Positive vs. Negative Dog Training: What's in a Dog's Best Interest?

Though I'm often called the miracle worker, it's the dogs that always impress me. The most forgiving and trusting of all the earth's creatures, I'm left in awe of their healing abilities.
05/05/2013 06:07pm ET | Updated July 5, 2013
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TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY OMAR BRUKSY A Pit Bull terrier is taken out for obedience training on January 30, 2012 in the Moroccan city of Fez. Morocco is looking to pass Law 56-12 to kill all 'dangerous' big dog breeds such as Pit bulls. However owners are contesting this law. AFP PHOTO/FADEL SENNA (Photo credit should read FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

There are few things in life that get my tail wagging faster than working with confused dogs and the people who desperately want to help them. As often the case, I'm called in after a plethora of other approaches have been attempted, many of them following a negative reinforcement protocol to detrimental ends. Here is a page from this week's roster.

Meet Carly, a chocolate fuzz ball with paws. At two years of age, this Cockapoo is the adoration of her family, having been campaigned for by the husband and kids and reluctantly agreed to by mom Ann, she was now woven into the tapestry of their life-like an heirloom carpet.

The frustrations that had prompted Ann's call to me? She listed them in succeeding order: Excessive barking at the windows, frantic fear around loud noises that prevented her socialization and inclusion and aggressive behavior with strangers. Though reluctant to call a professional, after a bad experience with a different dog trainer, a veterinarian at Millwood Animal Hospital reassured her that in addition to a dog trainer, I am an applied animal behaviorist who uses positive reinforcement -- with both dogs and people!

During the first phone call I learned that the last trainer -- part of a franchised group that promises lifelong follow-up but with whom Ann distanced herself from after two lessons -- had labeled Carly as "Dominant Aggressive." The trainer offered a chain bag to toss when Carly barked at the first lesson, but when that didn't work, he pulled out an electronic shock collar. Ann's intuition was spot on -- she knew this quick fix wasn't the answer.

During our first talk, Ann lamented about what she saw as aggressive behavior, and dropped the word "dominance" into the conversation more than a few times. I paused to consider it. Were Carly's aggressive reactions a sign of dominant behavior? A few quick questions revealed the answer.

"Does Carly growl or show possessiveness over her food, toys, or sleeping areas?" No, not at all. She's fine with all of that.

"Does Carly lunge at people or other dogs when you walk her on leash?" No. Quite the opposite, she might bark if they're passing by, but she looks confused. If the dog comes towards us she will pull back to the house or car.

"Is she assertive with you, blocking you on the stairs or barking at you for food or play?" No... she rings a bell to go outside -- does that count?

"When Carly becomes noise sensitive what does she do?" She wants to run and hide. Yes -- she's so afraid of loud noises she often retreats to her crate or will struggle to run home or back to the car.

"As a puppy I'm guessing she was quiet, loving, and easily startled." Yes -- that is right. All of the above! It's as though you've met her before.

My assessment? I didn't think there was a dominant bone in Carly's body. She sounded like a loving, needy, mildly anxious personality type who was easily shaken by unfamiliar activity or unpredicted events. Subjected to negative reinforcement training, Carly had begun to second guess her own impulses and develop reactionary behavior that had little to do with the dog she really was. Her personality was gentle and worrisome, and instead of bolstering her confidence the pressure of avoiding corrections has left her sanity shaken.

Could I help Ann and Carly find a better path? I couldn't wait to sink my teeth in, metaphorically speaking!

Anyone who's used me as a trainer will attest to my unorthodox approach. Arriving at the home, I ring the bell and stand to the side of the door. When opened, it looks more like a prank than an official visit. Where am I and why am I hiding? If you look at this from Carly's perspective, the home is equivalent to a den and the door is its opening. For Carly, who has developed stranger anxiety, her fears are realized the moment the door is opened and a looming figure fills the frame.

This time, however, I changed the game plan by disappearing from view. What did Carly do? Well at first she continued barking (her bell-bark behavior would've made Pavlov smile).

But then she paused. After about 20 seconds I saw her nose tentatively reaching around the door frame. When her face beheld mine I was down on her level, sitting with my back against the house and my nose shoved into a bag of Chikables Combo Bites dog treats I was unassuming, relaxed, and completely engrossed. What did she do? She sniffed me head to toe, then pawed my arm for recognition and a treat. I made a new friend!

In the house, Carly cavorted with glee, bringing her toys to me and jumping into my lap to offer me a lick. Ann, who'd be watching in awe, reached for a bottle filled with coins to shake and startle her dog from jumping on me. I raised my hand to stop her.

"I appreciate that you're trying to teach her not to jump, but there is a better way," I promised. I further explained when hesitant dogs finally feel comfortable enough to socialize, they sometimes go a little over board, getting jumpy and mouthy. While a coin bottle might work wonders for other dogs, it will instill fear with a sensitive dog such as Carly. I urged a different approach and vowed she'd see results within 24 hours.

How'd we do it? I helped Ann recognize that Carly's brain is similar to a 14-month-old child--full of wonder, desire, and unconditional adoration. Negative training creates so much stress that while it may solve one problem, such as jumping, it creates other problems far more troubling, like aggression or frantic barking.

Ann and I worked to link recognizable words and everyday routines to help bolster Carly's self-confidence and focus. This simple exercise would take no extra time but would do wonders for her outlook. "Outside," "Inside," "Upstairs," "Dinner" would involve her in household on-goings. In addition we taught her a word for her favorite toy "Binky!" and chew "Bone!" and used those words to redirect her. Finally we introduced a brand new routine, "Say Hello!" An essential routine for any well socialized dog or puppy; you can teach this easily by tucking food rewards into your fist and extending them to your dog as you command, "Say Hello!" It didn't take long for Carly to make the food-in-hand association, and soon she was so excited by the direction that we used it to direct her to strangers.

Though I'm often called the miracle worker, it's the dogs that always impress me. The most forgiving and trusting of all the earth's creatures, I'm left in awe of their healing abilities. Carly took to our new regime like she'd been hoping for it. She learned new words and overcame her stranger anxiety with so much zeal that a neighbor commented she simply couldn't be the same dog. And while Carly will always have a sensitive temperament, prone to nervous reaction to the unknown, Ann's effort to redirect her as opposed to correct her, has given the whole family a new leash on life... literally!