Just like humans, different pooches learn in different ways. This means that not every training method works for every pup parent, situation, or end goal.
Fortunately, there are several different dog-training approaches you can employ when trying to teach your pup skills and instill good habits.
Finding the right training approach that balances all aspects can be a challenge, but the results are well-worth the effort.
Explore different training approaches with us below and see what methods may work for you and your four-legged student.
Types of Dog Training: Key Takeaways
- Alpha/dominance training has been popular in the past, but has been scientifically debunked as unfounded, problematic, and dangerous.
- Most professional trainers have shifted to positive training techniques, which are supported by science and build a better bond with your pup.
- When hiring a private trainer, learn which questions to ask to get a feel for their training style, and choose the safest, most experienced, and more reliable option.
Dog Training Methods 101
Let’s explore some of the science behind dog training and how dogs learn!
Classical conditioning is the learning theory made famous by Pavlov and his doggos.
As a psychlogy 101 recap, Russian physiologist Pavlov experimented by ringing a bell as he fed his dogs. Over time, the dogs began to associate the bell with feeding time. Eventually, upon ringing the bell, the dogs would begin to drool, even if the food was not given.
The lesson? Pavlov was able to get his dogs to react to a stimulus they had not previously reacted to. Before the experiment, the dogs has not reacted at all to the sound of the bell. But now, through creating reinforced associations, the bell alone would illicit a reaction.
In classical conditioning, an outside stimulus (such as a sound, smell, or sight) triggers a reaction in the subject that they would not normally have, due to the association built previously.
Some real-life examples of classical conditioning include:
- PTSD, with loud sounds triggering panic due to their association with a battle environment.
- A dog barking when they hear the doorbell, since they have learned that a doorbell ringing means a stranger has arrived.
- My dog getting excited when I put a baseball cap on, because he knows a walk will soon follow.
Operant conditioning is slightly more complicated and deals with encouraging or discouraging certain actions.
Whereas classic conditioning revolves around involuntary associations, operant conditioning is about giving the subject choices.
There are four quadrants to operant conditioning, which include:
1. Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement involves rewarding the subject for desired behavior.
For dogs, this means rewarding a dog whenever they display a liked behavior, such as giving a dog a treat for lying down quietly while you work at your desk, or grabbing a toy for a tug-of-war session when your dog chooses not to bark at the UPS truck.
Positive reinforcement has been proven to be very effective and is the most popular and widely recommended method for teaching a dog cues and behaviors.
Positive reinforcement involves only rewarding the behavior you like and simply ignoring unwanted behaviors. Eventually, your dog learns to increase the desired behaviors and dial back on the unwanted behaviors, since the dog knows desired behaviors will result in fun, food, and freedom.
2. Negative Punishment
Negative punishment involves removing something positive when the subject does an undesired behavior.
While we often associate the term “punishment” with violent action or scolding, negative punishment doesn’t involve any reprimanding. Instead, a desired element is simply taken away.
This is widely considered the 2nd most effective form of operant conditioning. Some examples of negative punishment include:
- Removing yourself from the area when your dog bites or bark at you (it helps to have gates that you can use to keep yourself isolated from the dog. After all, your presence alone is a reward for your dog, since dogs are social creatures)!
- Turning away or exiting when your dog jumps up on you
- Removing a dog from a play area when they play inappropriately with other dogs
The goal with negative punishment isn’t just to punish your dog, but also force them to try a different behavior you might like more.
For example, if your dog nips at you in order to get play and attention, you would remove yourself from the area. When your dog then decided to pick up the toy to play with instead, you would reward the dog by engaging in play with them and the toy.
3. Positive Punishment
Positive punishment involves punishing the subject through physical force when an undesired behavior is performed.
The term “positive” can be confusing here, but what it really means is that you are introducing an undesirable element as punishment – hence the “positive”.
It helps to think of the quadrant in terms of math. Negative punishment involves removing something (taking away something desirable), while positive punishment involves adding something (pain or unpleasant sensations).
Some examples of positive punishment include:
- Shocks emitted by an electric collar
- Hitting a dog
- Using a chain or prong collar
- Yelling or scolding a dog
- Dropping a can of rocks when your dog barks, so that the loud sound startles them
- Spraying a dog with a water bottle
- Alpha rolls
Positive punishment has largely been rejected by modern, educated dog trainers due to its ineffectiveness and potential to backfire. Using positive punishment can erode your dog’s trust in you and severely damage your relationship.
4. Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement involves removing a painful of unpleasant element when the desired action is performed.
This form of training is equally problematic and ineffective as positive punishment and often results in a confused, terrified dog.
Negative reinforcement may result in a dog that is quiet and still, which some may mistaken for well-trained, when in fact the dog is too afraid to do anything at all, due to their fear of being punished without understanding why.
Examples of negative reinforcement include:
- Pinning a dog down and keeping them there until they stop growling
- Shocking a dog until they return to their yard
Types of Dog Training: Styles, Philosophies, and Approaches
As with almost any process, there are multiple ways to train your dog.
Some owners want to commit 100% to force-free, positive reinforcement training. Other may rely primarily on positive reinforcement, but may incorporate some negative punishment when appropriate.
Still others may choose to incorporate some aspects of positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement, although this is largely not recommended and poses serious risks.
With that in mind, the most common dog training approaches are:
1. Alpha/Dominance Dog Training
The alpha or dominance dog training approach aims to position your dog under you in “pack structure“.
Dominance training relies heavily on positive punishment. This can include issuing “corrections” in response to undesirable behavior, such as rolling your pooch on his back and placing him in a submissive position (aka an alpha roll).
Alpha-based training also requires setting ground rules, like you leading at all times through doorways or on walks, and only allowing your dog to eat after you’ve finished dinner and given him permission to chow down.
Note that some alpha/dominance-oriented trainers also incorporate positive rewards while training. Trainers who mix positive reinforcement with positive punishments label this as a “balanced approach” or “balanced training.” However, those who call out positive punishment for the risks it poses find the term misleading.
The dominance dog training method was largely modeled on historic perceptions of pack behavior among wolves, with a formative paper published by Rudolph Schenkel in 1947 called “Expressions Studies on Wolves” and the term “alpha wolf” immortalized by wildlife biologist L. David Mech‘s 1970 book.
Many of the supposed wolf-pack dynamics the dominance training style is based on have been shown incorrect by scientists.
There are some serious issues with Schenkel’s 1947 study that show just how ill-conceived the idea of an alpha wolf is.
We now know that:
- The 1947 study was done observing wolves in captivity at a zoo in Switzerland – not with wild wolves.
- More modern studies of wild wolves have shown that they actually live in family units, with the “alphas” simply calling the shots because they are the parents, while no dominance competition among the family units.
- Mech himself – the biologist who made the term “alpha wolf” famous – has since renounced this term and regrets that his initial book continue to be published.
- While dogs and wolves are part of the same species, their behavior and social structure vary significantly. They are completely separate genetically.
While we’ve said that there are multiple ways to train your dog, we do not recommend the alpha / dominance training due to the fact that it has been scientifically debunked and can severely damage your relationship with your dog.
Dominance training instills fear and mistrust in a dog, which creates a negative relationship and has even been shown to foster increased aggression (after all, dogs display aggressive behaviors when they are frightened).
That being said, there is nothing wrong with positioning yourself as a leader to your dog. However, true good leaders do not use fear and intimidation but instead lead with gentle guidance.
The concept of being your dog’s leader can be helpful at times. You want your pupper to know you have everything under control and look to you for guidance. This can curb impulses and potentially avoid the temptation of outside distractions. Certain principles involved in this training philosophy are also good for teaching manners, such as establishing boundaries about doorways or eating.
Most of today’s trainers do not recommend dominance training and consider the method antiquated. Not only can it damage the bond between you and your dog, but certain aspects can be potentially dangerous and confusing. They can also make some behavioral problems much, much worse, triggering fear, aggression, anxiety, or bites.
2. Positive Reinforcement Training
Also known as reward-based training, force-free training, or R+ training, this method commits strictly to positive reinforcement, using rewards to guide your dog towards desired behaviors.
This type of training is most common form used among modern, science-backed dog trainers.
Positive reinforcement training typically means using a marker (such as a marker word like “yes” or a clicker) alongside training treats to reinforce good behaviors or actions.
However, some dogs are better motivated by a beloved toy or simple affection and praise from their owner. They key is to find what your dog loves and reward them with it for good behavior.
Some rewards might include:
- Treats (freeze-dried treats, hot dogs, string cheese, anything high value)
- Throwing a tennis ball for a game of fetch
- Grabbing a tug toy for a game of tug-of-war
- Butt scratches and pats
- Words of praise and affection
Positive reinforcement can be used in all aspects of dog training, from housebreaking to obedience to agility work, making it one of the most versatile approaches.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, your dog will likely love positive training approaches. Using force-free training will bring:
- Better results
- A dog who enjoys and looks forward to training sessions
- A stronger, healthier bond with. your dog
The only big downside to using just positive reinforcement training is that it requires time and patience. However, the results tend to be very rewarding over time, as well as safe.
Keeping things positive is popular for a reason, as it strengthens you and your dog’s bond and maintains a happy training environment. This is particularly beneficial for shy or anxious dogs that can be traumatized by firm correction as seen in the alpha approach. It’s also one of the simplest methods for a dog to understand, as your pup will quickly associate an action with a reward.
Positive training means toting around a constant supply of treats, which can be a hassle. However, a treat pouch can make carrying your supplies easier. It also requires patience and attention as you vigilantly look for good behavior to reinforce, rather than only paying attention when your dog had done something wrong.
3. Clicker Training
Clicker training is more of a subset of positive reinforcement training than its very own training technique, but there’s enough to it that it’s worth digging into on its own.
Positive reinforcement training doesn’t have to be done via clicker – owners can use a marker word (like “yes” or “good”) to mark the desired behavior. However, a clicker makes this process much easier.
This is due to the fact that a clicker allows trainers to be much more exact and specific about which behavior the dog is being rewarded for. Plus, clickers are a uniform sound.
If you have an entire family training a dog with a marker word like “yes”, everyone might use a different tone or intonation, making the marker less effective and not as consistent.
The basics of clicker training are as follows:
- Charge the clicker. This basically means teaching the dog to associate the click with a reward. Remember Pavlov’s classical conditioning? That’s basically what we are doing here. When starting out, you’ll just click the clicker and give your dog a treat, without asking the dog to do anything. All you are doing is building the association so that click = treat.
- Click for desired behavior. Let’s say you are teaching your dog to sit. You might start out luring your dog into a sit by holding a treat above their head. As soon as the dog’s butt hits the ground, you’ll click and give another treat.
- Rinse and repeat. Continue the exercise until your dog is reliably sitting and getting a click + treat, without the lure. Your dog should pick up on the fact that sitting is getting them treats.
- Introduce the cue. Now is when you begin to pair the action with your cue word (aka command). Now you can say “sit” and when your dog sits down, you can click and treat.
Due to its exactness, clicker training is especially useful when working on more complex tricks and agility performance. For example, when working on the “roll over” command, you can break down the action of rolling over (which can be a bit tough for some dogs) into smaller steps.
At first, you might just click and treat when your dog rolls his hips onto his side, then click and treat when he lifts his front leg up while lying down, etc.
It can take some time to get adapted using a clicker, but over time using one will become second nature and you’ll be shocked by your dog’s ability to understand and respond to your signals.
Clicker training allows you to be incredibly precise with what behaviors you are rewarding. It’s especially useful for trick and agility training (although it’s great for behavior training too).
Clicker training can be a bit tricky at first, especially if you’re not very coordinated. To make things easier, take it slow and use a sturdy, easy-press clicker like the Karen Pryor i-Click, the favorite in our review of the best dog training clicker. Clicker training is also not very useful for deterring existing unwanted behaviors.
4. E-Collar Dog Training
E-collar dog training is a form of positive punishment training, introducing pain and discomfort as a punishment for undesired behaviors.
E-collars are most often used for distance training or when a leash cannot be used. E-training includes emitting an electric shock, vibration, or citronella spray when an undesired behavior is performed.
E-training poses some serious issues, the biggest one being that, while shocking a dog may teach a dog what behavior they should not do, it doesn’t show them what they should do instead.
The result may be a dog who is too frightened to even move, as they can’t understand which behavior should be performed and are terrified of punishment.
Such training methods also bring about an enormous amount of stress in dogs.
5. Model-Rival Dog Training
The Model-Rival dog training method has a dog learn by example, observing a 2nd dog complete a desired behavior and earn a reward.
Compared to other training methods, model-rival training is pretty rare, but it can be useful in certain settings. The model-rival method utilizes other people or dogs to help drive the lesson home.
For example, you may have one dog fetch a favorite toy by saying a cue word, while allowing another dog to watch.
The dog doing the retrieving serves as a model by demonstrating the correct behavior. This other dog also functions as a rival – he gets to enjoy the toy instead of the dog being trained.
This technique relies on dogs’ social nature to your advantage.
Note that the model-rival method was initially developed by researcher Irene Pepperberg, who used it to train parrots. However, the method has been empirically tested with dogs and proven to be effective.
Model-Rival can be helpful in expanding your pup’s skill set if he is learning to provide a service or perform a job. Seeing-eye dogs especially can benefit from learning the name of objects. It’s also a fun way to switch up training if you’re looking for something stimulating beyond obedience.
Outside of specialized training, this won’t help with many day-to-day tasks. It is also challenging to learn from a trainer’s perspective and requires a great deal of repetition and focus, which isn’t ideal for all dogs or settings.
6. Relationship-Based Dog Training
Relationship-based dog training recognizes that your dog has feelings and takes them into account by teaching him commands in easy-to-digest levels.
The goal is to keep your pup happy and unstressed during training. For instance, you would start by teaching commands in a distraction-free zone and wait until your pup has mastered them before elevating difficulty.
The secret is to read your dog throughout training and go at his pace.
Relationship-based training puts an emphasis on understanding your dog as an individual. Relationship-based training might entail:
- Learning dog body language so that you can recognize when your dog is stressed or nervous and adapt accordingly.
- Carefully considering what might be obstruction success – is your dog in too stimulating of an environment? Is he tired? Does his leg hurt?
Like positive training, you want to keep your dog feeling secure and good about the process.
Relationship-based training seeks to use your relationship with your dog and the attention you provide him as its own reward, or in addition to treats, toys, and games.
Not everyone considers relationship-based training distinct from positive training, but some do.
The relationship-based approach is a good foundation for any good dog training session. You want to cater training to your pup’s personality the best that you can and keep his feeling in mind. The method also encourages you to learn canine body language, which is always helpful.
Training may be slow-going or difficult with strong-willed doggos who need more incentive. It’s also not the best approach for multi-dog situations where you or your dog can be easily distracted.
7. Science-Based Dog Training
Science-based dog training seeks to utilize empirical evidence to achieve the desired result.
Basically asking – what does the science say?
The study of dog cognition and learning is still a relatively new field, and animal behaviorists are learning more about how our four-legged pals learn each and every day through new studies and experiments.
Science-based training seeks to understand dogs, their ability to be conditioned, and evaluate the effectiveness of various rewards and punishments.
It is difficult to really define “science-based dog training” since it is constantly evolving and changing, but it largely just means committing to following the most up-to-date, well-researched training methods available.
Like the relationship-based training method, many trainers see this as more of an attitude or mindset rather than a distinct training method.
Additionally, there is plenty of overlap, as most training approaches utilize some empirical data to inform the training sessions.
The approach helps owners learn more about dog behavior, which is always a plus. It ensures that you are committed to understanding your dog with the latest research and science available.
It can be difficult and time-consuming to always be up-to-date on the latest scientific studies regarding canine behavior, which is why usually only professional trainers and behavior consultants dedicate themselves to this task.
What Does LIMA Mean?
When researching training methods, you may come across the term LIMA. This is an acronym that stands for “least intrusive, minimally aversive.”
In a nutshell, LIMA simply refers to training attempts that rely on positive reinforcement, understanding the dog undergoing training, and avoiding unnecessary punishments to accomplish the training goals.
The LIMA approach is typically embraced by positive, reward-based trainers, and there’s plenty of common ground between the two concepts.
How Do You Choose the Right Dog-Training Approach?
With so many dog training approaches and trainers in the world, finding the right one can be tricky. As you can see, the range of options can be extreme, from alpha-based to all positive.
Finding the right balance for your situation depends on:
Your Needs and Desires
Figure out which training options you’re most comfortable with and which one is most likely to achieve your desired outcome.
For example, a lot of owners (and trainers) are uncomfortable with the alpha/dominance method. In such cases, positive training methods would be a better fit for your desires.
Your Dog’s Needs
Consider your pup’s personality when examining training options and settings.
If your dog is anxiety-prone, alpha-based training should be avoided at all costs, as already anxious dogs can be absolutely terrified by more dominance-based methods (although we generally recommend avoiding dominance training regardless of your dog’s temperament).
Anxious dogs may also be overwhelmed with larger group classes, and may instead excel at limited group classes or private training.
The Resources You’ll Need
Training can get pricey and time-consuming. So, take into consideration how much time and money you have to devote to training.
Model-rival training may be nifty, but it requires quite a bit of your time.
Positive methods tend to use cheap, widely available tools for quick learning (although you’ll spend a lot on treats over time), while the correction collars many alpha/dominance-based trainers recommend can be pricey.
Your ultimate goals with your dog can greatly impact the training methods used.
For example, if you want to teach your Aussie shepherd agility training, a positive clicker-based training program may be ideal for you. On the other hand, alpha training will not work with a dog who ultimately requires desensitization to anxiety-causing sounds.
Professional Help: How to Pick a Good Trainer
We often encourage owners to seek professional help when training their dog or trying to address behavioral issues. However, it is once again important to consider the type of training the trainer embraces, as well as a few other important factors.
If you’re planning on hiring a trainer, do your research first!
Don’t be afraid to look into reviews online or ask around the dog park. Word of mouth and firsthand experiences can often tell you more than a shiny website.
Also consider consulting with your local vet, as they will likely be able to refer you to a few trusted, reliable trainers.
Make sure your trainer is certified to do what they’re teaching.
Unfortunately, dog training is a relatively unregulated industry, in which anyone can call themselves a trainer.
You want someone competent and trained to teach what they’re teaching you. This will help weed out bad (and potentially dangerous) advice.
Class or Session Format
Tying into you and your dog’s needs is the training format, if you’re seeking a trainer. In-person, one-on-one classes are often ideal, especially if you have a dog with triggers such as other dogs.
If you have a puppy in need of socialization, a group class is a major perk for squeezing in doggy meet and greets.
Some types of dog training classes you may encounter include:
- Group Classes. The most affordable type of training class, group classes are offered by many trainers, with companies like PetSmart offering training classes too. These classes tend to be broad and general, and focused largely on basic obedience.
- Puppy Socialization Classes. Puppy socialization classes are great for introducing young dogs to a variety of stimuli. Puppy socialization is essential for raising a well-adjusted dog, and these classes can introduce pups to different-sized dogs, men wearing hats, people using walkers, and other common triggers while teaching your pup that there’s nothing to worry about!
- Specialized Group Classes. Specialized group classes are those that focus on a more advanced goal, such as advanced obedience, tracking, agility, Canine Good Citizen certification, or therapy work.
- Reactive Dog Classes. Reactive dog classes are designed specifically for dogs who display aggression or fear around other dogs. These classes tend to be very limited, with just a handful of dogs and plenty of space and barriers to keep your dog feeling secure. Classes work on desensitizing your dog to other canines as well as teaching owners techniques and strategies for managing their dog’s reactive tendencies.
- Private Lessons. Private lessons are ideal for dogs who are working on specific behavioral issues or at-home issues. While they are pricier, you’ll get one-on-one attention and help with the specific problems you are encountering with your dog.
- Board and Train. Also known as “doggie bootcamp,” this involves your dog going to live in a training facility for a get number of days or weeks. While board-and-train dog boot camps can work wonders with a trusted trainer you are familiar with, you’ll need to be very careful with the institution you choose, as there have been horror stories of abuse and – more commonly – using alpha training to get fast results that may damage a dog in the longterm.
Specialized Dog Training
Setting dog-training goals is a must when deciding what training methods or trainer to use. You need to know what you’re ultimately asking of your dog before figuring out how to make him do it.
Common goals for dog training include:
- Basic obedience: Every doggo needs to know his manners, which is where obedience comes in. This includes your pup learning his basic commands, like sit, stay, and heel.
- Agility: Not only is it fun, but agility is a great outlet for your doggo’s energy. It’s also a versatile, bond-building experience that most breeds can enjoy. However, running through obstacles with so many distractions requires training beforehand, and all participants should have basic obedience mastered.
- Behavioral: Behavioral training can include desensitization regarding dog aggression, anxiety, and more. This is more so a retraining than initial training, but the methods you choose matter significantly. Typically, alpha-style training is a very poor choice for dogs in need of this kind of work.
- Service/Vocational: Service or working dogs require extensive, in-depth training to fulfill their ultimate role. Training is far beyond basic obedience, with some dogs needing to master job-specific tasks, such as guiding someone with limited eyesight or mobility.
- Therapy: These comforting canines need more than just excellent hugging skills to do their job. Therapy dogs must pass temperament testing and have obedience fully under control to ensure no fur goes flying.
- Tracking: Tracking is a skill many dogs excel at, which is why working dogs will often be used to sniff out bombs, identify illegal imports at the airport, and more. Teaching your dog to truffle hunt can also be a lucrative endeavor! Specialized training is required, involving teaching your dog to identify specific scents and practice locating scents in the field.
- Protection: While nearly any dog with an intimidating posture and bark can serve as a guard dog, protection dogs have more specialized training that involves physically guarding their owner, repositioning themselves based on commands, and attacking other humans when requested. Training a protection dog safely absolutely necessitates a highly experienced professional and should not be performed lightly.
Once you’ve identified your goals, you can seek out which methods will work out best for you. Whichever you choose, remember to have fun! Training is about teaching your dog and bonding.
Dog Training FAQs
Studies have shown that positive reinforcement based training (aka R+ or force-free training) is the most effective training method with the least risks associated.
Traditional dog training revolves around the outdated alpha/dominance theory. Traditionally, trainers believed dogs will attempt to assume dominant rank, and that the owner must show that they are the “alpha”.
This was done through issuing corrections, such as a leash snaps and alpha rolls.
Researchers now know that dogs do not conform to wolf pack mentality, that there is no vying for dominance over the owner with domesticated dogs, and that positive punishment corrections can be severely damaging to a dog both physically and mentally.
The alpha / dominance theory has been disproven and is based on outdated research. Dogs do not compete against owners for dominance and do not have an “alpha” position. In fact, alpha positioning is not even accurate in regards to wolves, who form family units in the wild.
Puppies should never be punished with aversive techniques – using pain or fear to punish a puppy can traumatize them and severely damage your bond.
Instead, use positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors and simply ignore unwanted behaviors. In some cases, puppy timeouts can be used as a form of negative punishment, removing your presence as a punishment.
Modern dog training uses scientifically-backed training methods that have been shown to be effective without damaging the dog. Modern dog training relies primarily on positive reinforcement (aka rewarding for desired behavior).
Positive reinforcement refers to rewarding a dog for desired behaviors. For example, when a dog sits quietly on his bed while you are eating dinner, you would offer a reward (usually a treat, but also possibly a toy or praise depending on what is most rewarding to the dog).
Positive reinforcement often uses the aid of a clicker, although it is not a necessity.
Remember to create a dog training plan that works best for you and your four-footer. Not every approach will work for every scenario, and crafting your own routine will lead to a happier, healthier bond and better results.
Have you tried any of the methods listed? Anything else? Let us know in the comments!