Dog Training Should Be About Decisions, Not Dominance

There is a widespread misconception that there are only two ways to train a dog – either all-positive “treat training,” or dominance-based “punishment” training.  This is a view that is held by many professionals in the pet industry, including many dog trainers; however, this black and white view of dog training could not be more inaccurate. I’d like to explain a bit about these two ways of training a dog, and along the way, share with you my preferred method: decision-based dog training. 

These two little guys learn to make better decisions when out and about on the leash.
These two little guys learn to make better decisions when out and about on the leash.

I’ve been a professional dog trainer for nearly three decades and as such, I’ve had a front-row seat for the emergence and growth of many dog-training methods. I have participated in many aspects of the dog-training industry, including sitting on the board of an international organization of dog trainers. Over the years, I’ve made it a point to maintain my connections throughout the industry and I can say with confidence and accuracy that the black and white perception of dog training is alive and well even among dog trainers who really ought to know better (and many do, but that’s for another time).

Throughout my career I’ve always relied primarily on professional referral to find clients, and in doing so, I maintained relationships with countless dog professionals including (primarily) veterinarians, vet techs, groomers, dog walkers, etc. While I was a full-time dog trainer, I would make presentations to these professionals to share my decision-based approach to dog training and how it can benefit their clients, their staff, and their business. Even now, as the president of a growing, exclusive network of dog trainers, I still give these presentations several times a month.

During these presentations, there are two questions that emerge more than any other:

“What is your training method?” and then the follow up:

“This isn’t dominance training, is it?”

Let me be very clear: dog training is NOT black and white! Just because the methods are not “all-positive” and don’t rely on “treat training” does not mean the methods involve harsh methods,  “being the alpha”, or “forcing the dog to submit.” The dog training approach that I advocate is neither of these things; decision-based dog training is by all accounts the happy medium for both ends of the leash 

Failure vs. Success

Much of dominance-based training involves putting a dog in a position where he’s going to fail (i.e. make an undesirable behavior choice) and then correcting him when he fails. The logic behind this is that dogs communicate this way with each other. This is true – the more dominant dog will check another dog when that dog does something he doesn’t like, but we don’t need to act like an alpha dog in order for our pet dog to change his behavior. After all, we are families, not packs, and there is a huge difference between “pack member” and “family pet,” right?

In that spirit, decision-based training embraces the balance between pack and pet. It is designed to set the dog up for success as much as possible so that we have to “correct” him as little as possible. No one likes telling his or her dog “no” and that’s ok; in fact, that makes you a decent human being. 

It takes a bit of strategy to set a dog up for success, but since we’re the ones with the ability to reason, why wouldn’t we? First, we remove the opportunity for failure, also known as bad behavior, by removing “triggers” – anything the causes the dog to do the bad behavior. During this time, we’ll teach the dog what we want him to do when the trigger is present. This does not mean we avoid the dog’s triggers permanently. (This is training, after all, not management.) It simply means we take the time to develop the desired behavior before the trigger is presented again.

At that point, it’s most fair to tell your dog “no” for an incorrect behavior choice, or say “yes” for a correct behavior choice. Finally, we repeat this scenario again and again to allow the dog to make the right decision and thus be rewarded.

decisions not dominanceWhen you consistently and accurately reinforce a dog’s choices in this manner, behavior changes… every time. It works simply because dogs will always do what’s in their best interest, and we’ve now taken the time to set up training scenarios to teach them that certain behaviors are and are not in their best interest. The fact that you’re the one providing the “best interest” part (the rewards) is not lost on your dog. This is what begins to build – and in most cases, repair – the relationship between you and your dog. Rewards are a very important part of the process!

The idea that you can’t shower your dog with rewards if you want a well-behaved dog is simply untrue; in fact, I’d argue that rewards are a pivotal part of a healthy pet-owner relationship. 

Saying ‘no’ – is it mean?

We all hear a lot of fuss from those who take issue with “correcting” or “saying no” to a dog. I would love it if you could train a dog with nothing but rewards (be it treats, praise, play, or whatever), but that is just not the case. Again and again throughout my career, I’ve worked behind dog trainers who train dogs using only rewards. Rewards are absolutely invaluable – this is how I encourage a good behavior. But as much as I’d like to be able to “yes” away a bad behavior, it’s not possible.

There a few critical flaws in “all-positive” dog training methods, but the biggest flaw is that a dog can’t reason. If your dog does an undesired behavior and you ignore that behavior, and instead reward him once he offers the correct behavior, he cannot think, “oh, they must want me to do this, and not the other behavior!” I’ve seen dogs do incredible things, but I’ve never met a dog capable of deductive reasoning. All-positive dog training unfairly expects the dog to reason through his behavior choices, which of course he cannot do. That makes this method unreliable at best and completely ineffective at worst, yet there are those who continue to insist that this is the most effective way to teach a dog to respond reliably.

learning good behavior decisions In our human world, “no” is a fact of life, and it’s a fact of life throughout the entire animal kingdom, too. There are some things you just cannot do, and when you do these things, there are consequences. Without a consequence, a dog has little incentive to avoid a particular behavior – and absolutely no understanding that this behavior is not okay! Ultimately, when you fail to administer a consequence for a bad behavior, you set the dog up for failure. He has no idea that this behavior is off limits, so why wouldn’t he do it again? He’ll do it again when his urge to do the bad behavior overrides his urge to get the reward for the good behavior. This is bound to happen eventually.

Think about it… How many dogs have been euthanized because no one ever explained to the dog that a particular behavior is unacceptable, and when he continued to do it, we concluded that he is “beyond help”? How many dogs have been euthanized because we were unwilling to say “no” to serious behaviors like human aggression, leash reactivity, or resource guarding? You do not have to use harsh methods, intimidation, or extreme force with a dog in order to change these behaviors.

It’s about decisions, not dominance.

What is a consequence?

Many trainers who understand the necessity of consequences learn how to administer a consequence using a particular tool, and proceed to train every dog using this same tool. This is especially common among trainers who utilize the e-collar (which is not a tool we typically use, simply because it’s so easily misunderstood, and misused). I cannot possibly say that any training method that avoids consequences is a fair way to train a dog, but at the same time, I cannot say that using the same tool to train every single dog is fair either. Every dog is different! 

I would argue that a fair consequence is just enough to make the dog want to avoid a particular behavior, but no more. To give more is unfair; to give less is equally unfair. Moreover, it’s also unfair to stop at administering a consequence. When you fail to take the time to show the dog what happens when he does the right behavior (he gets a reward), you fail to set him up for success in future scenarios. A huge component of my training is coaching clients on how to do this. If a consequence is necessary, I would hope it would be followed by repeating the scenario multiple times. In a perfect world, the reward-to-consequence ratio should be at least 5:1.

I advocate viewing each dog as an individual, and teaching the dog’s owner how to say “no” to their dog in a way that is fair, but that is also effective. Most importantly, I focus on coaching, cajoling, and encouraging them to follow a consequence with reward-based training opportunities.

“Good” dog training is fair, effective, and individualized. Canine Trade Group dog trainers are the best; we are equally talented at teaching a dog’s human family how to shift the relationship with their dogs away from one that is frustration-based, where their dogs hear “no” continuously (and ineffectively), to one where they primarily hear “yes.”

If your dog’s behavior has room for improvement, please don’t fall for the black and white perception of dog training. There is a happy medium that has stood the test of time, and has proven to get results even with the most dramatic behavior problems… Change is possible!