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The Positives and Negatives of Training

Ginger&Browns Blog

Our blog on wildlife, dogs, cats, pets, health, nutrition, and interesting animal related topics. Ginger&Browns is an independent UK pet store offering a monthly dog subscription box, an online store, and a dog-friendly store located in Northwich, near Chester and Frodsham, Cheshire.

The Positives and Negatives of Training

Josh Beeston

Following on from The Myth of Dominance post, it seems that examining dog training techniques on a broad level is a good follow-on topic to discuss!

In essence, there are 4 ways to train an animal. Firstly, here are a few training terms that you may not be familiar with in this context. The term positive here means that you add something to the situation (not necessarily something pleasant), whilst the term negative means to take something away (not necessarily something unpleasant) – so in this context they are in effect a plus or minus sign to the situation rather than an emotional description. The term punishment means anything that is aversive – a sharp noise, shout, pushing, or at the extreme end you see people tapping their dogs or worse. The term reinforcement means a good thing such as a treat, toy or verbal praise. So the 4 main ways are:

1.       Negative Punishment – to remove a rewarding thing, creating a punishment. For example your dog jumps up at you so you turn your attention elsewhere so it loses the rewarding outcome of your attention.

2.       Positive Punishment – to add in a punisher, for example your dog barks at a cat and you shout “No!” You shouting at your dog is the punisher.

3.       Negative Reinforcement – to take away something nasty, creating a reward. For example you push the back of a dog’s bottom down to make it sit, when the dog sits, you remove the pressure from your hand – the dog avoids the unpleasant pressure by performing the behaviour.

4.       Positive Reinforcement – you add in a rewarding outcome, for example your dog sits, so you give it a treat.

All of these techniques are employed in various ways throughout training a variety of species, but just because we can use a technique, should we?

Here is an example of using the right and the wrong method for sock stealing: you decide to use positive reinforcement for your dog giving the sock back to you. The dog learns that when it gives up the sock, it gets something really good in return. In contrast, you could have used positive punishment and taken the sock back and told your dog off. Both of these scenarios have left you back in possession of the sock, but there are ramifications; when you didn’t exchange the sock for a treat, your dog is likely to learn that you really want that sock so it must amazing and something to be kept hold of. Eventually dogs can begin to swallow the sock in order to not let you have them – 20 pairs of socks later and a hefty vet bill to remove them, and the owner still doesn’t realise it was wrong to use punishment. When you use positive reinforcement in this scenario, there is a risk that your dog learns to steal socks in order to swap them for treats. To avoid this, ask them to “Sit” or similar before giving them the treat. This way you avoid directly rewarding them for the sock stealing, and break the mental association with the “Sit”.

Is using punishment ever the right thing to do? The short answer to this is no, the best approach is always to ignore and distract from unwanted behaviours, and to reward the behaviours that we do want. There are times when it’s too dangerous to ignore a situation of course – your dog has just got hold of your daughter’s Easter egg – you know the chocolate could kill your dog, and it’s simply not safe to take a chance. It’s always best to manage your life so that situations like this occur as infrequently as possible, but when it does go wrong, you need to make the situation safe but nothing more – telling your dog off for example once you have the chocolate out of the way would be the wrong thing to do.

The most barbaric and upsetting examples we see through our shop are the use of choke chains, citronella collars, electric collars, and prong-collars. The most common we see used are slip-leads, figure of 8 leads and Head Haltis. All of these use pain or fear to stop the dog pulling on the lead or to stop them barking. Using anything from the previous list can be really devastatingly dangerous both physically and mentally.

Let’s take the most common of those – the slip lead. Your dog pulls and the lead tightens around its neck. Let’s say it wants to go and say hello to another dog. It pulls, feels the pain in its neck, and as this happens with each dog it sees, it begins to learn “Every time I see a dog, my neck is really painful” not, “Every time I pull, my neck hurts, I should stop pulling”, which is what we as humans may expect them to learn. That learned association between other dogs and pain can lead to dog to dog behavioural issues in your own dog, not to mention the risks associated with such a large amount of pressure being applied to your dog’s trachea and oesophagus. Turning that slip lead into a figure of eight lead or using a Head Halti uses pressure points in their nose to add extra pain to the situation – many people use them, see that it stops the pulling, but don’t understand that it’s only working through pain by pressing on nerves in their muzzle. We see scores of dogs trying to rub the lead from off their nose and scores of owners not realising what they’re doing to their dogs – we’re sure most would be really upset if they realised. Especially when there are alternatives that just take a bit of owner patience and understanding.

So outside of real emergencies, and outside of overtly negative pieces of equipment like slip leads, spray bottles, air horns and choke chains, what do we mean by ‘avoiding punishment’? Let’s take some examples we all, or many of us, have come across!

Teaching a ‘sit’ is probably the first thing we try to do with our new puppy. There are two common ways to do it – the first uses punishment as described before and we see it constantly – push on your dog’s back near the tail and they lower into a sit to avoid the pressure from your hand. The alternative to this is to use a treat, place it towards your dog’s nose, and then raise it up over their head so they look up. This naturally puts them into a sitting position through their own choice to follow the sight of the treat, and as soon as they sit, they get to eat the treat. Of course, some dogs will jump up at your hand and not follow the logic set out here, but after a few attempts they realise they can’t gain the treat that way and try other methods – when they choose to sit, they gain the treat.

This may not seem like a big deal, but when you take the principle of your dog working for you because it wants to, and not out of fear for what will happen if it doesn’t, it can really strengthen the relationship you have with your dog.

Recall issues are a huge one for many people. We’ve probably all seen the “Fenton” dog recall video where the dog is chasing deer in the park. If not give it a quick YouTube search! What is going on in that situation, and could a more positive relationship with his owner have helped? We need to look at this from Fenton the dog’s point of view – it must be amazing for him to be chasing a herd of deer! Is he really going to decide that coming back is better than the deer, especially when his clearly angry owner is shouting at him? Not a chance! To bring it into everyday life, your dog is off sniffing in the woods and gets a bit too close to the main road, so you call him back. He comes, and you give him a juicy treat – next time you call, your dog remembers the juicy treat and wants to come back to have another. It’s good to have a recall word which when used, always means that there is something good for them when they come back. If sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, that recall word is only going to be weaker so you must be consistent.

But how do you get there? You have to make yourself the best thing in the world to come back to – if your dog is a bit cautious to return because you might ask him to sit, which might mean having his bottom pushed down, he’s less likely to come back, whereas if only positive things happen, he doesn’t worry and trots back knowing he will be rewarded. So when your dog comes back, make sure he gets a high value treat! That way he’s more and more likely to come back, each time more likely than the last! On the flip side, you have an owner frustrated that their dog isn’t coming back – the dog knows his owner might push his back down again, and he can hear the frustration in his owner’s voice, but doesn’t actually understand why. All he knows is that mum or dad sound angry so thinks, ‘I’ll stay over hear where it’s safe and they won’t push on my back’ – which only makes matters worse! Eventually the dog comes back and the owner gives him a good telling off. So the dog finally came back, and instead of being told how good he was for doing so, as far as he’s concerned he was punished for doing so.

What we can see there is that using a punisher in one training scenario can easily impact on a completely different situation. But punishment can obviously also make things worse within the training situation you’re currently working on. For example, your dog’s suffering with separation anxiety, has an upset tummy caused by stress, and has a little accident in the kitchen that morning. You arrive home 3 hours later for your lunch break and see the accident on the floor and you’re cross. From the dog’s perspective, its forgotten all about the accident, all it knows is that when mum or dad got home, they were cross with them. Next time mum or dad leaves, they start to get anxious about what might happen when they get home, their stressed little tummy gives out and another accident happens and so the cycle continues. We often hear people say their dog looks guilty and knows what it’s done – dogs don’t have a guilt emotion, it’s simply not possible for them to feel guilt. That look on their face with the slight whites of their eyes showing is worry and anxiety at what might be about to happen… They won’t associate the accident 3 hours ago with the punishment later on. The thing to do in this scenario, is ignore the accident and just calmly clean it up. Then try and find ways to make your dog happier and more confident with you needing to leave – a frozen Kong would give them a positive distraction from you not being there, leaving the radio on makes it less eerily silent.

The problem of punishment is that you never quite know what your dog will associate that punisher with. We’re not able to communicate with our dogs enough to reason with them, but we do have the ability to change our own behaviour to keep ourselves working with them in a way that they do understand. We have never ever recommended a puppy class or trainer that we know uses punishment of any kind, not just because there are nicer alternatives, but because the use of punishment infiltrates every single aspect of your dog’s life, and can be seriously dangerous.

To put this in human perspective – your boss sits you down and tells you that you’ve really messed up at work, and no matter how much you explain it was your colleague, they blame you. You don’t understand the situation, but you know that it’s negative and you don’t know how to avoid it. You finally get home that evening, and your other half does something small, and you snap at them. Was it really that little something your partner did? Or realistically did your partner have no idea about how bad your day was, and all of that stress has built up until you exploded?

Imagine this every day for your dog – every day you’re told off for barking at the Postman but you have no idea why, every day your bottom gets pushed to the ground, every day dad is angry when he walks in the door but you’ve no idea why. Eventually all this emotion spills out and your dog snaps – maybe your toddler innocently grabbed an ear a little too hard, it had been fine in the past, but this time the combination of everything means that you give the child a warning air-snap bite. Your owners see this and decide that they can’t have a dangerous dog in the house with their toddler and takes you to be rehomed… To the owner’s eye, this warning air-bite came from nowhere, but to the dog it’s quite clearly been a rough day, week, month and he snapped like any of us would if we’re pushed hard enough.

This is just one way in which punishment can suppress a dog’s emotions until they overflow, but it happens all the time and sometimes with devastating consequences. Understanding that we should only use positive training methods and avoid all punishers to achieve the same goal leaves you with a dog that wants to work for you, and isn’t doing what you ask of it through fear. This same principle is now employed in zoos, veterinary practices, farms and in our pets, and everything is better off for it – the days of using cattle prods on elephants are gone in the UK, but the days of using shock collars on dogs are still here. Scotland’s government have made great steps forward on this, but even if you can legally still buy these negative training tools, and attend negative training classes, that doesn’t mean that you are better off doing so. The research is all out there, and more and more of us are starting to use it which is great for ourselves, our dogs, and the special relationship we have together.