Why Labels for Dogs AND Trainers Are Misleading

Over the years we’ve written many articles about the importance of describing what dogs DO rather than – or at least BEFORE – assigning interpretive labels to their behavior.  For example, describing a dog as “stubborn” is an anthropomorphic interpretation of his behavior and doesn’t really give us any information about what the dog is doing. 

Even more behaviorally useful terms such as “fearful” or “defensive” require descriptions of the context, the dog’s body postures and other behaviors to really be sure those interpretations are correct.

When we jump immediately to interpretations without first carefully describing what the dog is doing we are more likely to mis-understand why the dog is behaving as he is, or attribute motivations to behavior that aren’t accurate.  Dogs labeled as “stubborn” are often in reality confused about what is expected of them, and rather than risking a behavior response that could result in punishment, they instead choose not to respond at all.  That’s why “stubborn” requires a behavioral description – perhaps the dog continues to bark while his owner shouts “NO”.  In that case, it’s simply a case of the motivation to bark being much higher than the motivation to stop.

Trainers, behaviorists, and behavior consultants also have labels assigned to them without first hand observations of what they do.  Trainers may be labeled by themselves or others as an “all positive trainer”.  Without either observing the trainer, or asking her what she actually does, that label is open to interpretation, much like the label “stubborn”. 

“All positive” could mean the person uses positive reinforcement and positive punishment.  If “all positive” is supposed to mean ONLY the use of positive reinforcement, that doesn’t seem likely.  Negative punishment is almost always the other side of that coin.  Many “positive trainers” we know also use head collars.  A head collar can be used to negatively reinforce NOT pulling on the leash OR to positively punish pulling on the leash OR viewed as a response prevention tool.  

“Force free” is another label applied to trainers.  Some of the “force free” folks have defined their term –

"No Shock, No Pain, No Choke, No Fear, No Physical Force, No physical Molding, No Compulsion Based Methods are employed to train or care for a pet”. 

We don’t think we could comply with this definition because anyone who has ever put a leash and any type of collar or harness on a dog has used “physical force” (no matter how slight) to control the dog, and if we turn our dog’s head so we can look in her ear we are apparently using “physical molding”. 

Now we come to the “balanced trainer” label.  One definition we found was

“Generally, a balanced dog trainer uses both corrections (punishment) and reinforcement (rewards) to teach dogs”. 

Mmmm – so “corrections” equal punishment.  We don’t know whether it’s positive or negative punishment.  And, this particular site gives this example of what “balanced trainers” do:
 “You ask your dog to roll over. He’s not 100% sure what “rollover” means and he also knows that guessing is not the best option. So he doesn’t move. And what happens? If you believe in balanced training, you’ll punish the dog for his incorrect response.”

Really?  We’ve used positive punishers in the form of Snappy Trainers®, head collars, Spray Shield® (the citronella spray), a squirt of water, Bitter Apple® , and even told our dog to “Stop It” (which she does!).  And anyone who knows of our work knows without question that our focus has always been on teaching people to think first of “how can I get my dog to do what I want so I can reward him”.  So yes, in addition to copious positive reinforcement, we’ve also used positive and negative punishment, BUT we would NEVER positively punish a dog for not rolling over when asked.  So would we be characterized as "all positive", "balanced", "force free" or something else? Our answer is definitely something else.

The point is that arbitrarily assigning someone to a big group with a label attached can be just as misleading as putting labels on dogs and their behaviors.  Particularly when the label is as poorly defined as the term “balanced trainer”.  And it’s even worse to do so when the person doing the labeling hasn’t bothered to observe the person being labeled or even directly asked the person how he or she would describe their training approach.  In our opinion capriciously putting labels on others – especially without first-hand knowledge of their work – is unprofessional, disrespectful, rude, and promotes additional conflict in a field that already has more than enough. 

Just like with dogs, let’s instead use behavioral descriptions – find out what someone is actually doing in their training, and then decide if you approve or not. Stick to descriptions, because interpretations are often misleading and sometimes just flat out wrong.  For a document that describes some of the behaviors you should look for in trainers, behaviorists, and behavior consultants, download our Guidelines for Choosing a Dog Trainer or Behavior Consultant



  • Diane Torres

    Reply Reply

    my Golden retriever is a very smart boy but is totally out of control when company comes for about 10 mins. How can I train him to be calm when company comes?

    • abasuzanne

      Reply Reply

      Look for a trainer in your area who is certified – by CCPDT or IAABC – you can google those acronyms and find their websites and list of trainers. Years ago, we had a Dalmatian, Ashley, who was also very excitable with visitors. For her the best solution was to throw a ball for her a few times to burn off that excitement then she’d be calm enough to be able to respond to “sit” and not jump up. Trying to get her to “sit” when she was so excited was just an exercise in futility. So you might try a similar approach – your Golden would likely love chasing a ball you or your visitors throw, then be able to calm down.

  • Diane Torres

    Reply Reply

    my Golden retriever is a very smart boy but is totally out of control when company comes for about 10 mins. How can I train him to be calm when company comes?

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