregivers. Far from the yank and choke when a dog misbehaves, positive trainers search for way to optimize the possibility of good behavior repetition.  And that my friends is great news for all dogs.


  1. I found this article thought-provoking. I use all of the ways dogs learn (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, even occasionally the very misunderstood "positive punishment"). What you saw was "anger", not dog training. If you see a good balanced trainer correcting a dog, he or she is simply doing something to quickly interrupt the dog's behavior, then will immediately redirect it to something for which it can be positively reinforced in some way. It is a shame that so many dog owners, and dog trainers, are unfair to their dogs and treat them harshly. Any type of collar can be mis-used if in the hands of someone not committed to be kind to the dog. It is not the equipment, such as a choke collar, it is the handler, that determines whether the training session is, in the dog's mind, positive or negative.

  2. Hi Sherry. I loved your post and I was wondering if you would give me permission to translate it to portuguese so I can post it in my blog with obviously proper links and credits. Please let me know. And thank you for this, I too did the "crossover" and I am very aware of this anger feeling you talked about. I used to become so upset when yanking and punishing dogs that I started crying out of pure anger when I was not able to punish effectively and it is soooo hard to do it as well!

  3. I have a pit mix that I was taking to obedience classes that were using the choke collar methods that you mentioned. I could not understand why this was not working for my dog. I never was able to establish his attention to me and he was reactive. I thought long about this method & left the class. He always has been more responsive to a lighter demeanor. I am now using positive/clicker training & I get his attention right away. I really wish there were more trainers out there who used this method.

  4. Dear Anonymous; I could not agree more. My boy Luke is also reactive and to give physical corrections to a dog like this just stimulates their arousal to a higher degree, making matters worse.

  5. Hi Sherry,

    I do not know if you got my comment before. Anyway I got across this post and blog through FB and I loved your perspective on this subject. I would like to translate the post and post it on my blog which is in portuguese obvisouly giving credits and links attached to it. I would like to get your permission for it if that is ok. Please let me know.

  6. Most definitely you can Claudia


  7. Hi Sherri just to let you know it is online you can check it at

    Thanks a lot!


Love to hear from you.