Comparing Dog Training Methods: Dominant-based versus positive-reinforcement

Publication Date – December 2013

Research Author –  Alexandra Alonzo

 

Today, many dog parents take advice from the training methods they see used on television and apply them to their own dog (even though the show gives a discretion notice).  Celebrity dog trainer Cesar Milan created and hosts a show on Animal Planet called “The Dog Whisperer”, where he teaches that since dogs are pack animals, parents need to be the alpha by exerting and practicing “a calm, assertive energy”.  Another well-known dog trainer is Victoria Stilwell, who also hosts a show on Animal Planet called “It’s Me or the Dog”.  She teaches that dogs need to be rewarded for good behavior and ignored as a punishment for bad behavior.  Just like the human-human relationship, the dog-human relationship requires patience, respect, and understanding (Stilwell, 2013).  According to experience, prior knowledge, and research, dog training involves the process of modifying the behavior of a dog either by establishing a routine to attain wanted behavior, rewarding or praising the dog for showing good behavior, and punishing the dog to extinguish unwanted behaviors.  Therefore, we should think twice about using what we see on television as a basis for training a dog.  The process toward attaining a healthy dog-human relationship is dog training, and the goal should be to obtain a happy and responsive dog.

How we interact with our pets shows our perceptions of our relationship with them.  More research shows that if we dominate them, we have a “human-centric approach” towards training them.  This means that we take total control of the dog according to how we believe they should be treated because they are under our authority.  Positive-reinforcement means we teach and reward the dog for good behavior, it shows we want to build a healthy relationship with them using the “dog-centric approach” (Greenbaum, 2010).  This approach means the dog owner will have “knowledge about behavior, nutrition, health, history, breed characteristics, training, and the variety of things that can enrich animals’ lives” (Irvene, 2004).

While dog trainers and people practice a variety of methods, the two methods that are most commonly used are dominance-based training and positive-reinforcement.  Dominance training states that you, the dog parent, are the dog’s “alpha” or “master” which establishes a hierarchy of dominance or assumes a higher hierarchical position than the dog (PetMD, n.d.).  It goes on to state that there are two ways to establish yourself as the alpha: (1)  Hold the puppy on the floor using both hands just behind the front legs and look directly into its eyes.  If the dog struggles, make a growling sound and hold it with a strong grip until it stops or (2) Cradle to puppy’s back onto the floor with its feet in the air and its belly exposed to you — a position of submission. If the dog struggles, use the same animal growls you used in step 1, making certain not let go until the dog stops struggling and relaxes” (PetMD, n.d.).  Positive-reinforcement training, also known as “dog-friendly training, utilizes primarily positive reinforcement; secondarily negative punishment, and only occasionally, rarely, and/or as a last resort includes positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement” (APDT, n.d.).  The parent or trainer is teaching the dog through conditioning methods, rather than forcing them to do something.

One study was successful at examining both types of dog training, specifically to examine how dog trainers interpret the status and role of dogs in family life (Greenebaum, 2010). They used dominance trainer Cesar Milan as an example; what he see as a “calm submission”, “behaviorists see as possible chronic stress or “shutdown, which can lead to a dog eventually fighting back”.  The physical and psychological intimidation, which is not aired on national television, “place Mr. Milan firmly in a long tradition of punitive dog trainers”.  If he is a punitive dog trainer, then that means the family who follows his teaching will be punitive towards their own dog as well.  Positive-based training on the other hand “uses the techniques of positive reinforcement, adding in good things (such as a treat) to reinforce good behavior and negative punishment, taking away good things (such as a ball or attention) to punish behavior, as a way to reward wanted behavior and as a way to build a trusting relationship with the dog” (Greenbaum, 2010).  Since dog parents can get emotionally involved in positive reinforcement training, trainers who practice and teach this method “agree that guardians should not treat dogs as children or ‘eternal puppies’”.  (Greenbaum, 2010).

In order to “debunk” the dominance myth, we must first define alpha as “the highest ranked individual” which came from studies of wolf packs in the 1940s (Buitrago, 2004).  More specifically, “alpha” refers to the alpha pair in a wolf pack who have specific roles; “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” (Mech, 1999).  This shows that this term is outdated and should not apply to domesticated dogs who have had a relationship with humans for thousands of years.  Research states that there are three main flaws of the wolf pack studies.  One is that they were short-term and focused on the most obvious aspect of wolf life which is hunting.  Second, is that “there is not one documented case of a wolf forcefully rolling another wolf to the ground”, which means researchers misinterpret the alpha rolls ritual that wolves display on each other (Mech, 1999).  The third flaw with wolf pack studies was applying them to domesticated dogs and human-canine relationships.  Modern researchers emphasize the importance of treating dogs as their own species, “not as a sort of watered-down wolf” (Buitrago, 2004).  Other research concurs that the wolf-pack theory “cannot be a basis for understanding the interaction between humans and dogs, much less for establishing a training approach” (Spector, 2001).  This research addressed the dominance by giving examples of how wolves and dogs are separate species, but it did not address the dog as their own species, since there is a lack of research.

According to research done by Certified Professional Dog Trainer Carmen Buitrago, one common interpretation of the alpha term is that the dog will challenge their parents until they are forcefully shown human leadership.  There is no evidence to prove that certain exercises, such as withholding food or using rough force to put their dogs into submissive positions, prevent dominance behavior or other behavioral problems.  Research further proves that the dominance advocates for “combative training methods that relied on force, punishment, and even pain”, rather than teaching, as a means of leadership (Buitrago, 2004).   The ultimate flaw this article mentions about the alpha or dominant term is that psychologists say it is used to summarize a range of behaviors.  Dog parents might say their dog is dominant when they growl as someone approaches their food bowl, when there really could be a bunch of explanations for why they growl.  This means that the “label becomes a pseudoexplanation for the behavior” (Buitrago, 2004).  This leads us to conclude that, “It’s a judgment that presumes to understand dogs’ motives when, in fact, we have no idea what they’re thinking” (Buitrago, 2004).

To address the human-canine relationship, positive reinforcement dog trainer Ian Dunbar once said, “Saying ‘I want to interact with my dog better, so I’ll learn from the wolves’ makes about as much sense as saying ‘I want to improve my parenting — let’s see how the chimps do it” (Dunbar, 1979).  Chimps are fantastic parents in their own way, and so are we.

While clients and pets of both types of trainers have attained positive training outcomes, very little research has been done on which dog training method dog parents find most effective and teachable.  I hypothesize that results from this study will show that dog parents will be more satisfied with positive-reinforcement in terms of effective learning and teaching skills than the alpha method.  Very little research has also been done on whether dog parents can correctly identify the different dog training methodologies.  I hypothesize that dog parents will not know the difference between the two training methodologies.

Methods

Participants

Participants in this study include dog parents from New York City (NYC) who have acquired dog training for their dogs from a dog trainer in NYC.  Sixteen people participated in this survey, but seven of them did not know how to categorize their trainer.  Therefore, only nine participant responses were accounted for in this study.  Two participants were from Manhattan, six were from Brooklyn, and one was from the Bronx.  Only one of the participants acquired dominance-based training, and he/she was from Manhattan.  Eight of the nine participants acquired positive dog training.  Of those eight, one was from Manhattan, six were from Brooklyn, and one was from the Bronx.  No one reported they were from Queens or Staten Island.

Measures

To acquire results about owner satisfaction with each school of training, participants were asked to participate in a 15 to 30 minutes survey questionnaire with a series of 47 questions.  They were asked questions about acquiring their dog.  They were asked to choose the behavior issues and personality traits that drove them to seek a dog trainer.  The participants were asked a series of categorical and scale questions regarding their process of choosing a dog trainer.  Participants were asked to label their dog trainer.  Participants answered questions about their dog trainer’s professional background, qualifications, attributes, and techniques.  Some of these questions were designed to gather characteristics of their dog trainer and session at the end of the survey to determine whether these characteristics matched with the label they gave the trainer.  They were asked to assess any differences about their dog and themselves after training, and if the relationship between them and their dog changed.

Procedure

To attract dog parents to participate in the survey, phone calls were made to dog trainers throughout the New York City (NYC) area asking them for permission to engage their clients in the survey.  Each dog trainer’s contact information was found through the Yellow Pages, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ website, and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers’ website.  Only one research question was pitched to dog trainers in hopes of getting them to comply.  If they did permit this, their clients were called to inform them about the survey.  If the clients were interested, the link to the survey was emailed to them.  If the dog trainers did not give out their client’s information, with permission, the link to the survey was made available to their clients on their dog training company’s social media site.  Unfortunately, many dog trainers were skeptical about this study, so only one trainer was compliant.  Contact information was collected from dog parents throughout NYC dog parks, such as Union Square Dog Park, Bull Moose Dog Run, Little Bay Dog Run, Central Park, and others.  The participants were then emailed the survey questionnaire.

Results

This survey collected a total of 16 responses.  Since seven participants responded they did not know how to categorized their trainer, only nine responses were accounted for this research.  One participant reported they acquired dominance training and eight participants reported they acquired positive-reinforcement.

Parents Categorize Their Trainer.

Fisher tests were conducted to determine whether or not parents can identify the type of trainer they worked with.  Results reveal that there is not enough sufficient evidence to support my hypothesis that parents cannot identify the type of trainer they worked with (p =.22) (See Table 2).

Table 1.

Training Type *  Correct Crosstabulation
Correct Total
Correct Incorrect
Training Type Dominant 1 0 1
Positive 1 7 8
Total 2 7 9

 

Table 2.

Fisher Tests Testing Correct Categorization
Value df Asymp. Sig. (2-sided) Exact Sig. (2-sided) Exact Sig. (1-sided)
Pearson

Chi-Square

3.938a 1 .047
Continuity Correctionb .502 1 .479
Likelihood Ratio 3.506 1 .061
Fisher’s Exact Test .222 .222
N of Valid Cases 9
a.       3 cells (75%) have expected count less than 5.   The minimum expected count is .22.  Computed only for a 2×2 table.

 

The information they provided about their training sessions, such as tools and terms, determined whether they coincided with the trainer’s methodology.  One participant reported to have acquired a positive-reinforcement trainer and reported that they indeed used positive-reinforcement tools and terms.  Seven participants who reported to have acquired positive-reinforcement trainer did not use positive-reinforcement tools or terms; this means they categorized their trainer incorrectly.  One participant reported they acquired a alpha trainer.  They categorized them correctly because they used dominance-based tools and terms.

Tools used.

Participants chose from a checklist what tools they used during the training sessions.  The participant who acquired alpha-based training used a nylon collar as well as a spike or prong collar.  Five of the nine participants who acquired positive-reinforcement training used nylon collars; one used a training harness; two used an “easy-harness”; three used a 15’-20’ leash; five used training treats; three used a 4’-6’ leash; two used a martingale collar; two used clickers; one used toys; one used chain bags; and one used a head collar.

Terms used I.

Participants were asked to check off what term(s) their trainer used to describe their role in the training process.  The parent who acquired alpha-based training stated their trainer described them as a “pack-leader”.  Six of the eight parents who acquired positive-based training reported their trainer used the term “Mom/Dad/Pet Parent” to describe their role in the training process; two reported their trainer used the term “owner”; three reported their trainer used the term “pack leader”; one reported their trainer used the term “best friend”.

Terms used II.

Participants were asked to check off what term(s) their trainer used as a part of the training process.  The parent who acquired alpha-based training stated their trainer used terms such as “Dominant”, “Motivate/Encourage”, as well as “Good” and “NO”.  Out of the eight participants who experience positive-based training, four of them reported that their trainer used the terms “motivate/encourage; two of them reported that their trainer used the terms “calm submission/submission”; three of them reported that their trainer used the terms “Good and NO”; three of them reported that their trainer used the term “dominant”; three of them reported that their trainer used the term “boundaries”; five of them reported that their trainer used the term “respect”; three of them reported that their trainer used the terms “shaping”; four of them reported that their trainer used the terms “blocking”; one of them reported that their trainer used the term “control”.

Trainer’s Communication.

Participants were also asked to report whether their dog trainer informed them of their training philosophy.  The parent who acquired alpha-based training reported their dog trainer did inform them of their philosophy.  Seven of the eight parents who acquired a positive-reinforcement trainer reported their dog trainer informed them about their training philosophy, while one said their trainer did not inform them.

Terms of Encouragement.

Parents were asked to rate whether their trainer gave any tips or recommendations.  All of the parents reported that their trainer encouraged them to practice training techniques daily, to incorporate exercise as a part of the training process, and to reward their dog for any good or wanted behavior.  The parent who acquired alpha-based training reported their trainer encouraged them to correct their dog’s behavior.  Out of the eight positive-based parents, five of them reported that their trainer encourage them to correct their dog’s behavior, while three of them reported that their trainer did not encourage this.

Parent’s Satisfaction with Dog’s Behavior.

Fisher tests were also conducted to determine whether or not pet parents preferred one type of training over the other.  There is also not enough sufficient evidence in these results to support my hypothesis that participants are more satisfied with positive-reinforcement training than alpha-based training (p=.32) (See Table 4).  The participant who acquired dominant training reported they were neutral about their dog’s behavior after training.  Four participants who acquired positive-reinforcement training reported they were very satisfied with their dog’s behavior after training; two reported they were well satisfied; two reported they were neutral.

Table 3.

Training Type * Satisfaction Crosstabulation
Satisfaction Total
Neutral Satisfied Very Satisfied
Training Type Dominant 1 0 0 1
Positive 2 2 4 8
Total 3 2 4 9

 

 

 

 

Table 4.

Fisher Tests Testing

Satisfaction with Training

Value df Asymp. Sig. (2-sided)
Pearson Chi-Square 2.250a 2 .325
Likelihood Ratio 2.460 2 .292
N of Valid Cases 9
a. 6 cells (100.0%) have expected count less than 5. The minimum expected count is .22.

 

Dog’s Behavior After Training.

Participants were asked to rate their dog’s behavior after training.  Parents who acquired positive-reinforcement training were overall satisfied with their dog’s behavior; four were very satisfied with their dog’s behavior; two were somewhat satisfied with their dog’s behavior; two were neutral about their dog’s behavior.  The parent who acquired alpha-based training was neutral about his or her dog’s behavior.

Dog Owner’s Responses.

Last but not least, participants were asked a series of questions about their post-training experience.

Parent’s Perceived Ability to Handle Dog.

Participants were asked to report their ability to handle their dog.  The parent who acquired an alpha-based trainer reported he was able to handle his dog.  Out of the eight parents who acquired a positive-based trainer, four reported they were very able; two reported they were somewhat able to; two reported they were neutral about their ability to handle their dog.

Parent’s Confidence in Predicting Dog’s behavior.

Participants were also asked to report their confidence in their ability to predict their dog’s behavior.  The parent who acquired an alpha-based trainer also reported he was very confident in his ability to predict his dog’s behavior.  Out of the eight parents who acquired a positive-based trainer, four reported they were very confident; four reported they were somewhat confident.

Trainer Recommendation from Parents.

Finally, participants were asked to rate whether or not they would recommend their dog trainer to other people.  The parent who acquired alpha-based training reported that he/she was very likely to recommend their dog trainer to other people.  When positive-based participants were asked the same question, five participants reported they were very likely to recommend their dog trainer; one participant reported they were likely to recommend their trainer; one participant reported they were neutral about recommending their trainer; one participant reported they were not at all likely to recommend their dog trainer to others.

Discussion

No matter what the dog trainer’s professional background, qualifications, attributes, and techniques, many people still get confused about the two types of training methods.  Some people do not even know they exist.  Here are the possible explanations as to why people categorized their trainer the way they did, and whether or not their trainers methods reflects their post-training experience.

Tools used.

Dog parents chose from a checklist what tools they used during their training sessions.  One parent who claimed they did not know how to categorize their trainer also stated they used an electric shock collar as a part of the training process.  This could mean a number of things: that the trainer made an incorrect recommendation; that the trainer is not positive-based; that the dog owner wanted to use it.  Since electric shock collars are widely recommended and sold frequently, parents automatically draw to them to quickly solve their dog’s problems.  What parent’s need to know is that these collars lack correct timing, intensity and duration (Polsky, 1994).  This means at one point or another point they will have to identify the real problem in order to figure out a solution to teach their dog polite behavior(s).

The parent who categorized their trainer as an alpha-based trainer also reported that they used a prong or spike collar in the training process, which proves that aversive- or compulsion- based use these tools.  They quickly and easily correct a dog’s behavior, which is the route many dominant-based trainers prefer.  They probably face the same issues are the parent who used an electric shock collar.

The good news is the other participants used appropriate tools, but not appropriate terms.

Terms used.

Many parents, who claimed to have acquired positive-based training, reported that their trainers used words such as “Pack leader” or “alpha” to describe their role in the training process.  What parents should know is that the “alpha” term should apply to the mother and father who breed puppies.  Also, parents should know that their dog understands that we are a totally different species (Stilwell, 2013).  Since dogs like to have stability and expectations, the last thing they expect us to do is to “dominate” them or force them into a “calm-submissive state” (Stilwell, 2013).  We should not apply such a term while learning about interspecies relationships.  Positive-based trainers would have told parents that “the strongest relationship between dogs and humans are based on cooperation and kindness rather than on human dominance and animal submission” (Stilwell, 2013).  Submission was another word parents checked-off, when that word is actually used by compulsion or aversive-based trainers.  This supports my hypothesis that parents are uneducated about the different terms used by each trainer.

Many parents also reported that their positive-based trainer encouraged them to say “No” during their sessions.  It’s a natural thing for us to say when something goes wrong, but it’s also the wrong thing to say when practicing positive-reinforcement.  Although “No” is a word commonly used to express our dislike towards negative situations, it is common sense that dogs do not understand it.   The survey choice could have been worded as “No-Firm tone” or “No-Even tone” to clarify how the dog was addressed.  Some positive-reinforcement trainers will accept “No” in an even tone so not to scare the dog.

Trainer’s Communication.

The majority of positive-based trainers did inform their clients about their methods, and yet the terms and tools they used did not match the standards for a positive-based trainer.  This makes a huge difference in the parent’s understanding of what training methods are right for their dog.  Each dog breed is different and trainers should cater to that breed’s needs.

Although no information was collected about the breeds that were trained, this is research that should and will be done in the future.  Big breeds like the American Staffordshire terriers, also known as Pitbull Terriers, are thought of as big and bad amongst certain people.  People who give them this stereotype think that since they are strong, muscular dogs, that they need a leader who show be dominant.  Pitbull parents, advocates, and trainers work hard everyday to show the general public that they are known to be the sweetest and easiest dogs to train, since one of their personality traits is to please their provider (Dunbar, 1979).  Having said all of this, future surveys will be done to collect parent’s opinions about training different dog breeds.

It is interesting to note that one survey response was totally irrelevant, yet relevant at the same time.  This survey response most likely came from a dog trainer who was curious about the purpose of this study.  When asked what tools were used to train their dog, he/she responded “Whatever works”.  If a dog trainer is going to use “whatever works” on their dogs, this most likely means that they are a dominance-based trainer who does not care about the well-being of dogs.  These training tools are only hurting the future of the entire dog-training industry.  More seminars and workshops need to be given about the power of positive-reinforcement: for the dogs, for parents, and for the good of animals.

Terms of Encouragement.

Positive-reinforcement trainers are notorious for encouraging dog parents to never correct, scold, or force their dog to do anything.  In this study, many parents reported that their positive-reinforcement trainer encouraged them to “correct” their dog.  The same way people are bullies, dogs interpret their owner’s as bullies when they correct them (Stilwell, 2013).  This further supports my hypothesis that parents may not be correct when reporting the type of training used with their dog.

Dog’s Behavior After Training.

Parents who acquired positive-reinforcement training were overall satisfied with their dog’s behavior.  It’s difficult to say if this is because their dog learned or their dog was conditioned to a certain behavior.  This study also did not ask about before and after behaviors, so there are no specific changes to refer back to.

Dog Owner’s Response.

Many parents reported that they would recommend their dog trainer to other parents and would also return for them for more training.  It’s strange that even though many parents reported they were confident in their ability to predict their dog’s behavior, the same people reported they were not as confident in handling their dog.  A checklist with different handling techniques could have been included to clarify the methods used.

Limitations.

While 32 dog parents signed-up to participate in the survey, ten parents could not participate because they trained their dogs themselves.  To defuse this, these parents were asked if they were willing to participate in a separate study in the future about their views on the human-canine relationship.  There is no way to know if satisfaction is greater for one type of training than the other since the same percentage of parents (not shown) reported they were satisfied with their dog’s behavior.  One reason this may have been found is because there were different sample sizes for each type of training.

There was also no collection about when training was completed, so participants responses may or may not be considered outdated, or noted from memory.

Strengths.

This study was designed so that parents categorize their trainer first, then identify the training components last.  This means that they were not able to change their answers.  Many people who reported “I don’t know” were right to do so because they used a variety of terms and corrections during their training sessions that did not comply with positive-based methods.  Participants were also asked if they were willing to participate in future studies or provide references.  Thankfully, one person provided four references, and three of them completed the survey to increase the sample size.

Future Research.

Location.  This study might not be generalizable to other cities or areas, since this study was done in New York City only.  If New Yorkers are notorious for having dogs, then they should be able to access any resources they need to develop a strong relationship with each other.  If New Yorkers cannot identify the two types of training methodologies, parents in other major cities may not be able to either.  Dogs are also trained for different purposes in other areas, so future research should be done to compare the life of a country dog from a city dog.  For example, a parent from Ohio with an Australian Shepherd may have totally different responses than a parent from Washington D.C. with a Burmese Water Dog.

Ethnicity.  This study did not collect information about parents’ ethnicity, but it would be interesting to see if ethnicity or upbringing influence their responses.  People from the Caribbean for example typically do not even allow dogs in their house, let alone bond with them.  This implies that these parents think less of domesticated dogs than Americans do.  Future research should, and will, be done on the relationship with minorities and dogs.

Conclusion

People continue to find numerous ways to train their dogs, without knowing what is best for their animal.  Research continues to prove that the human-canine relationship is a complex interspecies relationship.  These domesticated dogs are quite special in that they work with us so well, that we can only hope that we work with them just as effortlessly.

 

 

 

References

Association of Pet Dog Trainers, APDT.  2007.  Defining “Dog-Friendly”: Position Statement.

http://www.apdt.com/about/ps/dog_friendly.aspx.  Access: October 3, 2013.

Buitrago, Carmen.  2004.  Debunking the dominance myth.  Dog Nose News.

Dunbar, Dr. Ian.  1979.  Dog Behavior –Why Dogs Do What They Do. TFH Publications.

Stilwell, Victoria.  2013.  Train Your Dog Positively: Understand Your Dog and Solve Common

Behavior Problems Including Separation Anxiety, Excessive Barking, Aggression,

Housetraining, Leash Pulling, and More!.  New York: Ten Speed Press.

Greenebaum, Jessica B.  2010.  Training Dogs and Training Humans: Symbolic Interaction

and Dog Training.

Irvine, L.  2004. If You Tame Me: Understanding Our Connections with Animals. Philadelphia,

PA: Temple University Press.

Mech, L. David.  1999.  Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs.  Canadian

Journal of Zoology.  77:1196-1203. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research

Center Home Page.  http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/2000/alstat/alstat.htm.

(Version 16MAY2000).

PetMD.  No publication date.  Alpha Dog Training: Training the Dog that Wants to Take Charge. http://www.petmd.com/dog/training/evr_dg_alpha_dog_training.  2013.

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