Types of Dog Training

Clicker training, positive reinforcement training, balanced dog training. . . . What do these terms mean, and what’s the best way to train your dog?


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.

aversive dog training class
Polar opposite: This picture, taken 20 years ago at a successful dog training school, shows what old-fashioned training often looked like. Every dog is wearing either a pinch collar or choke chain (some are wearing both!). Every dog looks fearful, stressed, confused, and unhappy. Photo by Nancy Kerns
  • 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?

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.


  1. Thank you for your opinions and list of training modalities. They all have their foundation built on BF Skinner work on behavioral modification. First my back ground. My undergraduate degree is in Animal Physiology. I hold a Masters Degree in Wildlife Biology. My Doctorate in Medicine. I have been around dogs all my life and started training my first pet in junior high school. I am now in my 70s and have seen the advancement in and have embraced the new training techniques

    Is it your opinion that the only method that should be used is “force free training”, which you admit uses negative rewards when needed? If that is true, then my concern is that you paint with too wide a brush, not taking into account how the individual dog engages with its environment and what method is best to help them achieve success without damaging the relationship between owner and dog. We can agree our goal is to help the pooch live in the human world by understanding why the dog is reacting from the “dogs perspective”. I hope you are not inferring we live in the dogs world. Are you?Most training errors are made by the trainers not the dogs. Patient observation helps the owner understand what and why the animal is reacting and then having a plan to condition them to respond differently.

    Hence, my concern is that you limit the training modalities available. What about the dog who, despite all the positive rewards and attempts continues the unwanted behavior? What about training a dog to avoid a dangerous situation (rattlesnakes)? Do we keep the dog in our backyard? Keep them on a leash at all times? Put them in a run kennel? This, in my opinion is cruel if all training modalities have not been exhausted. Specifically your narrowed view on e collars. Yes, the should be a last resort. Yes they should never be used to punish an animal nor used indiscriminately. Yes you should be trained in the proper use before ever placing the collar on an animal. Yes you should personally experience the level of stimulation you deliver. Yes the stimulation should only be used briefly and justly.

    Our story. We rescued a young mixed breed terrier pup. We began our training at home with positive reinforcement and praise. She learned the basic commands effortlessly . Quickly we realized that she was not food motivated. We attended the AKC Good Citizen class, and she passed. We live on 25 acres with deer, turkeys, squirrels, bears, coyotes and occasional human drifter. We wanted to have her be able to enjoy her home, to take her on trail walks and be safe. We worked on recall and self control. She understood and had fun with our recall game. She would sit at a designated site while we walked down to get the mail (> 4 min). Her problem was bolting after wildlife. Watching her we noticed the intensity of this prey drive. We used long lead techniques and many other training modalities. Only then did we employee the e collar. We took a class. Our setting was always low ( 2 out of 100) and tested it on ourselves ( it was not painful). We were able to redirect her prey drive quickly. We then moved to the collar beep which she associated with our request for her to off the prey drive. Now she responds to the verbal command “leave it”. The e collar is now off. Over time she has lost her desire to run after deer and turkeys. Squirrels are a different matter. She hones it but will not chase.

    Also your opinion about e collars puts many dogs at risk of rattlesnake bites. And death to the dog. Rattlesnake aversion classes use e collars to deliver a negative response when the snake is encountered. My dog has been to three classes. On the second and third class she avoided the snakes smell, rattle and encounter. Again the setting of the stimulation was set on low. You adamant view against e collars may cause dog owners to avoid these life saving classes.

    You may ask what type of relationship do we have with our dog? She sleeps on our bed. We go out on trail walks daily leash free when appropriate. She snuggles with us on the couch. She travels with use. She plays fetch. Her greetings are energetic and mutual. She is a great fishing companion (stays close and peers into the water looking for the fish). She is obedient on our walks when we encounter other dogs, humans horses, bikes etc. She is our buddy all because she fits in to our human world and we understand her canine perspective.

    In my practice I am wary of those who are pedantic. I am also are wary of those who speak negatively about other colleagues without letting them present their opinion. Please be careful with you advice. Some people read it as fact.

  2. It is difficult to believe there was only ONE comment on this absurd, “one size fits all” article about using “all positive, all the time” training methods on ALL dogs, with widely differing temperaments and situations. Aversives have always had their proper place, and without help from electric wires, etc. I probably would have lost most of the livestock guardians I have had for 30 years. Given a choice between jumping a 6 foot fence and running across the highway after an “intruder” and coming to Mommy for a treat, all my dogs would have elected to commit suicide. Independent temperaments and non-food oriented dogs are NOT candidates for Pat Miller’s intransigent methodology. While my puppies in training might elect to run to Mommy for a treat rather than maul or kill one of my chickens, they are far too intelligent not to realize that the chicken mauling is a lot more rewarding when there is no treat around. We seem to continually go from one extreme (Bill Koehler) to another (Pat Miller) in this day and age, with no appreciation for the middle, which is usually where common sense lies.