What is my main complaint about PP (Purely Positive dog) training theory? Of all the famous trainers I have followed, they don’t truly have trained dogs. They are just tolerating, managing, or blocking undesired behaviors. That means they can’t train your dogs to live in their Promised Land: your dog will not be under verbal control, off leash, at a distance, around strong distractions. Would you consider a finished dog out of their program (and everyone has a different label for it: basic, intermediate, advanced, titled, certified) to have the essential abilities?
Now, let’s clear that up a bit. I work with some dogs that never get this goal.
In some cases, the owners end the lessons too soon. This is usually a financial consideration. Look, I know good training costs money and takes a lot of time and homework. Not everyone can do that, and sometimes people get frustrated and go looking elsewhere because they want faster results. In some cases, that concern is justified. If the trainer doesn’t know what they are doing, or the owner doesn’t do the homework, things are going to go at a snail’s pace and the costs are going to get high. Their friends are going to say that they never had those problems with their dogs, and yada yada yada. So, they try another training program that promises quicker results.
Unfortunately, some might be lured into thinking they want a properly trained dog in a few easy lessons. That just isn’t going to happen. Yes, there are programs out there that promise quick and almost magical results in every major city in America. We have all seen TV trainers who give the appearance that you can have a well-trained dog after some gimmick styled lesson. But do you want your dog to be punishment trained? Do you think that is ok to do to your pal? The real working dog people would never do this to their dogs, why should you? Is there a SWAT dog trained this way anywhere? How about an AKC obedience champion? A field trial champion hunting dog? How about a seeing eye dog? Do you think that is the way dogs should be trained? I know I would never do that to any dog or promise that to any owner. Nothing in life is free.
In other cases, the dog is what old-time trainers would call a “weak” type. They are just so sensitive that to push them this far would not be safe or humane. It takes a very long time to build their confidence and raise their thresholds to novel or somewhat threatening situations or stimuli. Some of this is breeding. Some dogs are very sensitive by nature. But most of this is a lack of sufficient early socialization of the puppy. When Scott and Fuller did their critical periods study (see: Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog), they observed that dogs which were not, or hardly, socialized by 16 weeks of age could hardly be trained to do anything. I have worked with dogs that appeared feral on their first visit. We see this sometimes from dogs rescued from the desert in Arizona. They were born there and had no human contact until captured. I’ve seen this with dogs who were barely handled or taken anywhere as puppies. These dogs start out being terrified of pretty much everything. I’ve also worked with dogs that were only partially socialized, as well, such as breeder’s dogs. The breeders kept them in cages for their first 9 to 12 months at home. These dogs will typically bond to a woman (because a lot of breeders are women), are afraid of men and children, afraid of strange dogs, can’t walk up or down stairs, often startle at normal household sounds, are sometimes very difficult to groom, don’t want to be touched by a stranger (such as a veterinarian), don’t play much with toys, run away when approached even by their new owners, and are hard to motivate to do normal obedience training. All these dogs take a very long time to pull them out of their shells. Yes, once again, there are harsh trainers that will get these dogs to robotically do things, but the dogs are still scared of everything and you really can’t say the results are pleasing to the dog or someone who can read dog behavior. So, these aren’t the types of dogs that you would want to take off leash in public, at least for a long time. If the training ends before the dogs are ready for the final off leash work, then you can’t get that ideal result.
Other dogs are what old time trainers called the “strong” type. In this category, I’m primarily referring to highly driven working dogs. Especially the protection dogs. I don’t see many true protection worthy dogs. Most of what I see are pet dogs. For example, the true protection dog, without any training, would attack instantly if a stranger came in your home uninvited, and kill the person if not stopped. There are other dogs that sometimes appear like this. Yes, they will bite and hurt a stranger. But that isn’t because they are terrific protection dogs. Instead, they are unstable, unsocialized, fearful, big dogs that are out of control and untrustworthy. Either way, the protection dog and the unstable biting big dogs can’t be allowed to be off leash in public, at a distance, with distractions unless the owners can have especially good verbal control over them. The truly protective dogs need protection training to gain control over all their drives. Obedience training won’t be sufficient. The unstable dogs shouldn’t be allowed to be off leash in public, regardless of the amount of training applied. The training should be put into the dog as a backup emergency in the event this dog gets away from the handler off leash, in public, with distractions. Pavlov, as well as other researchers since him, created dogs like this in their research laboratories. Once these dogs were “cracked” (my term), their neurotic fears and instabilities often lasted for the rest of the dogs’ lives, and they couldn’t be turned around. That is one of the big lessons you absorb when you read the research. It is also why you shouldn’t trust trainers who say they can fix any dog. If the best researchers in history couldn’t fix these dogs, you can trust that that slick website you are reading isn’t exactly well grounded in behavioral theory.
But let’s talk about normal dogs. Can a normal dog be trusted off leash, in public, at a distance, around distractions if trained with PP methods? Generally, the answer is no. Don’t believe me? Go do a deep dive and see how the famous PP trainers live with their dogs. The dogs are circus performers, not well trained and finished companions. So, let’s use a simple example: you can’t train a dog to leave a rattlesnake alone with PP methods. And there are a lot of other such dangers in the real world that can’t be trained reliably with PP methods. Yes, you can try to put some behaviors on cue. But would you want to train a dog to go get a live rattlesnake on command, and then let go of the rattlesnake, again and again, to teach the dog to leave rattlesnakes alone? Is that a setup you can reasonably train? Yes, you can teach a dog to bark and Shh on command and have more control of barking. But that isn’t putting the dog’s life in danger to learn something. In protection training, you can do this kind of thing, which is why bite suit work is appropriate to get those dogs under control. But some things you can’t set up that way. You can’t train a dog with PP to not chase a buffalo if the dog got out of your car at Yellowstone. How are you going to set that up? You need a dog you can call off from novel distractions that you never had a chance to work on.
Now, I don’t want to neg positive reinforcement. Every good trainer centers their entire program around using positive reinforcement to teach all skills. I know I do. I painstakingly teach owners and dogs, step by step, all the necessary and desirable behaviors and actions. Every lesson is a just right challenge to take a dog up a reasonable increment. But I don’t leave it there. If the dog is suitable for the final polishing around public and difficult distractions, then some aversives must be applied, starting with verbal reprimands. Let’s see how that works first. The clicker training fad made a lot of people eliminate verbal commands to inhibit undesired behaviors and to praise good behaviors. That trend set back dog training for a long time. I never subscribed to the clicker training fad. Yes, I have clickers and sometimes use them, but I never went down that rabbit hole as the gurus promised you could train a dog to do anything you wanted just with a bag of treats and a clicker. And there are other aversive tools and techniques that can be humanely applied if necessary.
I was contacted by a past student recently. I trained their dog over 20 years ago. That dog has long since passed away. But the owner remembered what we did with that dog and applied that to her current dog. The message was to thank me because her dog started running for traffic, she commanded the dog to Sit. The dog stopped out of a run, didn’t get hit by the cars, and then came back on a Come command.
That’s what I’m talking about.