The LCGB are dedicated to all Leonbergers and their owners and we will be promoting positive and force free training over the coming months, if you are having issues with your leonberger and training feel free to contact the rescues behaviourist for advice.

Over the last few decades there has been a huge swing towards less punitive methods of dog training. Watching a modern trainer in action is a very different experience from watching old school traditionalists.

Gone are the barked commands, the emphasis on ‘respect’ or ‘dominance’ and even intimidation. In many cases the use of punishment has been entirely replaced using food and games.

Is the move to positive dog training a good thing? 

But hang on a moment. Aren’t we being swept along in the latest ‘fad’ or ‘craze’.

Isn’t this just a passing fashion?  How are we going to control our dogs when we run out of treats?

And what if we don’t want to wave food around or to ‘beg’ or ‘plead’ with our dogs to come when we call them?

In fact, let’s lay it on the line.

Do these new-fangled methods of dog training even work? 

Dog training in the real world 

Positive reinforcement training is based on behavioural science. But training a dog in a living environment is not the same as studying rats in a laboratory. So how do we know that these modern science-based methods work in the real world?

This is important, and it’s a question that comes up again and again.

This isn’t just about what I think, or what you think. It’s about getting at the truth.

So, let's look at the evidence. 

We’ll start by looking at dogs that are carrying out important jobs in distracting environments.

Guide dog training methods

When you see a guide dog leading his blind handler safely across a busy road, threading his way through a crowded street or along a woodland path, ignoring squirrels, ball games, friendly dogs and all kinds of other distractions, you are watching a dog trained using positive reinforcement.

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association did not embrace positive reinforcement training to be a part of the ‘in crowd’ or to be ‘cool’, they did so because it works.

In fact, it works so well that the USA guide dog’s organisation reported an increase in pass rate from 50% (the old rate) to 80% in their dogs after switching to modern methods in 2005. In addition to a significant decrease in handler training time.

Search and rescue dog training methods 

You will have seen search and rescue dogs on TV attending earthquake zones and the aftermath of terrible natural disasters.

These dogs must work in often appalling conditions under all kinds of distraction. And how are they trained? The answer is with toys, games, and food.

Are we starting to see a bit of a pattern here? 

The fact is, almost all service industries that utilise trained dogs, now train their dogs with positive reinforcement. From the military, to the police, from medical detection dogs to dogs that hunt down bed bugs or drugs.

Scientific studies on dog training 

If you are interested in science, you might like to look at some of the up to date scientific studies that have been influential in the movement towards positive reinforcement training. Quite a few studies, such as this one published in 2014 have shown that e-collar training has welfare implications for dogs. However, this won’t come as a surprise to many of you.

What is perhaps more interesting, is that there are measurable downsides to using much milder forms of punishment. And that’s what we’ll focus on here

Whilst much of our original evidence on positive reinforcement training is now quite old, more recently more studies focusing specifically on dogs have become available.

A study from 2004 showed that dogs trained with more rewards showed higher levels of obedience, and that dogs trained with more punishment exhibited more problem behaviours.

More recently in 2008. Emily Blackwell’s study showed that dogs trained using positive reinforcement were less likely to show aggression and fear than dogs trained using punitive methods.

Meghan Herron’s study in the same year, showed that all punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression and fear, even what many of us might consider mild aversive like ‘staring at a dog’ or making a growling noise at him.

Scientists that studied the dominance theory, have proven that the theory is flawed and does not exist in canines. Scientists believe it affects our relationships with canines. Senior Research Scientist L. David Mech 2008, Bradshaw et al., 2009)

A study in 2010 found a correlation between more frequent use of punishment and excitement/aggression

Obviously, aggression in dogs is undesirable but fear is a problem too, as it is associated with reduced ability to learn. So it’s not surprising that a 2011 study that looked at dogs in their own homes, found that positive reinforcement trained dogs were better at learning new skills and more interactive with their owners.

In 2017 a review of the literature was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour. It’s called The Effects Of Aversive In Dog Training and concludes that those working with or handling dogs should rely on positive reinforcement training techniques and avoid positive punishment and negative reinforcement as much as possible

How does positive dog training work? 

It is quite common for people to think that they are already positive dog trainers. When in fact, they still use many different types of aversive in training.

By aversive – we mean anything which the dog doesn’t like. Aversive are simply tools for reducing unwanted behaviour. They are what scientists also refer to as ‘punishers. And the use of aversive is a form of punishment.

Punishment doesn’t have to cruel or violent. Intimidation, body blocking, growling, the use of rattle bottles, head collars etc. These are all forms of punishment.  You can find more explanations on the behavioural meaning of punishment and reinforcement in the links below

Positive reinforcement training focuses on reinforcing behaviours through the delivery of desirable consequences – rewards like toys and games.

It avoids the use of punishment or what more traditional trainers often call corrections (consequences that the dog finds undesirable)

This may seem counterintuitive at first. Why not use rewards (for good behaviour) and punishment (for bad behaviour) and get the job done in half the time?

Why we don't include punishment in modern dog training 

Well, as we have seen, the evidence all points to punishment slowing down the learning process, and we can speculate on why that is.

It is clear from the studies available so far the fear is closely associated with punitive training methods, even when nonphysical punishment is involved.  Punishment is also associated with aggression in dogs.

One of the main reasons that aversive free training probably works so well is that it prevents dogs from ‘freezing up’ through fear of consequences.

Mixing the two types of training (punishment and reward) might seem like a good idea, but as some of these studies have shown the history of the way the handler has treated the dog at any given point in time, will affect the way that the dog responds in the future (thus punishment in the past has an adverse effect in the future, even if the handler is now using rewards)

Studies have also shown that positive reinforcement is at least as effective if not more so, than techniques that rely on punishment. And this is important for those who are working with dogs in the presence of strong distractions.


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