Why is a Positive a Negative?

Why is it that the word “positive” can strike such a chord in a dog owner’s mind? Having been involved in the dog world since 1972 and spending the great majority of my adult life working with dogs, it has been an uphill battle to increase awareness in the theory of learning for dogs. There has been a vast increase in awareness of this theory for children, but the dog owners are still lagging behind. Although, giving credit where it is due, it is leaps and bounds better than in the middle 1980’s, when dog training took a surge from being a novelty to a necessity.

Positive doesn’t mean permissive. That sentence, while not originated by me, is a powerful message and one that all dog owners can relate to. Positive means helpful and constructive, and a positive response from a dog owner to his canine companion means that the dog will receive something pleasurable after he does the desired behavior, which in turn will increase the likelihood of the behavior re-occurring. Sounds simple? The more you give your dog positive feedback for what you want, the more likely it is that he will repeat that exact behavior.

Permissive is not the same at all. The term permissive implies something far more tolerant and liberal. When dog owner become permissive with their pets, we find they are giving consent to their dog to do a certain behavior and permission with no guidelines is when the problems can arise.

Rewarding a dog for a job well done is positive dog training. It does not mean that we want dog owners to allow their dogs to take charge or to call the shots.

Taking a look at dog sports is a perfect example of positive dog training at its finest. When you see a dog doing agility at a trial or on TV, the bond that the handler has with their dog can be exciting to watch. It would be a very difficult task to have these dogs working, and loving every minute of it, if they were taught in a negative fashion. The old style “do it or else” dog training is just that…old. I have said this before, but it warrants repetition. When you know better, you do better. We have dog-learning theory at our fingertips now, so it is easy to increase our own education and awareness of how dogs think and learn. This does not mean we are pushovers, it means we are educated and aware dog owners.

To teach a dog to pick up a dumbbell is another prime example. The dumbbell is what is used in competitive obedience competition. The dog learns to pick it up, hold it, bring it to the handler and on top of that, go over a jump while not dropping it. In the past, it was often taught in a very negative manner. The dogs are forced to hold it, and get reprimanded when it is dropped. Does that method work? It will work in certain dogs, but it always takes its toll. The dogs may learn to bring back the dumbbell, but they don’t do it with their tails up and wagging. To some, the end justifies the means. For some, it is a matter of great importance and urgency that this dog never drops this dumbbell. For me, it is a sport that I love to do with my dog and it should be enjoyable for both of us.

By taking the dumbbell and marking (with a click or a “yes”) when the dog first shows interest, then for putting it in its mouth and finally for bringing it to you, is the best way to teach this. It can take a little longer, but not always, and it is well worth the effort. By showing the dog that the dumbbell work is fun for him, he will be thrilled when it comes out. I was determined to show my newest competitive dog, Yardly, how to do the dumbbell retrieve by using only positive methods. In a group of competitive dogs, he is one of the most animated of the bunch…jumping up to get his dumbbell. Does he drop it? I can’t say he never, ever, drops it but he is as consistent as any other dog and for me, that is enough. Getting his obedience title is a great goal, but enjoying the process while we get there is far more important to me, and I’m sure he would agree. And, while I am positive in my training I am far from permissive in living with my dogs. I feel that dogs raised with fairness, kindness, rules and guidelines are those that feel confident and bonded to their people.

There are other sports that would benefit from positive training. Looking at flyball is another great example. Flyball is a lot of fun, and most dogs love it. It is much easier if you have a dog that will retrieve naturally, that doesn’t need you to show them how. In saying that, if you want to play the sport and your dog is fit and healthy, there is no reason not to try.

The first thing you need to do is teach your dog to bring you the ball. By using the same theory as used for the dumbbell, you will be on your way. The second thing, apart from showing your dog the mechanics of the flyball box and jumps, is to have him bring the ball back to you. If you get annoyed when your dog takes off with the ball, and you chase and yell at him, it will backfire. Even worse, if you finally catch up to your dog and grab his collar and take the ball out of his mouth in a negative fashion, it will take much longer for him to enjoy the game. By being positive, and encouraging him back to you and then tossing the ball again, you will show him that it is a lot of fun.

If you were permissive, you would allow your dog to run away with the ball and bring it back when he is good and ready and that is not our aim. Positively reward your dog for bringing the ball back (usually throwing it again is reward enough), and you will get the results you want. Heck, my terrier learned the sport of flyball from scratch. She was not a retriever at all. She spent many years loving flyball after she realized it was a ton of fun for her.

So, it should be the mission of all dog owners to seek out trainers who fully understand learning theory, and the theory of positive training. There are lots of them out there, doing their job and keeping up their education. It is not necessary to use scare tactics or physical force to teach dogs what you want. Even the most complicated dog can benefit from your increased knowledge in this area. Unfortunately, we are seeing a swing back to the use of prong collars and punishment for dogs. Those are techniques of the 80’s when we didn’t know better. While it is important to find a balance, and not to let dogs overstep their boundaries, it is also important to do it with respect. Negative methods can have a “quick fix” feel to them, but in the long run the issues are not sorted out, only masked for the short term.

One thing I know for sure. Positive is not a negative.