Dog Training Tips based on Animal Learning Theory

By Joan Hunter Mayer

Understanding some basics about the science of animal behavior can help pet parents problem-solve (and prevent problems too!). Learning more about why dogs do what they do, and what your inquisitive canine wants and needs, can help you get more of the behaviors you want- and less of what you don’t want. Let’s explore three concepts from animal behavior and welfare experts and how each one can be applied to your own pet dogs at home:

Concept #1: “Evidence supports the use of reward based methods for all canine training.” –American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior

Training Tip: Focus on behaviors that are wanted and more desirable and reinforce your pet for these behaviors.

Reinforcement means that behaviors will increase. This reward-based approach can work with any dog; you just need to find out what motivates that dog to want to learn. Reinforcers are more than just food. They include anything your dog wants: attention, toys, access to someone or to an activity.

This approach is not new by any means. Positive reinforcement, reward-based training methods have been around for decades, used successfully throughout the world in a variety of contexts.

Concept #2: “Punishment and negative reinforcement should not be used in attempts to change the behaviour of dogs.” Australian Veterinary Association

Training Tip: Use motivators that encourage participation out of the desire to want to learn.

Dogs who are trained with the use of aversive methods (something that would cause physical harm and/or instill fear) are less motivated to participate in training. Research explains how using aversives in training can compromise the welfare of companion dogs both within and outside the training context. (See Resources.)

Sure, corrections can be effective in preventing unwanted behavior. But is this approach sustainable? Will the dog continue to be motivated consistently, reliably, and when introduced to variable and similar scenarios? No animal is one-hundred-percent, all of the time – human and non-human alike. (Even machines have limited warranties!)

Consequently, it is important that pet parents be inquisitive when searching for a dog trainer. What are their credentials? What certifications do they hold? Have they signed an ethics pledge to “do no harm”? Are they current with the most humane methods of teaching? Do they use aversive tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars? Do they focus more on punishing behaviors as opposed to teaching the dog what to do instead? Do they set the dog up for success — or failure?

Concept #3: “Balanced training doesn’t equal success and doesn’t help our dogs.” – BCSPCA

Training Tip: We don’t need to intentionally add scary and painful experiences to our dogs’ lives in the name of training.

The term “balanced” can be misleading. If dog handlers are intentionally using both positive reinforcement mixed with techniques that could harm or scare a dog, then it might well lead to an outlook of confusion and distrust — from the dog’s point of view. When will they be praised and spoken to with a loving voice? When will they feel pain and be fearful of offering up any behavior? High levels of stress and fear do not create a successful learning environment.

To sum up, when training techniques are rooted in the scientific methods of animal learning and compassion, everyone can reach their goals in a productive, effective and enjoyable way — for both dogs and humans.

In addition to dog parents, it is up to pet professionals and animal advocates to promote dog-centered, humane, force-free, rewards-based techniques. We need to continue to be the voice for our canine companions to help them be happy, safe, and live their best lives.

Here’s to strengthening the human-canine bond by staying inquisitive about how animals learn!


AVSAB Humane Dog Training Position Statement 

The Use of Punishment and Negative Reinforcement in Dog Training

Effective Dog Training is Reward-Based Not Balanced

Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare

A Brief Survey of Operant Behaviour

The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. As a specialty trained Family Paws Parent Educator (FPPE), Joan offers services both in-person and online for growing families. If you are feeling inquisitive and have dog training questions, we invite you to contact The Inquisitive Canine for A Pawsitive Approach for Positive Results ™.


Written by Joan the Dog Coach

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer who founded "The Inquisitive Canine." More information can be found at

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