Positive Training Does Not Equal Permissive Training

Master and her obedient (German shepherd) dogI have to admit I am angry.  Okay not angry, anymore, just put off now; it took a day or two for me to stop seeing red.  And, it has taken me a few days to perfect this article.

I Read an Article the Other Day

Doing what I do for a living, I often do my best to read up on the internet what is new and what is going on in the dog training world.

And, I have acquaintances in the social media world who don’t always train the way I train, so sometimes I see an article on the other side of dog training.

And the joy of doing what I do allows me to voice and share my own opinion, in a way I hope helps to educate others.

So, I read an article the other day that basically to sum it up blames purely positive training, or positive reinforcement training for an escalation in dog aggression and ultimately dog euthanasia.

I’ve never read or written (that last sentence) anything more ridiculous.

The problem is that compulsion trainers don’t realize positive does not equal permissive.

So first let’s define both.


Positive Doesn't Mean It's Okay to Get In the Trash

Positive Doesn't Mean It's Okay to Get In the Trash

When people think of “positive” they think of the major noun that means good, affirmative, constructive, a quality or attribute.

We all want positive life experiences, after all!


Allowing or characterized by great or excessive freedom of behavior.  Free, easy-going, laissez-faire, tolerant, indulgent, lenient.   As defined by Google

One does not equal another.  You can surely be positive (constructive and affirmative) and not permissive (lenient).

And, you can certainly be permissive (indulgent and laissez-faire) without being positive because let’s face it; being indulgent in some things is not a good, quality or constructive idea!

Did you know what “positive” also means when it is used as an adjective?

Consisting or characterized by the presence or possession of features or qualities rather than their absence.  You can think of it as “adding something good”.

Purely Positive

The problem with these coercion trainers is that they think “purely positive” means that the dog doesn’t have rules, limits, and that bad or negative behavior is never addressed or changed.  They think that positive equals or means permissive, or ignoring the bad.

The truth is the opposite, since I think we can both agree that permissiveness (excessive freedom of behavior) is not always positive or good.

We as positive reinforcement based trainers realize this and only reward the good behaviors we desire.  We are also constantly changing and shaping bad behaviors, we just don’t use our physical force and prowess to do so!

Now, I do believe that using the term “purely positive” is confusing.  It does bring to mind “no repercussions” and that is why I choose not to use that phrase to explain my training.  I although I avoid physical corrections, I don't believe what I do is "purely positive".

But in most cases nothing is farther from the truth.

My house would look, to most, like a boot camp.  My dogs are very well behaved BECAUSE there are consequences for negative behavior or behaviors that I don’t desire.

The consequences range from a denial of reward (imagine being denied of your pay check perhaps not a big deal to you, maybe, but a big deal to my dog), to time outs and denial of my attention (also a big deal at this house), to the loss of privileges (where I might actually take away food, toys, space) and might also utilize a leash to control behaviors.

I may not employ prong collars, shock collars, choke chains, throw chains, and alpha rolls but my dogs certainly aren’t running rampant around my home grabbing cats and pouncing visitors (I keep this from happening often by utilizing a leash and controlling behavior rather than waiting for jumping to start and then correcting bad behavior).

Let’s Take Jumping for Example

A LOT of people complain that their dogs jump on visitors to their homes.

Shaming Doesn't Work

Shaming Doesn't Work

A Compulsion Trainer

A coercion trainer would come to your home, use a prong, choke, shock, or regular collar and pop the leash when the dog goes to jump.  But that can back fire and actually cause aggression in some dogs for more on that read more here 

They might also recommend you kick the dog, use your raised leg, step on the dog’s back feet when it is in the air or hold the dog’s paws until it struggles or screams, which is to teach the dog that jumping results in pain, panic or discomfort and all are commonly recommended by these trainers.   And, yes, they might just work but it is certainly not a pleasant experience.

A Positive Trainer

I would come to your home, hopefully before this bad behavior exists, and I would teach you to teach your dog that an incompatible behavior is rewarding.  That means I would teach your puppy that sit = whatever he wants; attention, food, treat, toy etc. and if he is sitting or lying down he can’t jump at the same time.

If the dog already suffers from this bad habit, then I would utilize his leash to keep him at bay (not allowing him close enough to jump on me) and then I would reward him at first for 4 paws on the floor.

He would learn that when he has four feet on the ground he will get his reward and when he goes to jump I prevent him from achieving his goal.

Once he learns that jumping is not the key, I can teach him then to sit or lie down for his reward, which is again an incompatible behavior.

From there I can teach him to go lay on his bed, or a marked place when other people come over.  Don’t get me wrong, for a while the owners must teach him, probably with a leash, to “place” first with no extra distraction, and then on leash (to keep the dog from making a mistake while he learns).

These training techniques rely on “keeping the behavior from happening” rather than “correcting bad behavior” although it does both without using physical negative physical force (I don’t consider just using a leash for control as “force”).

Being a Positive Reinforcement Trainer Doesn’t Mean I am Going to Tell You to Learn to Enjoy Being Pounced.

Woman walking with dogI personally am not going to tell you to “ignore it” either, as I am certain that turning your back on a jumping dog only works on about 25% of dogs.

I am also not going to tell you to just ignore aggression.  I also won't tell you I can "cure" it and be wary of anyone who does.  You can control aggression after time, but you aren't going to get rid of it all together in most cases.

But on the other side of the coin I am not going to strap a shock collar on your dog and shock it out of him; simply because you may end up having the dog that might actually attack you when he is hurt and in pain.

I still don't know how a dog trainer can tell unwilling and unwitting owners to administer something that causes such pain, without worry that the owner will be attacked.  After all, there are some dogs that will recognize weakness in their owner and choose to fight; and if the person is not bigger and stronger than the dog they could be hospitalized or killed.

I have never left a home worried that my advice might actually be the demise of the owner.  And, yes, dogs do kill their owners more often than you would figure.

A Life Lesson

I compete in dog biting sports, I know I have admitted to and sometimes bragged about this before and I humbly adore this kind of training.  However, historically, this has not been the kind of training that has embraced positive reinforcement training.

So I have an acquaintance who used to catch my dogs on the bite suit.  He had purchased a Malinois that had been trained and titled in Holland and imported to the USA.  This was a super nice dog, a dog that I would have considered purchasing if he had not (and if I had that kind of money).

The dog was tremendously social, and good with his grandkids, other animals, and basically everyone he met (that wasn’t in a bitesuit). And, he ended up living and training with the dog for many months before the incident.

He admits (which I appreciate the honesty) that he was training and working on the dog’s long down stay; and the dog kept creeping despite being corrected and returned to the same spot.

It was at this point that he admits to cranking the electric shock collar up pretty high and issuing an “unfair” correction (his words).  He was angry and frustrated and wanted to teach the dog a lesson.  How many other dog owners suffer from this frustration?


But the dog took the correction, screamed, and then raced toward him to bite (because of course it hurt and he knew where it was coming from).  Since he wasn’t doing any kind of protection training at that time and was only working on obedience there was no equipment around to save his flesh.

He decided to offer the dog his forearm, which he decided was the best place for a bite with no protection, and the dog ripped into and through his arm.


It is simple.  The dog felt pain and sometimes pain and aggression incites aggression.  The attack that he incurred was fairly bad; although not nearly as bad as it could have been if he had not been a knowledgeable trainer, but I can only guess that in some ways it changed the way he felt about the dog and letting the dog have access to his family.

The same person also using dual collars and the same controller severely shocked one dog for barking, when the collar was actually turned onto the wrong dog.  He only realized his mistake when he realized the screaming dog couldn’t be barking at the same time.

Both of these instances solidify my feelings for remote electric collars and confWhy?irm my desire to not use them and by doing so avoid bites.

So I am to BelieveSmall Munsterlander dog shaking hands with person, 2 years old,

So I am to believe that we positive reinforcement trainers, those of us who have well behaved and well titled dogs, those of us who believe in repercussions for negative behavior and working for a living, as well as working for the occasional treat (no not bribery for more on that click here) and working for toys and working for attention are to blame for hundreds of dogs being euthanized from aggression in shelters?

The naysayers would say it is because positive trainers never correct aggression.

I venture to say, they are mistaken; we do correct or change (if you prefer that word) aggression.

We simply see it, and then find training methodologies and ways to keep that aggression from ever happening again; rather than shocking or prong collaring it out of a dog. They are also “just waiting” to see the aggression; whereas I am training my clients how to recognize minute signs and how to avoid it altogether.  I don't want my clients to set their dog up for aggression so they can physically correct it out of them.

I believe the odds of me being mauled for using a clicker and teaching the “nothing in life is free” principle with an aggressive dog, is much lower than me being mauled for shocking, pronging or otherwise causing pain to a dog.

Even Ian Dunbar says the only danger of misusing a clicker is much less than the danger of misusing a corrective device.

I think I will risk a fat dog (this can be controlled with diet) or a poorly timed reward that may possibly confuse the dog over worrying that the 175# is going to maul his 70 year old owners when they use an E-collar (I actually have this exact family dynamic at my work and don’t say this couple shouldn’t live with a Rottweiler, because they deserve to own whatever dog they desire too!).

This couple couldn't issue a collar correction, and I am afraid would not be good or consistent with an electronic collar.  I also think their dog would not allow such treatment from them.

I belong to a number of different "discussion" groups related to dog training, and not all are "purely positive" but I think it is important to stay abreast of what other trainers are discussing and tools and techniques they are using (not all of which are bad).

So I read a post where the dog owner (and she calls herself a trainer) was bitten by her own dog, and the following is what was recommended to her by actual trainers, some of which have studied at well known dog schools.  Read it for yourself.  I have taken out names.

Responder 1 : I guess we need to define exactly what whooping his ass means. I will hang a dog to defend myself and literally take the wind out of him but I don't start beating him literally.... In anonymous's case it would be best to have him double lined because he is sooooo tall it would be physically impossible for her to hang him just standing and she'd need to helicopter him to defend herself... if he were back tied or double lined he can be choked in the middle keeping her safe and calming him down simultaneously

Responder 2: Everybody and there idea that beating a dog can fix things. I've seen several dogs that have been beat to the edge of their life and it didn't fix a damn thing. You need to up ur training game.

Responder 1: I think choking can definitely help to calm a dog down as I have done this several times with dogs I've worked that get over stimulated. I mean just a light lift that as long as the dog doesn't keep coming up is just taking the front feet off the ground until they settle. I have had to go harder on a couple dogs who escalate with the panic of choking, but again that is me defending myself... and let's be clear choking is done on a choke chain/nylon slip collar NOT a prong/pinch which can definitely escalate and not cut the airway off and really get your ass handed to you! Witnessed that first hand several times - not pretty!

Responder 2: I'm not saying choking/beating whatever are not critical useful tools. I'm referring to the idea that you can basically beat a dog into behaving properly. Some you can some you can't.

My first dog bit me or tried to bite me repeatedly. I'd wind up bleeding and I would choke and beat him until he was unconscious because that's what I was told needed to happen.

And, these people say that positive training is increasing aggression?  I can't even imagine beating a dog until it was unconcious!

So What is Causing a Rise in Aggressive Dogs?

So, you might wonder, what is causing a sharp rise in the number of aggressive dogs being euthanized both at veterinary hospitals and at animal shelters?

In my opinion, it is because of several factors and sometimes a culmination of many dynamics.

Permissive OwnersBeware of dog

I can get onto my soapbox over and over and over again, but until an owner decides to make changes and devote the time it takes to train, and is consistent there will be no change.  I am not a permissive trainer, but I know of many permissive owners.

It is true that spoiling your dog, and not giving him any structure or rules can actually create aggression, especially when those owners then decide to change things up and add rules.

And, why do I think sometimes the compulsion trainers see a change in behavior after employing their methods?

#1 I think it is because the owners have finally waited until something horrible like a bite has happened and they think they have “tried everything” (even if they fall into the category of the above owners) and a bite and the fear that goes along with it is finally what it takes for them to take training seriously.

And, whereas the aggression that the trainer employs may work and looks like a “miracle” the truth is, it is much more dangerous for the owner to employ physical pain and corrections.

Many dogs may take a great deal of pain from me, because he is more frightened of me and uncertain if he will win a fight with me; but he knows exactly how vulnerable his owners are and how to manipulate them!

Over Corrections

We have discussed how aggression often incites more aggression.

Take a prong collar or a shock collar and a self-assured group of dogs and correct it every time a child comes into the picture (actually please, please PLEASE don’t) and you will see a likely see a large percentage of these dogs become aggressive toward children.  So harshly “correcting” your dog every time he goes to jump on a child may not be the best idea!

Many people aren't consistent, and pain causes all kinds of changes in a dog's mind and can definitely cause a fight or flight reaction.  Much of the leash reactivity we see is actually caused by a misinformed owner who doesn't understand that they are causing the problem. For more on that click here.

When I was in my twenties and learning how to train, we had an older gentleman (70s) that would come in to train his dog.  He had had a previous dog of the same breed who was wonderful with people and other dogs.  This dog was dog aggressive, but the man felt he was too old to apply the kind of correction the dog needed.

So another trainer told him to put a choke chain on the dog and attach it to his garage door opener and then proceed to hang the dog with the garage door opener until the dog lost consciousness when the dog showed aggression toward other dogs.

This little tactic actually made the aggression worse.  When the dog saw or even heard another dog he would become uncontrollably aggressive because of course he didn't want to be hung.  He eventually had to be euthanized because his aggression got so bad no one could come near him and he would bite anything near him when another dog was around.

I can't help but think if he had been desensitized and given other obedience options, like giving his owner eye contact and focus for toys and reward; and using obedience as a way to cope with his aggression and probably fear that he would have lived longer.

Less Spay and Neuter

We are coming back to a time where I see more and more people who don’t want to spay and neuter.  New information has come to light (although I think EVERYTHING causes cancer) and less people are fixing their pets.

And, these intact dogs are more likely to roam, mark, become territorial, fight (even it is just over a female), and be less easy going about most things in their lives.

I like early spaying and neutering because I believe it keeps some of the more intense types of aggression and behavior problems from ever occurring (more on this subject later) and most people are not prepared to deal with the problems much less the other behavior problems that come with a sexually intact dog.

#1 Lack of Time and Commitment

Good Obedience Takes TIME!!!

Good Obedience Takes TIME!!!

In my humble opinion, it is our society’s lack of time and commitment that is causing such a marked change in our dog’s behavior.

People are too busy playing on Facebook, playing video games, watching Netflicks and the like at home, texting, and sometimes just working crazy long hours.

Back in more simple times more time was spent at home doing the simple things like cooking, and cleaning and just spending time with family; therefore by default people were home with their dogs.

Now the majority of food is purchased already made, paying to have laundry done and houses cleaned is almost common place; and time with family is spent traveling in cars from one important game or spot to another.

People don’t make time for their dogs like they used to.  Even though clickers probably weren’t utilized in more simple times, people did in fact make sure to teach their dogs’ appropriate behavior because they were home with their dogs and simply put they would not tolerate the kinds of bad behavior we see now.  And, I believe that physical exercise was also more common place and dogs were invited to kids practice and long walks, hikes, bike rides, etc. instead of being left home for sports practice and other activities.

I think we can all admit that physical exercise, walks, and runs are (for most people) a thing of the past.  Computers and TV taking our time is more common place.  I used to run 13 miles a day and do P90X… and I find it hard now, some days to get 20 minutes of meaningful exercise into my schedule.

Heck, I recently wrote an article on finding 20 minutes to massage your dog, both for his benefit and yours and people were all over the fact that they didn’t have 20 minutes for their dogs.  I guess that proves my point and is a sign of the times.

Until people make time and spend time teaching and training their dogs, dogs will suffer from all kinds of behavior problems not the least of these, aggression.

So Don’t Be So Quick to Judge

So don’t be so fast to say that the rise in aggression is directly related to people training with kindness and compassion; because at least they are training.

And, when people “lie” and say they were training (all of us trainers know these owners), chalk it up to normal human behavior and lack of follow through and don’t blame the trainer.  I can't believe how many people say "I've tried everything" which means "I've done nothing long term or with consistency"  because if you tried "anything" with true consistency you would see at least some change.

After all, I could find any random correlation between the migration of birds, the tides, or global warming and blame the increase of dog aggression on that… and in some ways that would be less ludicrous than blaming the very people who are trying to train dogs and better the dog world.

No one has ever blamed the trainers at sea world for creating aggressive animals, and trust me they aren’t using prong collars or shock collars on their sea life!  They are using positive reinforcement and all four quadrants of training effectively without ever physically manipulating the animals.

Are there repercussions for bad behavior or not performing perfectly? Yes, but again these trainers are using their minds not their bodies to control several ton animals!

And, that is my final proposal.

We are the thinking animals, correct?  We should be able to use our minds and not rely on our bodies to train our dogs, or beating them till they are unconscious.  Imagine you are a quadriplegic in a wheelchair and can't use your body.  Some of the best trainers I have met have been confined to a wheelchair, but they use their mind and what they know of behavior to administer change.

Be kind, be fair, make time, work on problems, and use your mind and not your body and your relationship will certainly improve no matter what problem you are working on trying to change!  Diligence, consistency and compassion are the keys you need to work with any animal, including people!

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  1. John Burge says:

    Thanks for a well written and informative article. I learned something here and appreciate the information.


  2. Camille says:

    I have used clicker training, and nothing but positive reinforcement with denial of rewards as the “negative”.
    My dog is (almost) perfect, knows 30 + “tricks”.
    My dog permanently learned her behaviors, including the wonderful ‘Stop’ command, whatever she is doing, bad or god, she ceases immediately if I ‘Stop’ her. I was a vet tech for 12 + yrs and certified in animal behavioral therapy. I was 1st taught the ‘old school’ obedience training. The positive reinforcement clicker training is faster, permanent and easier w/o having to use any physical dominance, and I get about a 98% willingness to listen. People who argue against this should really do the research into clicker/positive reinforcement training as far as neurology AND experience, prior to making any condemning statements.
    Two thumbs up for this article. People can be ignorant/unknowing and not even know it because they do not take the time to do the research.


    Minette Reply:

    Very well said, thank you!

    And, yes you are right… people judge without even trying 😉


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