Which Dog Training Method is Most Efficient?

When I started dog training many moons ago, the field was based mainly on the now-debunked dominance theory. The current principles applied to dog training were just mere whispers of what was to come. However, I think this goes to show how far dog training is behind other forms of behavior modification and learning. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen any zookeepers or marine mammal trainers apply corrections to their animal students and expect anything other than certain death. Why do we seem to think that dogs are different than any other mammal on the planet?

I will give you a clue –they aren’t. Dogs can learn through positive reinforcement just like any other mammal.

In 2004, the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Science conducted a survey on the effectiveness of various dog training methods. Their conclusion was positive training methods were likely to be more useful to the pet-owning community.

According to Hiby, Rooney, and Bradshow (2004), “Although there is an increasing concern that certain forms of punishment can cause suffering, there remains a general belief that, for many canine tasks, punishment is the most effective training technique. However, this survey suggests that for everyday training, punishment is not the most effective method. Furthermore, for certain tasks, reward-based methods are significantly more successful.”

So, what tasks were more successful when using reward-based methods? Dogs trained with reward-based methods only scored the highest obedience scores. Followed by dogs trained with a combination of reward and punishment, and then those using punishment-only. The lowest scores were for respondents using “miscellaneous” methods (Hiby, Rooney, and Bradshow, 2004).

The specific tasks with significant results were:

Dogs trained using play as a reward were more likely to leave or give up an object than dogs that had not been trained using this method (Hiby, Rooney, and Bradshow, 2004).

Dogs trained with praise as a reward were more likely to walk to heel than dogs that had not been trained using this method (Hiby, Rooney, and Bradshow, 2004).

Dogs who received an alternative object to chew in response to chewing behavior were more likely to decrease chewing on household objects than dogs that had not been trained using this method (Hiby, Rooney, and Bradshow, 2004).

Additional positive marks for reward-based methods were owners using reward-based methods reported the lowest percentage of dogs showing current over-excitement. However, owners who used punishment, alone or in combination with a reward, reported the highest percentage of separation-related problems, either currently or in the past (Hiby, Rooney, and Bradshow, 2004). This result could suggest that punishment based methods contribute to a dog’s anxiety level.

So, what does this survey suggest about how dogs learn? Dogs do not need punishment to learn, nor are dogs trained with punishment or a combination of both punishment and reward-based methods more obedient than dogs trained used reward-based methods only. That begs the question, is it humane to use punishment when training a dog, if we know that kinder methods are just as effective, if not more?


E.F. Hiby, N. J. Rooney, and J.W.S. Bradshow, 2004. Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness, and interaction with behaviour and welfare.