Some 30 years ago, Karen Pryor wrote a small volume intended to be a self-help book for humans. That book turned the dog training world upside down. Don’t Shoot the Dog introduced the general public to the principles of operant conditioning and emphasized the benefits of positive reinforcement over punishment, with the goal of improving humans’ relationships with each other: husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, etc. The book didn’t make much of a splash in the self-help world. But the fortuitous inclusion of the word “dog” in the title captured the attention of dog trainers, who, led by early positive training notables such as Dr. Ian Dunbar and Jean Donaldson, launched a positive reinforcement revolution in the world of dog training.

Thanks to the pioneers in the development of effective, force-free dog training techniques, there are now thousands of trainers (including me) who use, teach, and promote force-free training. In the past few decades, we’ve learned the value of creating relationships with dogs based on voluntary cooperation, built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect.

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We learned about the “four quadrants of operant conditioning,” and realized that the tools many of us had successfully used in the past, such as choke chains and prong collars, and verbal and physical punishment, worked because they suppressed behavior. They taught the dog that if he did the wrong thing, we would hurt or intimidate him.

Do you ever give your dog the opportunity to decide which way he wants to go when you are on a walk? You might learn a thing or two about him if you do – and he will surely appreciate the opportunity!

We learned to ask questions. Not just, “Does this work?” but “Why does this work?’ and the very important “Is this something I am willing to do to my dog?”

We learned that there was an entire body of science behind dog training and behavior. We eagerly embraced the science, and learned about behavior analysis, unconditioned responses, classical conditioning, and much more.

The more we learned, the more we committed to our position that, while old-fashioned punishment-based methods may work, there is no need to use them, and no ethical justification to do so. We became operant conditioning junkies. We thought we had it all figured out.

Then the world shifted again.

Cognitive scientists turned their attention to dogs, and confirmed what we had suspected all along: that canine behavior is far more complex than what can be explained by Skinner boxes and Pavlovian responses. Our canine companions not only share a wide range of emotions comparable to our own, but also, they are capable of grasping and applying complex concepts, functioning on a higher cognitive level than we had previously been encouraged to believe. While positive reinforcement-based trainers had long come to value the role of “relationship” in training, to a blossoming new generation of trainers, “relationship” doesn’t just have a role; instead, training is relationship.

Positive reinforcement-based trainers have acknowledged the importance of relationship, in part, just by altering our vocabulary. Because they are a reflection of our internal processing, and because they influence our associations, words matter. Many of us now say “Cue” (a signal that indicates an opportunity to perform a behavior to gain a reinforcer) instead of “Command” (do this behavior or else!). We call our training classes “good manners” instead of “obedience.” We “ask” or “help” our dog do a behavior rather than “make” him do it. We recognize that, as the supposedly more intelligent species, it’s our job to get our dogs to demonstrate that they happily and eagerly want to do what we ask of them.

Some professionals are going one step further, calling themselves “teachers” rather than “trainers,” and suggesting that we are “educating” dogs in a broader, cognitive sense rather than just “training” them to do a specific set of rote behaviors. It’s a compelling position.

Our Dogs’ Choices and Empowerment

One would expect that the rise of force-free training methods and the increased awareness of and respect for dogs as sentient creatures would make life easier for them. We should expect to see a corresponding rise in the number of calm, stable, well-adjusted dogs who are happily integrated into lifelong loving homes. But many training and behavior professionals note with alarm the large number of dogs in today’s world who seem to have significant issues with stress and anxiety, with high levels of arousal and low impulse control.

It’s quite possible this is a function of societal change. There was a time not so very long ago when life was pretty casual for our family dogs. They ran loose in the neighborhood day and night; ate, slept, played, and eliminated when they chose; and many had jobs that fulfilled their genetic impulses to herd some sheep or cows, or retrieve game felled by a hunter’s gun.

In contrast, life today is strictly regimented for many of our canine companions; many live in social isolation, and when they do get out, their activities are on a tight schedule. Owner expectations and demands are high. Dogs are told what to do from the moment they are allowed to get up in the morning until they are put to bed at night, including when and where they are allowed to poop and pee. Some of today’s dogs never get to run off-leash or socialize freely on a regular basis with other dogs. During any free time they may have, they are expected to just lie around and be “well behaved” (by human standards, not canine ones!). They have virtually no control over what happens in their world. Some trainers suggest this strict regimentation is a significant contributor to the stress and arousal levels of today’s family dog. Imagine how stressed you might be if your life was as tightly controlled by someone else.

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