Debunking Myths: Why Positive Reinforcement Might Not Be Working for Your Dog

by 16 Jan, 2024


We’ve all come across the statement: “positive reinforcement doesn’t work for all dogs.” This belief is often accompanied by the notion that certain breeds require a “heavy hand”, or that certain behaviour challenges (e.g., reactivity or aggression) cannot be approached with positive reinforcement-based training. However, if we dig deeper, there may be many reasons as to why positive reinforcement doesn’t appear to be working. Let’s have a look!

1. Medical Issues Masquerading as Training Problems

Often, what appears to be a training issue may in reality be related to an underlying health concern. Conditions like gastrointestinal distress, musculoskeletal pain, or allergies can have significant influences on behaviour. It is an error to overlook or dismiss potential medical concerns and focus solely on training; no amount of training will be effective if underlying conditions are not addressed. Taking a holistic approach to behaviour change, and ruling out or treating contributing medical factors, will enable subsequent training to be much more effective.

2. Rethinking Reinforcers

“If I’m using food, I’m training with positive reinforcement” – not necessarily always true! Positive reinforcement-based training can be so much more exciting than just food and toys. We really need to get into what is motivating for our dogs, and how we can use that to reinforce desirable behaviours.

3. The Art of Application

Even the best tools can fail if not used correctly. Misapplication of positive reinforcement techniques can certainly be an obstacle to successful training. Recording your training sessions and reviewing them, possibly with a professional, can provide invaluable insights. Often, it’s the small adjustments that make a significant difference. Remember, training is an art and a science, and sometimes, all it takes is a fresh perspective.

Positive reinforcement is not just a method; it’s a methodology. If the results aren’t meeting your expectations, it’s crucial to delve deeper. Rather than abandoning the approach, consider consulting a qualified professional. With the right guidance and understanding, positive reinforcement can work wonders for every dog, regardless of breed or behaviour.

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