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Positive vs. Aversive Dog Training Methods

What is best for your bird dog?

Positive vs. Aversive Dog Training Methods

Dog temperaments differ and it is on us as handlers to gauge which training method fits our individual pups. (Photo courtesy of Rockhouse Motion)

Pared down to the basics, our goal in training a dog for hunting or any purpose really, is to either increase the likelihood of having the dog do exactly what we want or, conversely, decrease the likelihood of the dog doing what we don’t want. Most of our training is based on giving the dog a stimulus (command), and the dog responds in some way. If the response is what we want or at least part of what is wanted, the dog gets a reward (reinforcement). If the reinforcement is positive, the dog is paid for his work and the response to that stimulus will tend to be repeated. But if the response to a given stimulus is not what is wanted, the reinforcement will be either none or negative, and the response will tend not to be repeated. We call this operant “learning” which is how most training is done.

However, the stimulus can be either all positive or it can be aversive. Example: To train a standing dog to sit can be done either by saying the word “sit” and moving a preferred treat from his eye level back over his head resulting in his dropping the hind quarters into a sit posture and getting a reward. After a few pairings of the word and reward, an empty hand will bring about the sit. Or we can press with stiffened fingers on his rump forcing him to lower his backend into the sit to avoid the pressure, then getting a positive reinforcement by removing the pressure. After a few repetitions just the word and a light touch will do. Finally, just the word alone.

The former is positive stimulus, the latter is aversive. In both scenarios, the likelihood of the dog sitting on command is increased and we can say we have trained the dog to sit when he hears the command to “sit.” The major difference between the two is that in one the dog is doing something in order to get a positive payoff while in the other, the dog is trying to control or avoid pressure and the payoff is being able to stop the pressure. Positive reinforcements act to increase the likelihood of the response being repeated in both methods, the stimulus type notwithstanding.

Trainer with black Lab puppy
Positive reinforcement, including the use of treats, is a great way to motivate your young puppy when teaching basic obedience. (Photo courtesy of Rockhouse Motion)

Conversely, if the reinforcement is negative, no matter that the stimulus is positive or aversive, the response will tend not to be repeated. So, a dog is taught to sit or not to sit simply by the retroactive influence of the reinforcement.

Collar Types and Usage

One of the most important and most used tools we have for training a dog is some sort of collar or some similar means of restraint. We have flat non-choking collars, flat choking collars, chain collars, which can be either choking or not depending on which ring the leash is attached to. Then there is also a martingale variation of both the chain and flat collars. There are a variety of head harnesses, as well as the prong or pinch collar and the e-collar. For training our hunting dogs, the flat collar, prong collar, and e-collar are the most used today. Each type can be either a positive or an aversive stimulus depending on how they are used. The flat collar can be loose enough so it doesn’t put pressure on the dog’s neck as a positive or it can be a bit tighter and used with a lot of pressure by snugging up on the leash. The prong collar can be attached loosely so the prongs are barely touching the dog’s skin and a light tug on the leash brings adjacent pairs of prongs together to pinch skin with an immediate release of pressure to end the pinch and is controlled by the handler. Any pull the dog makes is punishing himself by increasing the pressure and so the pressure of the prongs is controlled by the dog. The handler holds a tight leash but doesn’t tug on it. This is the aversive use of the prong collar where the dog controls the pressure.

The e-collar can be used several ways. Most have a single stimulation, a continuous stimulation of various strength from none to fairly intense and a beep or vibration function. The sound/buzz can be used like one would use a clicker which, associated with a reward of some type, becomes a positive reinforcement. Or, the collar can be used with a mild single stimulation to be a reminder/mild correction much like a light pinch of the prong collar. It can also be used with a continuous low-level stim which is maintained until the dog does the desired thing and the stim is stopped. The plan here being the dog learns that he can turn off the stimulation by performing the desired job at hand. This is an aversive use because the dog is controlling the duration of the pressure and learns that doing what is asked will allow him to avoid the correction. The upshot is the tool can be positive or aversive depending on how it is used, like any tool.

English setter with an e-collar
An e-collar can be an important tool in dog training and can be used for both positive and aversive methods. (Kali Parmley photo)

Which Method is Best for Your Dog?

Experience tells us that sensitive dogs react to stimulus situations differently than dogs with a stronger temperament. We also know from experience that temperament in any given dog will not be exactly the same as any other given dog. And, because we have access to all the tools and can use them in any way we please, we should ask the dog on the far end of the leash what will work best for him and take his advice. Just how do you do that?

You need to evaluate your dog’s temperament and determine where he lies on the continuum from super soft/sensitive to extremely tough/hardheaded, what he can handle and what he can’t. If you have the experience to read your dog, one easy way is have someone take a frontal picture of your dog standing beside you. The dog’s photo will tell you volumes if you read it carefully and correctly. Another thing you can do is to watch your dog’s reactions to all sorts of situations both on and off leash. His posture when confronting a new situation will tell you reams. Hopefully your dog falls somewhere in the middle third of the curve, not overly soft or overly tough. Now, figuratively speaking, overlay your temperament evaluation of your dog on the ultra-positive to hard case aversive curve and you will have an estimate of the stimulus level to start your dog’s training.

Observe your dog’s reaction to the level of positive or aversive stimulus conditions you decided on for his training. If your dog is showing any signs of anxiety like lowered or crouched body posture, lowered tail, tucked under hind legs, lowered ears, averted eyes, you need to back off toward the less intense stimulus situation and guide your dog through the responses more gently, pulling rather than pushing him through. But if your dog is overactive, up on his toes, looking everywhere but at you, more interested in anything else that is going on rather than the job at hand, you know the picture, you need to ratchet up the aversive parts of the training stimulus to redirect his attention onto you and what you want him to do.

Whatever you do, do not get a set-in stone way of training. What worked very nicely with one dog for you might work well on the next, but the odds of it happening are up there with winning a lottery. Evaluate your dog and train him the way he needs to be trained. He will thank you by showing you what a good trainer you have become.

Trainer with black Lab puppy
No matter which training method (or combination of methods) you use, it's important to read your dog and respond to the specific cues and feedback he provides to curate your training program just for him. (Photo courtesy of Rockhouse Motion)
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