It is often assumed that positive trainers, and especially clicker trainers, can’t work with serious problem behaviors. Critics assume that once you have an aggressive, jumpy, or constantly barking dog, you have to resort to punishment-based training in order to “dominate” your dog and make them stop. This couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, of all the dogs I work with, the ones that display the worst behaviors are also the ones that most desperately need the type of training I offer. Serious problem behaviors are often a result of fear, anxiety, and/or poor socialization. Therefore, punishing these dogs is often the worst possible way to train them – you will end up making them more fearful and anxious, even if you can suppress the superficial problem behaviors. Doesn’t punishment work, though? Yes, in a manner of speaking – if it’s done harshly enough, you can suppress problem behaviors by yelling at your dog, hitting them, jerking on a leash, kicking them, shocking them with an e-collar, choking them with a chain, or any other of a myriad of ways that people have come up with to punish dogs. Unfortunately, when you do this, you are not addressing the underlying problem. What you are doing instead is teaching the dog that when they bark, growl, lunge, or snarl, they will get punished. That is all okay until the day when the dog feels like it has to react strongly, and the only option left to it – the only behavior that hasn’t been punished over and over again – is biting. Ironically, these are the dogs that supposedly “bite out of the blue,” because all of the dog’s warning signs have been suppressed through punishment. Is that really a viable training route for a dog that you want to feel safe around?
Positive reinforcement trainers encourage you to instead ask the question, What do you want your dog to do instead? Rather than barking at the doorbell, what do you want your dog to do instead? Be quiet and lie on their bed. Rather than lunging at other dogs on leash, what do you want your dog to do instead? See the other dog and keep on walking with a loose leash. Rather than jumping on visitors, what do you want your dog to do instead? Sit still and accept petting. If you want to get into the science behind it, this is referred to as “Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative behavior” or DRA for short. Simply put, it means, “What alternative behavior do you want to reinforce?”
Once you ask yourself this fairly straightforward question – What do you want your dog to do instead?– the behavior plan for your dog begins to take shape. For example, instead of kneeing your dog in the chest for being happy to see visitors and jumping up on them in a very natural and exuberant doggy fashion, try training your dog to sit a million times over. Then start working on the sitting behavior around the door and with visitors. Now, your dog will still be happy to meet your friends, but will also know how to act appropriately, without any punishment needed.This type of training still takes time, consistency, and a good understanding of the methods involved – it is not a magic bullet. However, you can see how thinking in this way changes your dog’s problem behaviors from something that you have to punish them for, to something you can fix (and even enjoy fixing) by training your dog to perform different behaviors.I know that when I decided to adopt dogs, my plan was never to live with animals that I would have to bully in order for them to fit safely into my household. I really don’t believe that most people want to punish their dogs. However, they have just been led to incorrectly believe that punishment is necessary by well-meaning but misinformed friends, trainers, or what they see on TV. Rather than resorting to punishment, I encourage you to get creative and ask, What do you want your dog to do instead? Figure out what behavior you want to reinforce instead of the problem behavior. You will feel much, much better about the way you are treating your dog, and your dog will love you even more for the many ways in which they can earn treats, pets, and attention for being such a good pup!