The dog-training world can be a confusing jumble of words, tools, methods, and training philosophies – with a total lack of standardization and regulation. Here are our definitions for the terms you will encounter when looking for a dog trainer.
Force-Free Dog Training
Force-free trainers commit to using humane, non-coercive training tools and methods, focusing primarily on the “positive reinforcement” quadrant of operant conditioning, in which the dog’s behavior results in good/enjoyable things for the dog. (All four quadrants of operant conditioning are explained here.)
Force-free trainers take care to manage the dog’s environment well to be sure their dogs don’t get reinforced for unwanted behaviors. They may occasionally use “negative punishment,” where they take away something the dog enjoys when the dog exhibits an undesired behavior (for example, you stop petting your dog when he jumps up on you). They’re also likely to use counter-conditioning – using something wonderful to change a dog’s opinion of (association with) something from negative to positive.
Note that a trainer who is truly force-free will not use prong collars, shock collars, leash jerks, verbal or physical punishment, flooding, or “corrections” to try to change a dog’s behavior. Ever.
Balanced Dog Training
The term “balanced” has become a common euphemism for training that embraces a wide range of training methods, from positive reinforcement all the way to the most aversive tools and techniques. Balanced trainers may sometimes use treats and/or other reinforcers, but they are just as likely to use aversive tools and methods.
Recent studies tell us that positive reinforcement training generally works more quickly than a coercive approach. However, it can sometimes take longer to accomplish behavior goals using only force-free methods (especially if the dog has negative associations with things or situations that require counter-conditioning and desensitization).
In our experience, when faced with a training challenge, balanced trainers tend to resort to quick fixes that always have negative repercussions for the dog, even when it appears to achieve the training goal in the moment.
Positive Dog Training
Thanks again to the absence of standardization of dog-training terms, “positive training” can mean almost anything. There are excellent force-free trainers who call themselves “positive.” But trainers who use aversive methods have realized the marketing value of the term “positive,” and many use it in their promotional materials, even if their methods also include coercion and the infliction of pain or discomfort.
The term “force-free training” provides less wiggle room than “positive training.”
Clicker Training for Dogs
Clicker training means using a clicker or other reward “marker” (such as a tongue click, a whistle, marker word, or a thumbs-up gesture) to communicate to the dog that the behavior she just did earned a treat or other reinforcement. The marker is also called a “bridge,” because it bridges the delay between the dog’s behavior and the handler’s delivery of a reinforcer. It buys you time to get the treat to the dog so she understands it was her behavior at the time of the click that earned the reinforcement, not what she was doing several seconds later when you delivered the treat.
While the majority of clicker trainers are force-free, balanced trainers may also use clickers. A trainer who advertises clicker training may not fully embrace a force-free philosophy.
Relationship-Based Dog Training
One might think that a training program that emphasizes “relationship” would focus on humane methods that foster mutual trust, cooperation, and respect between dog and human. Indeed, many organizations and trainers who promote this method do just that.
Sadly, others do not. Some trainers perceive the ideal dog-human relationship to be one where the dog is subjugated by the human. They may talk about “relationship” on a website that promotes shock and prong collars, and methods intended to force dogs into submission rather than inviting cooperation. Use of this term should invite caution.
E-Collar Dog Training
“E-collar,” “electronic collar,” and “computer collar” are all euphemisms for “shock collar.” Trainers who use any of these terms will explain that the collars they use deliver just a “stim,” “static,” or a “tap” – not a shock. They may even try to convince you they are using positive reinforcement because they pair the shock with a treat.
What they often fail to mention is that they will readily turn up the intensity of the shock when the dog doesn’t respond to the lower levels. Don’t let these people fool you; shock collars hurt.
Alpha/Dominance Dog Training
This is what I politely call “old-fashioned” training, espoused by those who openly and unashamedly cling tightly to the scientifically debunked and horrendously flawed theory that dogs are pack animals, that they see us as part of their pack, and that as pack leaders we must forcefully establish dominance over our dogs using punishment (“corrections”) and intimidation. They may couch their sales pitch in pretty terms – some even claim they don’t use punishment! – but if you browse their websites you will likely see myriad photos of dogs wearing prong and shock collars.
Science-Based Dog Training
As you investigate and evaluate the training options available in your community for you and your dog, keep in mind that the best modern dog-training professionals are paying attention to behavior science. Recent studies have demonstrated clearly that coercion and intimidation-based methods have significant long-term negative consequences for a dog’s emotional and behavioral health.
True science-based trainers have taken that to heart and commit even more adamantly to force-free methods and philosophies. Trainers who still use coercive methods either aren’t keeping up on the science or are deliberately turning their backs on the evidence that current science provides.
Yes, physical punishment and intimidation can work to shut down a dog’s unwanted behaviors and to compel your dog to obey for fear of the consequences if she doesn’t. But is that what you want for your dog?
Before I knew better, I used many old-fashioned methods (though I never used prong or shock collars on my dogs). I loved my dogs, and they were very well trained. I believe and hope that they loved me too and forgave me for my inappropriate behavior. But you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to those methods today.
I like to say that we, as the supposedly more intelligent species, should be able to help our dogs cheerfully cooperate in our training efforts and happily and willingly do what we ask of them. Isn’t that what you want for your dog?