There are two main ways to train dogs: either with aversives (usually called punishment) or with rewards (positive reinforcement). Either way can work. Why should you choose positive reinforcement?
The key to training dogs is to know that dogs do what works for dogs. They have no morals, no conscience. They simply try to get good things and avoid bad things. The old, traditional way of training is with punishment. You wait for the dog to make a mistake (or set them up to make a mistake) and then punish them to stop that behavior. Done correctly, punishment can work for some dogs. The trouble is that punishment is hard to use correctly and can have bad side effects.
For punishment to work, it must be unfailingly consistent, perfectly timed, and of just the right force. Depending on a dog’s temperament, it can cause fear for some or be a challenge to others, both possibly leading to aggressive responses. Punishment is likely to be associated with the punisher and can affect your good relationship with your best friend. Punishment is meant to suppress behavior, but often the suppression is only temporary. While it looks like you’ve obtained a quick fix, the behavior comes back (over and over again). When a dog is punished regularly he often learns to just suppress all his behavior. He is afraid to do anything for fear of what might happen. Sadly, some people see these stressed, shut down dogs as “calm” or “obedient”.
Punishment is inefficient because it doesn’t teach a dog what to do, only what not to do. For example, if your new dog pees on the rug and you punish him for it, what has he learned? Maybe not to pee on that one rug, or maybe just not to do it in front of you, or maybe only that you are scary. He still doesn’t know not to pee in the kitchen, on the bed, on other rugs, behind the couch, etc. This is confusing and stressful for the dog. But if you take him outside to his potty area and reinforce him for performing, he knows exactly what to do, he’s willing to do it because he might get a reward, and everybody’s happy. There are an infinite number of mistakes your pup can make but only one right way.
When you use mainly positive reinforcement you choose to reinforce or reward your dog for doing the behaviors you do want. Rewards can be food, play, petting, praise or anything your dog likes and will work to earn. Positive reinforcement training is easy to use and hard to mess up. Done right, positive reinforcement is fast, fun and effective.
People often say, “Sure positive reinforcement works to teach a dog to sit or do a trick, but what about when my dog is doing something bad? How can you stop bad behavior if you don’t use punishment (or “corrections”, or “discipline”)?”
Using positive reinforcement requires a different mindset. Rather than thinking about how to get your dog to “stop” doing something, you think about what you want your dog to do instead. Instead of jumping on guests, he is sitting politely to be petted. Instead of stealing your dirty laundry, he is bringing you a toy to play. Instead of begging at the dinner table, he is laying on his bed chewing a bone. A huge part of training this way is about management. It does require some thinking ahead. If puppies or untrained dogs are not allowed opportunities to get in trouble, there is rarely any “bad behavior” to deal with. We simply control the dog and their environment so the only options they have are the ones we want them to do. We reinforce those choices and they become good habits. Once the dog has good habits, we can relax the management.
“OK, sure, but nobody is perfect. What about when I forget to put my shoes away and my puppy is chewing on them?” Simple. Just remove the shoe from the puppy’s mouth (interrupt the behavior) and then show the puppy what he should do instead — because puppies do need to chew — redirect him to his own chewtoy and praise him for chewing that instead. No punishment necessary.
Another concern about positive reinforcement: “I’ll always have to carry treats around in my pocket.” Or “My dog will only cooperate if I have food.” This would only happen if you do the training incorrectly. While some trainers use a food lure at first to get the dog into a certain position (like sit or down) that they can reinforce, a lure should be faded out very quickly. Reinforcement comes after the behavior. It’s a bribe if it comes before. Once a dog is well trained, there is no need to reward every behavior with food. This is called variable reinforcement and is the same principle that makes gambling so addictive: you never know when the reward is coming, which makes it exciting and you try harder than ever. It works the same way for dogs.
Another argument: dogs trained with positive reinforcement are like spoiled children, out of control. Again, when this happens, it is not a failing of the training method, but of the person using it. This usually indicates a lack of consistency. Dogs trained with punishment can be out of control too. People that make this argument are the same people that give dogs whole bowls of food for free, or maybe for a simple sit. Good positive reinforcement trainers often ask their dogs to earn a large portion of their daily food in training. Positive does not mean permissive!
Then some people will say “My dog should just want to please me. I shouldn’t have to reward him for being good.” This is a very self-centered view. Dogs are living, feeling creatures with wants and needs of their own. They depend on us for everything and with this power to control another being’s entire world comes the responsibility to consider their happiness. Ultimately, people who say this are the very same people who are forced to use punishment anyway, which proves that dogs will never work just to please us. Again, you have two choices: either punishment or reinforcement.
It is true that it is probably impossible to use 100% positive reinforcement with a dog. Even putting a leash and collar on them is a little aversive. We do what we must to keep them safe. Many positive reinforcement trainers will also occasionally use what is technically called “negative punishment”, more commonly known as a timeout. For example, if a dog is jumping on you for attention you might turn away briefly (remove your attention), until his paws are on the floor, and then reward that. Removal of attention is certainly aversive to most dogs, in fact very stressful for some. (A positive reinforcement alternative might be to tell the dog to sit before he jumps up.)
Even if we can’t be 100% positive, it’s a good goal to strive for. You will find that dogs that are trained primarily with positive reinforcement and consistency (and few punishments) are happier and more confident. They are not afraid to learn new things and are eager to work with you, and so are easier to train. You will have more fun too and isn’t that why we have dogs in the first place?