What is ethical dog training?

Posted by Linda Wiegmann on

You may have heard the term ethical dog trainer or ethical dog training a few times in the recent years. But what does it mean?

Ethical dog training - What does it mean?

Ethical dog training is a way of training that prioritises the well-being, physical and mental health of the dog and is based on reinforcing desired behaviours using positive reinforcement. Ethical dog trainers believe that training should be based on building a positive relationship between the dog and the handler. This type of training focuses on understanding the dog's behaviour, using positive motivation and rewards to encourage good behaviour, and avoiding the use of fear, pain, or intimidation as training methods.

These terms refer to training methods that don't cause an aversive experience for the learners which are our dogs. Ethical dog training works without force and uses Positive reinforcement techniques (R+) with all dogs and doesn't resort to the use of punishment and aversive tools and techniques.

A guide to positive reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement is one of four quadrants of operant conditioning that was first coined by B.F. Skinner. The theory of operant conditioning "is a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behaviour and a consequence (whether negative or positive) for that behaviour." (Source: verywellminded)

B.F. Skinner's theory of operant conditioning is a key concept in understanding the principles of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a technique that increases the frequency of a desired behaviour by presenting a desirable consequence (reward) immediately following the behaviour. This makes the behaviour more likely to be repeated in the future. It is based on the principle that behaviours can be strengthened by consequences that are positive and enjoyable. Other quadrants of operant conditioning are negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement means that we are adding "good stuff" for the dog. The plus/positive in R+ is meant as a mathematical symbol (adding) and does not describe if something is good or bad. A reinforcer can be anything that the dog finds reinforcing and therefore increases the likelihood of the shown behaviour increasing. Reinforcers are dependent on the individual but here is a small list of some examples:

  • Food treats: high value treats can be used as a reward for behaviour we love to see, training exercises, or as a way to teach new cues.
  • Verbal praise: some dogs respond well to verbal praise which can be rewarding for them.
  • Physical affection: petting, cuddling or belly rubs - but be careful not every dog perceives physical affection as something positive
  • Play: playing with a toy or engaging in other interactive play can also be a reward for good behaviour.
  • Access to resources: allowing the dog to have access to things they enjoy, such as going for a walk or playing in the backyard or sniffing.

As stated before are just a few examples of positive reinforcement that can be used to encourage and reward desired behaviours in dogs. It's important to remember that what works as a reward for one dog may not work for another, so it's important to experiment and find what works best for each individual dog.

Why ethical trainers do not work with the other quadrants

But there are 3 other quadrants, I hear you say. Why do we not use those?

Why positive punishment and negative reinforcement is detrimental to dogs

Positive punishment, which involves adding an unpleasant or aversive stimulus (such as hitting, shouting, or using choke chains) to decrease the frequency of a behaviour, can be detrimental to dogs for several reasons:

  • Physical harm: the use of physical punishment can cause physical harm and lead to aggression in dogs.
  • Fear and anxiety: punishing a dog can create fear and anxiety, causing the dog to feel stressed and anxious, which can lead to behaviour problems.
  • Lack of trust: when a dog is punished, they may start to fear their handler and lose trust in them.
  • Decreased motivation: punishment can decrease a dog's motivation to engage in training and may cause them to become less willing to participate in future training sessions.
  • Ineffective: punishment is often not effective in changing behaviour in the long term and can lead to the suppression of the behaviour rather than a change in the underlying motivation for the behaviour.

Therefore, positive punishment is not a recommended training method and is generally considered to be unethical. 

Operant Conditioning and what Positive Punishment, Negative Reinforcement and negative Punishment stand for

In summary, positive reinforcement training has several benefits for dogs:

  • Strengthens the bond between the dog and the handler: positive reinforcement training builds a strong and positive relationship between the dog and the handler by encouraging good behavior and creating a positive learning experience.
  • Encourages desirable behavior: positive reinforcement training encourages the repetition of desirable behaviors, making them more likely to occur in the future.
  • Improves the dog's motivation: positive reinforcement increases the dog's motivation to participate in training and to engage in desired behaviors, making training more effective and enjoyable for both the dog and the handler.
  • Increases confidence: positive reinforcement training helps to increase the dog's confidence by rewarding them for good behavior, making them feel more secure and self-assured.
  • Decreases stress and anxiety: positive reinforcement training reduces stress and anxiety in dogs by avoiding the use of aversive techniques and creating a positive learning environment.
  • Effective in the long term: positive reinforcement is effective in changing behavior in the long term and does not cause the suppression of the behavior like punishment can.


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