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Force vs Reward Dog Training

This is the most debated topic in Dog Training. There are very strong opinions to either side. This leaves people searching for answers very confused as to which way is correct.

Let’s take a look at the two and a view into pros and cons.


Force

This is the oldest method of training as reward is fairly new. Dogs were just made to do what they were told. Force training is the result of ideologies or sayings such as:

  • You can’t train a dog until 6 months or a year of age - The reason why is that Force training is stressful. Doing this with a young puppy can break their spirit and ruin the dog for training if done too early.

  • “My dog doesn’t know any stupid tricks, they know their obedience and that is all I care about”. - The reason why: Tricks are much easier to train using reward. Someone that is real pro force will have a hard time training tricks. Because they can’t accomplish them well they often chalk them up as stupid (or at least that has been our experience talking to people).

  • “We don’t train small dogs” - The reason why is that force methods can be extra hard on a small dog. It is easier to collapse their trachea or do other damage to the dog. One other reason we suspect is that people with small dogs more often than not want to have them as a lap dog and a companion they can spoil. They are often not as accepting of force methods, they seem to prefer the treat reward method.

Force worked best on tough, dominant dogs. They could handle the corrections and did well with training. If you got a softer dog they would often get so scared from training they would shut down. If you recall we do find a high correlation between very dominant dogs also being very intelligent. More compliant dogs especially Omegas are often less intelligent (not always). The dominant dogs had the ability to catch on quickly and avoid the corrections.

More easy going dogs often don’t catch on as quick so they would require more corrections. They would shut down because they don’t understand what is expected of them. Force training can really have adverse effects on some dogs.

As an example, recently we were working with a Great Dane puppy that we would have classified as low Beta. We were training the down command using food. As I would bend down to lure her into position she would be a little skiddish and back away. Under Pack Structure Rules, Attention means a higher ranking dog can force attention on a lower ranking dog. Since I was bending down in front and I was higher up than her, some dogs will take that as a higher ranking dog is encroaching on their space and they should back away to be respectful. So I sat down on the floor and lured her over and then under my legs and worked up from there, then she did well. If I would have been using Force to train the down I really would have scared that dog and broken the bond. She wasn’t trying to be stubborn, she was just being respectful and getting out of my space. We often see this happen with low ranking dogs. Whereas if we are working with mid level Betas and higher they have no problem encroaching on your space.


Reward

A lot of reward training stemmed from training Dolphins and Killer Whales. It was awful difficult to put a choke chain collar on a Killer Whale and yank them around to do what they were told. Rewarding certain behaviours with fish worked very well. Reward training is the best way to train any tricks.

They came across problems with reward training such as teaching dolphins to jump out of the water. At first the dolphins on their own would do a big jump and be rewarded with fish. Pretty soon the dolphins were just doing a little jump out of the water to earn a fish (why put the extra effort in when it isn`t needed). The trainers wanted big jumps so they then rewarded just big jumps and found not rewarding for each performance kept the dolphins doing their best jumps. We heard they would at first reward every 10 jumps. At first it worked well but dolphins can count well apparently so they would do 9 little jumps and on the 10th jump they would do a big jump. The trainers then began random rewards so the dolphin had no idea when they were being rewarded and as a result produced consistent big jumps. (That is as best I can remember the story).

You may hear someone that has done reward training with their dog say “My dog doesn`t know their obedience well but they sure know a lot of tricks”. Again this isn`t always as many dogs know their obedience commands very well through reward training. Some people that just use reward have a hard time getting their dogs to always do what they are told without the constant use of treats.  

We have also found that reward trainers are less likely to follow the ideology of Pack Structure. We have found that if you are just doing treat training with a dog that has a natural desire to be boss and pack structure rules are not followed, the dog can view themselves as higher ranking and may only do what they are told when they feel it suits them best. In some cases the distraction is more rewarding than the treat so the dog won`t even listen for the treat.


Why we estimate 2 different opinions on Force vs Reward


This is why we estimate their are two strong opinions for Force and Reward. Force based trainers know the training works on some dogs and have seen results, that is why they still do what they do. If it didn’t work at all, they would stop.

Reward based trainers will see some of the softer dogs do terrible with force training and think the Force trainers are being much too cruel. They see very good results with reward training. The softer dogs are much more compliant and really excel in stress free reward training.

If a reward based trainer goes to work with a more dominant dog, it is tough to do it properly to get the dog listening well without the constant use of treats. Even with treats some don’t do well. More dominant dogs are very intelligent and good at recognizing patterns. They are much more susceptible to Bank Robber Principle. A force based trainer may look at this and think the reward based trainers don’t know what they are doing and are causing more problems.

Each side sees problems with other and thinks the other has no idea what they are doing and are all wrong. This is why you may have read articles where they call each other idiots or other names. They feel very strongly about their view points.

Examples of Both Sides Having Issues

Over the years we have seen examples where Force or Reward has had issues. Explaining them may give you a more clear picture:


Reward Issue - One client we worked with had a female mastiff that was aggressive to people in her condo complex. She would lunge and growl at the other people. A clicker trainer worked with her and would have the dog look at the people, look back at them, click and then get a reward. The owner came to see me as she said the dog ended up getting worse. The dog was lunging at people and then looking back expecting a reward. The dog thought she was being rewarded for lunging. This has worked for lots of dogs but we suspect the timing was just a touch off.

Another example was a lady whose dog would mouth her. A reward trainer said to redirect the dog by giving her a toy whenever she mouthed. The lady said she thought it wasn’t working as now when the dog wanted a toy the dog would come and bite her and then expect her to go and get a toy.


Force Issue - The most common example we see is when a dog gets to be quite reactive or aggressive on leash when seeing another dog. The people may yank on the leash to try and get the dog to settle. The idea being the dog will learn that if they settle there won’t be any more corrections. Often times it seems that the dog thinks seeing the other dog causes them the pain or discomfort. In their mind they think the faster they get the other dog to go away by themselves acting reactive, the faster the pain or discomfort will go away.

The above is one of the reasons why you may hear a Force Trainer say “you are better off doing one really hard correction rather than 1000 nagging corrections”. The correction has to be quite harsh and hard to really snap the dog out of it. With a hard correction the dog has defaulted to being quiet while the other dog is still present so it can help them realize it wasn’t the other dog that caused the correction. If a person just does small or nagging corrections it can really aggravate the situation. We have seen some dogs that look like Cujo on the end of the leash but if you drop the leash or they are off-leash they are perfectly fine (we do not recommend trying this if your dog is this way as it can go very poorly from there).

Another less common issue with Force is if the trainer goes to correct the dog hard the trainer can often get bit by the dog for correcting them.


The Solution

To solve the issues with the reward method:

The Mastiff that was lunging at other people - In this case we had the lady follow the Pack Structure Rules which helped the dog see her as the leader. We then had her do Distraction Training with her dog which was very close to what the Clicker trainer was doing. In this case the easiest way to start is having people present at a distance but have the dog focus 100% on you. You can use the dog’s kibble to start. Also cutting back on free attention in the home and saving the best praise for outside when the dog was doing well really helps. We also showed her how to train her dog to walk on the right hand side so she was furthest from the other people and saw that her human would make the decision of who was good and who wasn’t. That solved that issue with a few months of work.

The dog that bit the lady for a toy - In this case we used the consequence of Bitter Apple Spray. When the dog would go to bite the lady, the lady would give the dog a squirt of bitter apple which tastes terrible. The dog quickly learned that biting tastes bad. We also had the lady be much more aware of when her dog was likely to get in the mood of biting. We had her initiate games of fetch and tug. By being proactive it really helped minimize biting and get the dog on the right path. We also had her follow all Pack Structure Rules.


Dogs that are leash aggressive - We use an anti-pull harness that connects to their chest. This takes any strain or feeling away from their neck. If the dog reacts it also helps spin them back toward you. We ensure the people are following Pack Structure Rules. We have them do Distraction Training. We teach them to walk the dogs on the right hand side using the method we use for teaching Heel.

Dogs that bite their handlers when being corrected are quite Alpha like dogs. It is very important Pack Structure rules are followed. A bond can often be built through Tug of War with the handler always winning. Using reward to teach the commands definitely helps. Then subtle ways of teaching the dog you are going to make them follow through also ensures success. These dogs, no matter what method you use, are often very difficult to work with.


Summary

As you can see there seems to be times when reward works and force doesn`t and there are times when force works and reward doesn`t. The biggest thing we have found is that it seems best to start with Reward because the dog often does not know what you want or what you consider bad. By rewarding good behaviour, a lot of times bad behaviour goes away.

If the dog now seems to understand what you want but chooses to do a negative behaviour then a consequence can be brought in and that helps stop Bank Robber Principle. If the dog seems to challenge you in any way shape or form it is highly advised you learn about Pack Structure Rules and follow those, that really seems to help.

We would really like to see Reward and Force trainers co-operate more. If they could let their guards down, try to take their emotions out of it, take out a sheet of paper and write things down and talk about them. Acknowledge pros and cons. Tell the other side where they struggle and see if they can come up with solutions they can all agree on.

The whole reason we began researching both sides of training was because when we started we were trained 100% on reward. We were going to make a video on why certain Force methods were really bad to use. We thought we better do our research so we know what we were talking about. We then found Force trainers that used methods that didn`t stress the dogs, produced great results and the dogs were very happy to do what they were told. We felt our whole world open up when we saw this. It answered a bunch of questions as to where we were struggling with certain training issues.

We as people often think that we have to be on one side or the other. After all the research we have done, we have found very common middle ground. We think both sides would be happy since they are both after the same thing anyway:

A dog that does what we tell them and they are happy to do it.