Mar 3 / Teresa Tyler

Thinking About Dog Training

There is so much debate at the moment particularly on social media about types of dog training. Well I say debate but often it varies from polite debate to angry mud-slinging. It is an incredibly emotive and divisive topic. In simple terms there are two extremes. On one side we have the ‘positive’ trainers; the force free people who claim to never do harm to a dog. On the other side we have the ‘traditional’ types, who believe that being the boss or ‘alpha’ is crucial and like to demonstrate how dominance over the dog is the way to go. In the middle there are those who call themselves ‘balanced’ but appear not to know which camp they would rather be associated with, so place themselves somewhere safely between the two. So how as dog professionals and guardians do we steer a ship between the maelstroms?   Social media slanging matches aside (how you respond to those is up to you), I believe we need to delve a little deeper into the ethics of our interactions with dogs, or animals per se. Afterall this type of debate exists across the board of animal training. Let’s consider the common perceptions of each approach:   Positive Training: Positive trainers are those who do not use punishment or aversive methods. They use positive reinforcement to teach dogs in a variety of ways. They have a fluffy, enlightened, ‘nice’, reputation who shower dogs with treats and never shout at them.   Traditional Training: Think Barbara Woodhouse if you can remember that far back, or even some TV personality trainers like Cesar Milan. They like to dominate dogs, assert their misguided place as pack leaders, and make dogs submit to their demands. They have a reputation as being bullies.   Balanced Training: Balanced training is the combination of both; reward wanted behaviours and punish unwanted ones. These trainers have a reputation as being the common-sense ones who use what works, that sit on the fence, that use both arguments when it suits and stick firmly to Skinner’s quadrants and Most’s ideas about training military dogs from decades ago.  

Is training oppressive and exploitative? It certainly can be

Thinking Ethically

Now forgive my cynical descriptions but the reality is that all training is coercive, whichever method we choose. Asking a dog to comply to a command is getting him or her to conform to our request. Whether we do that by positively reinforcing a desired behaviour or beating him into submission, it is still coercive and controlling. The ethical argument comes into the equation when we start to consider the dog. Why do we train dogs in the first place? Well mostly for human convenience. We housetrain dogs so they toilet outside, we teach them not to chase other animals so they are not a nuisance, we expect them not to pull on a lead, so our shoulder joints remain where they should. We train them so that they become acceptable members of human society. However, training goes beyond the basics of toilet training, sit, down and stay these days and many dog owners now use their dogs in sports where the dog is used as a ‘tool’ for a particular result, such as tracking, agility, biting etc. In terms of science, the jury is still out on whether this benefits the dogs, with some research suggesting it does and other, to the contrary. There is an argument that if we have brought dogs into the human environment, then we should train them so they are equipped to deal with it. Ok, so I can go with this; it aims to allow the dog to flourish and is therefore an ethical argument for training. The next stage then is to consider how we train dogs. Well we know that Dominance Theory has been disproved (Mech, 1999) and Wendy van Kerhove (2004) who studied feral dog groups explained how these dogs live in loose social groups not packs, as previously suggested. She also confirmed that dogs do not use aggression as a means to resolve conflict and added weight to the idea that punishment and force in training is counter-productive and harmful. But surely we don’t need research to tell us that intimidation and eliciting negative emotional states in dogs is wrong? Apparently we do as these techniques are still used in many contexts.   Let’s for a moment lose the human-centred way of thinking. Let’s stop looking at our dogs and finding ways we can change them to suit us. What if we were to start thinking from a dog’s perspective; to think about their needs, their innate behaviours, their desires and pleasure? How about an existence with dogs that doesn’t expect them to ‘perform’, to be a status symbol or accessory, but to just be, in a mutually agreeable fashion, one where they get as much from the relationship as we do?   

Thinking Critically

Is training oppressive and exploitative? It certainly can be. We might say that we love our companion dogs, but too many people love them in a humanocentric way, and despite them sharing our homes, treat them in the context of utility. My own observations are that all too often training is about our relationship with power, even when done ‘positively’. If we really think about how we impose our will on our dogs and reflect on how society has influenced us into normalising it, perhaps we can see that we need to address the power imbalance. Ask yourself how your training methods are oppressing your dog? How can you promote your dogs agency, that is their ability to make choices and demonstrate consent?   Our relationships with dogs is inherently imbalanced. We only have to think about our daily routines and how much we control our dogs to know that. Our use of dogs has become so normal, we have forgotten that they are individual animals in the same way that we are. I have no doubt that my dogs enhance my life and I try very hard to make sure my presence in theirs does the same. So whether it is when training them or sharing the sofa with them, I encourage you to think about your dogs and do the same.    


Mech, D. (1999) Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77, 1196–1203.  

van Kerkhove, W. (2004) A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 7(4), 279–285.  
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