Is Reward-Based Training Too Permissive?

Are clicker training and other reward-based methods overly permissive? Is “dog-friendly” training just cookie-pushing? The Dog Trainer takes on the controversy.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #160

Is Reward-Based Training Too Permissive?

Modern, reward-based trainers have pretty much the same goals as trainers have always had. We want our dogs to come when called, to walk politely on leash without pulling, to leave the roast chicken alone, to greet people without jumping on them. For more specialized contexts, you can add items like retrieving the dumbbell over the jump in competitive obedience, finding the lost kid in the snowy woods, and steering the blind person around the pothole in the sidewalk.

Reward-based training works. Just a few examples: Guide Dogs for the Blind uses food rewards and clicker training. Agility champions are trained with clickers and food rewards. Even many police and military handlers are moving away from compulsion-based training. So if reward-based trainers have the same goals as any other trainers, and if reward-based training works, then how come we get slammed with the label “permissive”?

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Food or Fear?

As I’ve pointed out more than once in this podcast, most of the things we want our dogs to do make no sense to them and don’t come naturally. Leave the roast chicken alone? Are you kidding me? We can motivate our dogs to do weird, unnatural things (or not do normal, natural things) in three ways: by rewarding the heck out of the behavior we like, or by punishing the heck out of the behavior we don’t like, or by doing both. None of those methods will work if they’re not used skillfully, and all of them will almost always work if they are used skillfully.

The catch with punishment: Even when it kills off the behavior you don’t like, it can leave pretty strange fallout behind.

The catch, as I explained in an earlier article, is that punishment doesn’t teach your dog what behavior you do want to see, and even when it kills off the behavior you don’t like it can leave some pretty strange fallout behind. Plus, if you regularly find yourself punishing something your dog has already done, then you’re spending way too much time in reaction mode. Who’s really in charge – the person playing catch-up with his dog, or the attentive one who puts her dog in a position to get another round of practice in making the right choice?

How Modern Trainers Look at “Disobedience”

Why does a dog “disobey”? Old-school training guides offer phrases such as “blowing off the command” and characterize dogs as “stubborn,” “defiant,” and even “resentful of training.” But the more you learn about dogs’ behavior, their cognitive abilities, and the science of animal learning in general, the less plausible such ideas become.

For instance, suppose you’ve practiced coming when called many, many times, so you’re as sure as you can be that your dog knows what to do when she hears “Dogalini, come!” – namely, head in your direction as fast as her little legs can carry her. But one morning you’re tired, grouchy, and in a hurry, and your voice when you call Dogalini has an angry edge. Dogalini does come to you, but she moves slowly, she travels in an arc, and she sniffs the ground repeatedly while she’s en route. Is she being stubborn? Not on this planet! She is responding to your tone of voice by approaching in a way that’s extra-polite in canine terms. And that ground-sniffing probably reflects anxiety.

It’s important to remember, too, that dogs live in a sensory world vastly unlike our own. Their hearing is sharper than ours, their eyes focus and perceive colors differently from ours, and their sense of smell is unimaginably richer. I once remarked to a friend who’s much smarter than I am that though I meet many dogs who are afraid of new sounds, new sights, and new people, I’d never met a dog who was afraid of new smells. My friend just looked at me like the dope I was being and said, “How would you know?” Right. Next time your dog seems to be ignoring you, consider this: She may be getting input that’s overwhelmingly intense to her, when you don’t even know it’s there.

It’s not permissive to pay attention to dogs’ body language and to allow for the fact that they don’t experience the world the way we do – it’s realistic.

The Dog’s Point of View

When I first got a dog, scientific thinking had only just begun to enter the training world. Almost every book I read stressed that life with a dog is “not a democracy,” that the human had to be in charge and make the rules, and so on.

I don’t exactly think that’s wrong. Just for starters, Zippy’s safety often depends on his taking your cues. He needs to come when called, to wait for permission instead of leaping out of the car at the busy highway rest stop, to turn away from the tempting puddle of antifreeze. But the “not a democracy” idea often seems to come with anxiety about rank, and with the perception that many normal and benign doggy behaviors have to be squelched in the interest of keeping the human-led regime intact.

Furniture is a great example of this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that dogs get on the sofa as a way of grabbing rank, and never mind that if you look around the house this supposedly uppity dog lives in, you notice that the couch is by miles the most comfortable place to rest. And of course we’re going to respond one way to an underling who’s being insubordinate, and another way to our friend who just wants a comfy nap.  

Modern trainers are less inclined to disapprove of the dog being on the sofa in the first place, since we don’t see the behavior as sinister. And if we don’t want Dogalini’s hair and special aroma all over the upholstery, then we set her up with a cushy bed of her own and maybe make the furniture less accessible till she’s developed a good strong dog-bed habit. What we don’t do is punish her for sofa-surfing. So, okay, permissive, but why not?

What About Aggression?

Modern trainers rarely punish aggression, and that’s the single biggest reason for the “permissive” tag. I’ve covered this topic repeatedly in other articles, so I won’t go into detail here. The short version is that punishment and other coercive responses to aggression have a track record of making the problem worse in the long run – to the extent that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has issued a position statement warning against their use. Modern trainers don’t ignore aggressive behavior or let it go; we use scientifically grounded, low-stress behavior modification techniques to change it. That’s not permissive; it’s just smart.

Long story short? I’ll accept the label “permissive,” as long as we’re clear that it actually means scientifically grounded, reality-based, and kind. You can follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!

English Springer Spaniel image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).