Dog and trainer using e-collar for training

E-Collars Are Not Mean And “Positive Only” Training Doesn’t Work.

Trust me. “Positive only” dog training doesn’t work. 

This may be an unpopular opinion but in my many years as a dog owner and trainer, I know it to be true. Sure, positive reinforcement is an important part of training your dog. However, by design, positive reinforcement can only teach your dog what behaviours are “good” or wanted. It falls short when it comes to teaching your dog what behaviours are not wanted or potentially dangerous. 

When it comes to dog training, people have very strong opinions. Among the “positive only” training community, words like “inhumane” and “cruel” are often associated with training tools that provide negative reinforcement, like e-collars. However, without the negative reinforcement of a pop on the leash, for example, teaching your dog what to avoid and how to regulate their own behaviour is simply not possible. Here’s why.

Rewards on their own aren’t enough to change behaviours.

Because it’s easier for us to relate to a people-problem, consider speed limits. If the desired behaviour of following the speed limit was taught only through positive reinforcement, we would need police to follow us around writing us cheques for $20 every time we slowed down and abided by the speed limit. But what would happen when we sped up? Under various circumstances, the reward of $20 would lose its appeal and the speed limit would be followed only when we wanted the cash. In this case, speed limits would become suggestions instead of rules and driving would be significantly more dangerous than it is currently. This is why instead of the police writing us cheques when we follow the speed limit, they write tickets and assign demerit points when we break it. This negative reinforcement is much more effective at making us pay attention and regulate our speed while driving. It isn’t “inhumane” or “cruel” or emotional. It is a consistent and very reasonable consequence to breaking a traffic law.

Street sign indicating a speed limit of 50 km/h to illustrate the point that traffic laws are negative reinforcement in action.
Speed limits are a perfect example of why “positive only” training doesn’t work. Clearly defined consequences help us (and dogs) regulate our own behaviour.

Without a natural consequence, rules become suggestions.

The absence of any consequence or negative reinforcement will yield the same behavioural issues in dogs. If you teach a dog to sit by rewarding them with food or a treat, they will equate the behaviour of sitting on command with the positive reinforcement of food. But what happens when they don’t sit on command? The only tool you have is time. You can wait and withhold the treat until they obey. However, if they still choose not to obey, you are out of options. (By the way, withholding the treat is negative reinforcement which means the “positive only” training approach is unravelling already!)

Training tools like e-collars offer quick and consistent consequences and help your dog regulate its own behaviour. 

Take things a step further and imagine yourself out in the park with your dog. You cannot control what will happen in the park. There will be other people, other dogs, cars, and very tempting squirrels. If your dog wants to chase the squirrel or another dog more than they want the treat you are offering, they may not come when you call. Now you have a problem on your hands; one that could lead to your dog getting hurt or hurting someone or something else. 

A family in a dog park with dogs on leash. One dog is pulling the man forward.
Making sure that your dog will follow your commands in a public place like the dog park requires training. E-collars are especially helpful in off-leash situations.

This is why consequences for unwanted or dangerous behaviour must be established. Positive reinforcement can still play a role in training, but the carefully chosen and properly employed negative reinforcement offered by tools like an e-collar is necessary to help dogs learn to regulate their own behaviour.  There are always consequences to actions; that’s nature. While “positive only” trainers would argue that using tools like an e-collar or even a regular leash is mean or cruel I ask you this: What is meaner?  A carefully chosen, well-timed correction from an e-collar or having to deny your poorly behaved dog the chance to socialize with other dogs because you cannot trust them not to bark or lunge? I would argue the latter.

Consequences teach boundaries. Positive reinforcement rewards good behaviour. I use both.

My experience has taught me that teaching our dogs to control their own behaviour leads to a relationship built on trust and respect. Rewarding good behaviour can be part of the training plan; we all need a little encouragement from time to time! However, more important than praise and treats is making sure your dog understands that there are consequences for “bad”, unwanted or unsafe behaviours. 

This isn’t rocket science; it’s behaviour science. And, with the help of training tools like e-collars, teaching your dog to respect boundaries and behave politely around your family and in the community doesn’t have to take years. Consistency is key and ultimately training must include both positive reinforcement and negative consequences for the rules to stick. 

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