Positive Dog Training Vs Punishment Training

The world of dog training is full of differing opinions when it comes to teaching and disciplining your pup. You’ll find some people who follow the old school methods of dog training including the use of intimidation, pain, and fear to coerce their dog to obey. Many believe that because the dog descended from a wolf that canines need a dominant figure in their life in order to feel safe and secure.

On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll find trainers who believe in positive methods of training using rewards, treats, and clickers to motivate their dogs to behave appropriately. They believe that a dog doesn’t need to be dominated, but does need to understand the boundaries and rules of the home. They advocate using loving and gentle methods of persuasion to teach. Some may even say that using the word “no” is overused and unnecessary when disciplining and instead use different verbal cues to help a dog understand what’s wrong.

It’s clear the science is beginning to back up positive based training, but with such a vast spectrum of differing opinions, it can be difficult deciding how to instruct your own dog. Are physical corrections too harsh? Are positive methods too soft? What’s right for your dog?

History of Dog Training

Traditionally, dogs were taught via punishment. If they did something wrong, a punishment or reprimand was delivered. If the dog bit the hand, the hand hit the dog until the dog stopped biting the hand. This was the normal ideology back in the day along with dogs being livestock and eating only the scraps humans gave them.

This changed as people made some fascinating discoveries concerning Behavioral Psychology. Ivan Pavlov uncovered what’s known as Classical Conditioning and found that dogs could learn to salivate at the sound of a bell. In America, John Watson took this a step further and realized that classical conditioning could create phobias and fear generalizations.

From the studies of both men, B.F. Skinner discovered what’s known as Operant Conditioning. Basically, he found that animals could learn behaviors via rewards and punishments. Through the observation of rats, he learned that animals could figure out more complicated actions like how to switch a lever in order to receive a food reward. His discovery led to Marian Breland, Keller Breland, and Bob Bailey creating a commercial animal training business by using rewards and a bridge (a device that made specific sounds i.e. whistle, clicker, etc.) to train all sorts of animals to perform desired actions. This didn’t become popular in the dog world until Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes showcased the benefits of using a clicker in the 80s and 90s to dog trainers in America through a series of seminars.

In essence, dog training has made many advances in history, but there’s still a long way to go. As of now, there’s no clear cut rule book on what you should and shouldn’t do. There are definitely differences of opinion and schools of thought, but no regulation to keep things in order, which is a problem.

What Training Method Works The Best?

If you posed this question to dog trainers, you’ll find some heated arguments on both sides of the spectrum.

Arguments Against Reward Based Training:

  • Too Long – Many proponents of the old school methods say using reward based training takes a long time for a dog to learn. It requires a lot of time and dedication that many dog trainers can’t make the time for.
  • Ineffective – A dog handler may have found that reward based training was ineffective for their pup. Whether this had to do with timing, type of reward, or temperament of the dog, they found the methods ineffective.
  • Potential To Reinforce Bad Behavior – In order to use reward based training, you need to know when to reward. A dog can learn bad habits from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
  • Creates Food Addicts – Another potential problem with reward based training is that dogs may come to always expect a reward for an action performed. If they think there won’t be a treat, they won’t behave. Dogs can also become pushy and frustrated when they don’t receive the treat they want.
  • Dogs Need Dominance – Advocates for older methods claim that dogs need to know who is in charge. With their pack mentality, it’s important for them to know who the alpha is. They believe that creating structure and rules with obvious penalties leads to a secure and well-adjusted dog.

These are generalizations. Not everyone will follow these beliefs and you’ll find people all over the spectrum of reward and punishment based training.  

Arguments For Reward Based Training:

  • Better Performance – Many advocates of reward based training state that their dogs perform far above and beyond what they expect. They find their dogs enthusiastic to train and do the work out of joy instead of fear.
  • More Humane – Trainers who focus solely on reward based training claim that their methods are safer, healthier, and more satisfying. With old school methods, there’s a great risk of taking punishments too far if a dog doesn’t get a clear message from the get-go. If they’re not careful, owners find themselves having to use harsher and harsher methods as the dog continues to be desensitized to the corrections, which can become dangerous for you and your dog.
  • Clear And Simple – Using a clicker or verbal cue sends a distinct and clear message to the dog which action is being rewarded. Often with punishment, a dog doesn’t understand what it did wrong. If timed poorly, a punishment can send a signal that the dog should fear you and frays the bond of trust that you have. Reward based methods reinforce and strengthen that bond.
  • Requires More – Yes, reward based training requires more time and patience. It also requires more understanding on your part. You need to see problem behavior and find the cause, which can take significantly more time and energy. It requires diligence and emotional resilience to be the leader a dog can respect and love.
  • Dogs Need Leadership Not Dominance – Without proper training and socialization, a dog can be a terror to live with. For reward based trainers, dogs don’t need dominance, but they do need structure and rules. Using pain and fear tactics can aggravate behavioral problems. When humans can re-direct problem behaviors and reward good habits, a dog understands how to act.

How To Train Your Dog

When training your own dog, it’s important to research. Learn about the different training methods and what to watch out for. If you want a good explanation of positive training, the article What are Quadrants? Applying Learning Theory To Dog Training by Grisha Stewart goes into great detail about it. Before getting a dog, or even after you’ve gotten a dog, make sure to study that breed. Simply because a dog looks cute or cool, doesn’t mean it will be an appropriate fit for you and your family. Different breeds of dogs will have specific needs and every single pup has its own personality and history.

A major problem with dog training is that it’s unregulated. There’s no certification or permit required to become a dog trainer and any Joe Shmoe can claim they’re a professional without any credentials. This, of course, creates a whole host of problems with people who claim they know what they’re doing and end up hurting animals. It’s important that you do your research and find a quality trainer who will strive to understand your pup and train appropriately.


Clicker and reward based training works. Today, many trainers are still learning and implementing clicker training in their own work with dogs. Recently, science has been delving into the effects of harsh punishment techniques and showing that these methods of training have the potential to seriously harm your dog.

Training your pup can be challenging, but also extremely rewarding. You’ll find many articles and videos online that can show you how and what to do. The most important thing that you can do for your pup is not give up. Invest the time and money to learn. There are so many animals who wind up in the pound due to behavioral problems. Don’t let that happen. Take the time to learn what works and impress your friends with what your dog can really do.

If you’d like to learn more about positive dog training you can check out Victoria Stillwell’s site Positively.

What are your thoughts on disciplining your dog?


McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct 08). Pavlov’s dogs. Simply psychology: https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html

McLeod, S. A. (2018, Jan, 21). Skinner – operant conditioning. Simply psychology: https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html