The History of Dog Training Methods


In this post, we’ll review some of the different classifications of dog training. There are different methods that are used and there are a lot of opinions which can cause some controversy. The goal is to have a high level overview of the history of dog training methods.

The Best Dog Training Methods?

Sitting Dog

Here’s the thing. The world is changing and people are more connected than ever before. Not all dogs are the same just like not all people are the same. Some dogs are more driven than others and this can be a factor in deciding if a specific approach should be used in training. People have different opinions about the types of training in addition to the training tools.

There’s a really good chance if you’re reading this, that you have a puppy that will be a pet dog. Loving and loyal and you and your family’s buddy. It’s reasonable to assume that you are most likely not going to train your puppy the same as they train police dogs. You will be doing training in close quarters within the house or yard. Chances are good that you probably aren’t going to be training your puppy in huge fields to herd animals.

Working dog herding

There are dogs who have “jobs” that may also live with the family, but during the day they are “working” dogs. They’ll go out of their way to do their job because that’s what they are trained to do. There was a time my dad’s border collie climbed out of the run and managed to herd the horses from four properties into the corners where the fields met. This is extreme, but that’s what he wanted to do. He loved his job.

There are dogs that are bred for certain tasks and trained for these tasks, and they love what they are trained to do. They go through vocational training to learn and enhance their drive to do a job. If your puppy or dog is a breed that is well-known for certain “jobs,” make sure you understand the needs that your pup has to keep them active and engaged so they don’t get bored.

Classifying Training Methods: Rewards, Punishment, & Combination

Dog training methods that were used in the past have changed and many training techniques have adapted to the modern world. Traditional methods have been the center of debates regarding what is acceptable and what is not. Most traditional methods include negative feedback for bad behavior.

So what are the different types of training? If you want to keep it simple, you can classify training methods as reward based, punishment based, or a combination of the two.

  • Rewards based training, which is also referred to as positive reinforcement, involves giving the puppy or dog a treat or “reward.” It does not have to be food. It just has to be something the dog or puppy correlates as good.
  • Punishment based training is the opposite of reward based training. The purpose of the punishment is to correct bad behavior by a “punishment” which could include a physical response such as a smack or a verbal response which could include yelling.
  • A combination is in between the types of training and includes some positive and some negative feedback to the puppy or dog.

To understand all of the multiple training techniques, it’s not that simple. There’s much more to it. There is a better understanding now of how a dog’s mind works. To build on this base of positive, negative, and combination you need to have an understanding of classical & operant conditioning.

Classifying Training Psychologically: Classical Conditioning

Much of the science behind today’s methods of dog training is from psychology.  In the early 1900’s there were psychologists that studied dog behavior.

A bell is used in classical conditioning

Classical conditioning is based on experiments that Pavlov (Russian psychologist) did using dogs. He would ring a bell and feed the dogs at the same time, and the dogs then associated the bell with food. Eventually, if the bell would ring but there was no food, the dogs would still salivate as if there was food present. This type of conditioning happens intentionally and unintentionally. Classical conditioning is subconscious. It is all about a stimulus and a conditioned reaction.

While some responses are expected and wanted, dogs and puppies can also respond to everyday sounds in undesired responses. For example, a knock on the door may lead to barking. This is not intentional, but when there’s a knock on the door, there is normally somebody outside. The dog or puppy gets excited and barks.

In some cases you can use counter conditioning to ease stress from triggers.  This should be a slower process so the dog or puppy does not get more stressed. The concept behind counter conditioning is pairing a high value item (treat) with the stimulus that is causing the reaction. The dog or puppy will slowly learn that the stimulus means they get a reward.

Classifying Training Psychologically: Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is more complex. It is based on conscious choices. It is important to understand the quadrants as it applies to puppies & dogs.

B.F. Skinner is a psychologist that is known as the father of operant conditioning. Skinner’s work was based on the idea that an action or behavior that is followed with pleasant consequences is likely to repeat while an action / behavior that is followed with unpleasant consequences would not be repeated. There are two reinforcement types that are then broken down into positive or negative.

Operant Conditioning Quadrant

  • Positive Reinforcement (+R):

    This is when the dog or puppy does something it was asked to do and you give them a reward such as treats.

  • Negative Reinforcement (-R):

    This is when you remove something that the dog or puppy considers as “bad” when they perform the desired result. This could be a sound they don’t like or anything that induces pain. This technique is also not effective.  It could result in a fearful and stressed dog that could become afraid of everything. Or even worse, the dog or puppy could react negatively to other stimuli.

  • Positive Punishment (+P):

    This is when you give something bad to the dog or puppy. It could be a bump on the nose or some other method of physical punishment. This has become highly recommended to NOT do. It is not effective and it could result in injury or stress which could lead to aggression.

  • Negative Punishment (-P):

    This is when you take away something the dog or puppy considers as good. This could be something as simple as not giving attention to the dog or puppy.Treats for Positive Reinforcement training

Of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, with what we have learned since Skinner’s experiments is that there are two that are most effective. Most trainers and most people do not support inflicting pain or causing an environment that the puppy or dog is uncomfortable. Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment are the two that are most present in today’s methods of dog training because they don’t involve a negative stimulus or a negative response.

What does it mean?

There are a lot choices for you and your puppy or dog. While most trainers promote Positive Reinforcement (Rewards Based) training, there are still some that do things differently.  Many doubt that it is possible, but some trainers are now using Positive Reinforcement to train working dogs.  This includes having great success with military and law enforcement working dogs.

I strongly suggest doing more research before attending any program or class. You’ll want to know if they use modern day methods (Positive Reinforcement) and you’ll also want to know if there is reprimanding and what type it is.

There are a number of methods of training. I will look at a sample of them in more detail in another post.  I’ll show how they are based on the types of training above.

What methods of training have you used in the past?

Do you think it’s possible to train a puppy or dog using just Positive Reinforcement?

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