Isn’t Positive Only Training Permissive?

Well, here we go into one of the most debated topics in the dog world. We had to go down the rabbit hole at some point. A few days ago I came across a post on my Facebook feed by an aspiring trainer, and I was disappointed to see how a blooming once-promising positive trainer was talking about how “corrections” were needed to train dogs. Their point was that “positive only” training is much too permissive, and we are leaving out a huge chunk of information a dog needs to learn – what they are doing wrong.

Their comment was just a reminder of a question I’m asked all the time – isn’t positive only training permissive?

I want to start this post off by saying, a positive trainer is not a positive reinforcement only trainer. While many of us aspire to use positive reinforcement whenever we can, positive trainers commonly use what is called negative punishment. Negative punishment is taking away something to decrease behavior. Grounding your child would be a human example of negative punishment. Since I cannot speak for all positive trainers, I will say that my goal as a positive trainer is to place reasonable expectations on dogs and owners, while training both parties humanely.

Now, with that out of the way, you can see that positive trainers are giving dogs consequences for undesirable behavior and we can decrease behavior with negative punishment. We just aren’t applying positive punishment or negative reinforcement.

Positive punishment is the addition of something to decrease behavior. For this to work, the learner will probably not enjoy whatever stimuli is added. A human example of this is spanking your child. On the flip side, negative reinforcement is taking away something to increase behavior. The most famous example of this is burning your hand on a hot oven and learning from then on to wear an oven mitt.

This conversation isn’t a war about which type of training works. Both ways work, and with the right trainer, they can work extremely well. However, it comes down to which is more humane. An animal cannot always understand why we are applying punishment and an animal can develop a punishment callus, which can make training with positive punishment and negative reinforcement an increasingly uncomfortable experience for the animal.

To succeed as a dog trainer, the most important thing to understand is that we are dealing with animals, not other humans. We cannot explain our intent or desires to our pets. Many “bad” behaviors that dog present are just normal dog behaviors that don’t fit into our human world.

In my opinion, it is unfair and inhumane to repeatedly apply positive punishment and negative reinforcement to natural behaviors just because they are inconvenient for us. We are perfectly capable of teaching animals more desirable alternative behaviors instead – if we put our minds to it.