Your dog is a jerk! Whenever you are on walks, he pulls you like his butt is on fire and you are just in the way of him getting away. When you are at home, he barks incessantly and jumps all over you. What can you do about this behavior? And, more importantly, how do you want to interact with your dog when trying to resolve problem behavior? What kind of relationship do you want to have?
In the dog training world, there are many different philosophies about how we should interact with and train our dogs. They range from Permissive to outright abusive, from working with dogs as our partners to dominating and forcing dogs to do what we want. How you interact with your dog is probably the most important decision you can make regarding your dog.
Here I’m going to summarize some of the most common philosophies. You can look through these and choose which one works best for you and your dog. It is entirely possible for people to subscribe to more than one of these philosophies but some are mutually exclusive. For example, someone could believe in dominance theory and also in correction based training. Or maybe dominance theory and positive reinforcement.
DISCLAIMER: I am firmly in the camp of science based, operant conditioning. So anything you read here will be biased in that direction. I am trying to avoid confirmation bias but we all have it and we can’t get away from it.
Alpha Dog / Dominance Theory
This is one way of thinking about your dog. The basic premise is that your dog is always trying to compete with you for leadership of your “pack”. You pack consists of all the members of your household, including humans and any other dogs you may have. In this philosophy, you need to ensure that your dog sees you and the other humans as the top of the hierarchy.
In this philosophy, all the actions the dog takes are calculated to increase his/her status and your actions need to ensure that the dog is kept in the appropriate place within the pack.
This idea gained popularity after David Mech, a leading authority on wolves, published his book The Wolf, The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species in 1970. In it, he referenced earlier work done by Rudolph Shenkel, a biologist who studied wolves in a German zoo in 1944. More recently, Cesar Millan, host of a popular television show, has continued the trend.
Followers of this philosophy typically believe that followers of Positive Reinforcement are actually being overly permissive and allowing the dogs to get away with things. They firmly believe that Positive Reinforcement will ruin a dog. One such person is Ed Frawley, of Leerburg.com.
This is the other primary philosophy of dog training. Followers of this philosophy believe that dogs are just dogs and that you should spend your time trying to build a positive working relationship with your dog. They believe that you should observe your dog’s behavior and make a plan to train the dog to behave in the way you want and avoid corrections whenever possible.
In this philosophy, dogs just behave as dogs behave and they are not trying to compete for position within the pack. There is no pack, there is only a loose family grouping. You show your dog(s) what it is you want them to do instead of what you don’t want. You can read more about this concept at Victoria Stillwell’s website
Followers of this philosophy normally believe that followers of Alpha Dog / Dominance Theory are being unjustifiably cruel to their dog(s). They feel that you can cause more problems with corrections than you can solve. You can read one such reversal in his research paper of 1999, Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs.
The idea of an Alpha male/female has been disproved. Even David Mech, who originally popularized the idea in mainstream culture, has changed his mind.
In this philosophy, dogs are selfish creatures that are continually trying to figure out what they can get away with. Dogs are always trying to get to the food on the counter or sleep on the couch when you don’t want them to, or maybe chewing up the couch to get “back at you” for a perceived slight.
Dogs are always breaking the rules if you let them and, in order to fix this, you need to “correct” their behavior by showing that they are wrong. Typically this will be in the form of a punishment, something unpleasant to show the dog they were wrong. Ed Frawley, of Leerbug, mentioned above, advocates this type of dog training.
Many followers of this philosophy also believe that Positive Reinforcement trainers are ruining dogs.
This philosophy believes that dogs can best be trained by using a mix of Positive Reinforcement and Correction based training. Positive reinforcement is for teaching behaviors such as “heel” and for fun tricks. Corrections are used when the dog exhibits unwanted behaviors such as jumping up on people.
This one is an odd mix with some followers believing in dominance theory and others not believing in it.
If you want a good description of what this is, Eric Brad, of Canine Nation, has a good blog post.
Typically this philosophy goes along with Positive Reinforcement but not always. Followers of this philosophy are quite often the ones you see with clickers but, again, not always.
Followers of this philosophy follow the teachings of B.F. Skinner, Karen Pryor and other Science-Based trainers. They believe that by researching dog behavior and what motivates them, you can become a better trainer.
Here is where you find “punishers” and “reinforcers”. A punisher being something that reduces the occurrence of a behavior, such as a swat on the nose, and a reinforcer being something that increases the occurrence of a behavior, such as a tasty treat. Also, ignoring undesired behavior can cause them to occur less frequently because it is in the dog’s best interest to do something that earns a reinforcer.
This idea comes from studies performed by many researchers, starting with the ever famous Pavlov and being solidified by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. Since then, a lot of research has gone into figuring out how animal minds work and they keep coming back to this idea. It became popularized in modern society by people such as Karen Pryor with her book Don’t Shoot the Dog in 1984.
Followers of this philosophy pretty much think they are completely correct in their assessment of dog behavior and that all others are simply uninformed or unwilling to change with the times.
This philosophy believes that the relationship you have with your dog is more important than any individual behavior you can teach them. That praise alone should be enough to teach your dog whatever it needs to learn.
This is a much more recent idea that has branched off from the more mainstream training concepts. One big proponent of this approach is Suzanne Clothier. However, there have been few, if any, research studies to back up this idea. Instead, it appears that this may be actually an offshoot of Operant Conditioning without meaning to be.
Followers of this philosophy typically believe that emotions and interaction with your dog will show him/her everything needed in life.
This is not really a well-thought-out philosophy as much as the way many people deal with their dog. This is what most humans do when dealing with dogs.
This philosophy believes that either dogs will just fix themselves or that dogs are uncontrollable and you should just let them do whatever they want. This will be the person that is being tugged down the street by the small dog in the photo attached to this post. The ones that carry their dogs everywhere or maybe just lock them away in the garage and ignore them. Pretty much this encompasses all the people that don’t do anything to train their dogs other than what the dogs pick up on their own. And maybe even allow the dogs to train them!
When followers of Dominance Theory or Correction Based training are talking about Positive Reinforcement ruining dogs, this is the training they then describe. They talk about people ineffectively waving treats in front of their dogs or continuously having to bribe them in order for the dog to behave rationally.
There are many other philosophies of dog training but these are the ones that you are most likely to encounter when looking for a trainer. The last one, Permissive, is not really something that you will find trainers advocating. It’s really what everyone else does that doesn’t train their dog. If you find a trainer that is trying to show you Permissive training, then you should probably not go to that person as it’s unlikely that you will learn anything.
Make a Choice
It’s up to you how you want to interact with your dog. Do you view them as a pack member, fighting for the top spot in your pack? Do you think they are always trying to get away with stuff and it’s your job to correct their misbehavior? Or do you feel that your relationship matters and that dogs are just trying to figure out the rules to life? Do you want a positive, cooperative relationship or one based on strong leadership and domination?
No matter which way you choose, there is a trainer that will fit your philosophy. My personal choice is Operant Conditioning with a very, very strong leaning towards the Positive Reinforcement side of things, so far leaning that I find I have very rarely even raised my voice to my dogs! I find that my dogs are happier and always eager to learn and try new things. This may not be for you. Deciding how you feel about your dogs and their training is the first step in actually finding a good trainer.