Positive Reinforcement Trainers vs. The Dog Whisperer

I recently sent an email out to other local dog walkers, trainers, vets, and shelters letting them know about my dog walking and training services. I was surprised to receive a few aggressive, judgmental replies from Positive Reinforcement only trainers lecturing me about using techniques similar to Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer. I was unaware there’s apparently some animosity from Positive Reinforcement dog trainers towards Millan’s more dominance, dog psychology based training. I happen to use both methods because its not always appropriate to throw treats and affection at every situation. For example, if you give treats to an aggressive or anxious dog at the wrong time you’re basically rewarding a behavior you don’t want. I cannot tell you how many people have come to me after positive reinforcement only trainers have failed them or made their problems worse.

One of my clients Pooh Bear was a severely anxious fearful dog who didn’t want to go outside for walks. This lead to frustration excessive barking in the house and extremely angry neighbors. For a dog, walking is like breathing. They migrate and hunt by nature, its part of their DNA. Pooh’s foster mom had tried affection, treats, positive reinforcement trainers, etc. He was still anxious. Then she met me and I took him outside and just kept walking until his bucking and rearing subsided. I corrected him when necessary with a small ,short tug on the leash and praised him when he was calm. He was definitely nervous for a while on walks but once he saw that nothing bad happened he began to enjoy his walks. His owner Sharon began taking him up to the park for off leash hours which he loved and now he’s happy to go for walks. It took a few months but now he’s a much happier, balanced dog.

One of the biggest problems I see is people feeling sorry for their dogs when they are nervous and giving affection. This works on people (I suppose) but dogs don’t operate this way. If you give affection treats etc when they are in that state you are basically telling them its okay to be in that state. When a dog is fearful or exhibiting some other frenetic behavior other dogs will correct them with a nip and move on as if to say “Snap out of it!” We could certainly take a lesson from this.

Another example is Phoebe who I wrote about last month who was growling in her crate and not coming out for anyone but her owners. They saw a trainer who told them to give her treats and sit by the crate. This of course didn’t work because by giving her treats they were telling her its okay to stay in your crate and growl. I came along lifted the back of the crate so she shot out and then leashed her and took her out for walks. Again it took a little while for her to trust me but once she saw walks were fun and being calm and obedient got her affection and treats she started being more social with other people and dogs.

I totally love using positive reinforcement and clickers to teach dogs. However, a lot of dogs I work with are recent shelter adoptions and have had a rough life. They first need to trust a strong pack leader and know what they rules are. They need structure in order to feel safe. Once they trust me then I can work more with clickers and treats but the have to stop acting aggressive or anxious first.

I was totally insulted by the trainers who assumed by using dog psychology/ dominance training methods I was harming dogs. Any of my clients would tell you that I love the dogs and would never harm them, I use the least force necessary. Any training method done wrong can be harmful to dogs. The problem with Positive Reinforcement training only is, I feel, a lot of the trainers are using human psychology with the dogs. I feel like Millan’s methods are so successful because he uses dog psychology instead. He recognizes the importance of exercise, pack structure, and rules, boundaries, and limitations. Both schools of thought have a lot to offer to the other, and people should really research both before using them or choosing a trainer and all should keep in mind the following quote.

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation”–Herbert Spencer



Filed under Dogs, Training

2 responses to “Positive Reinforcement Trainers vs. The Dog Whisperer

  1. Phyllis

    As I read your post, I was thinking “Isn’t positive reinforcement a human psychology thing?” and I don’t think a good one all the time also. Then I got to your statement saying the same. A dog is a dog and not a human on all 4’s. Using dog info is the way to go, not human. Great blog.

  2. Maggie

    And then there was the third way. What if BOTH sides of the fence are wrong, or at least have attributes of BS. I’ll never understand the arguments of “I’m right you’re wrong” rather than moving FORWARD. It’s an industry wide epidemic really. I’m right there with you when you say you’ve worked with dogs whose problems have been made worse by positive methods (as well as ‘traditional methods’)

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