Picking the right training method for you and your dog!

Find the best training style for you and your furry friend

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How do I know the right method to use to train my dog?

How do you pick the best training method? If you google “dog training” you are going to get a lot of results. There are many different ways to train a dog and each trainer is going to be passionate about their preferred method. We are going to break down some of the training methods so that you can feel informed when you are ready to begin training with your pooch. 

Classical conditioning

You probably know this by the name “Pavlov Method”. That’s right, the one with the bell. But what exactly is going on in classical conditioning? The basic principle is that you can train a dog (or a human) to respond to stimuli. You want the dog to associate that stimuli with something positive or negative. If you give your dog a treat every time your cell phone rings, they will start to associate the sound of your phone ringing with a treat. Soon the phone ringing on its own will be enough to make your dog happy. Classical conditioning makes something neutral – a ringtone – into something positive! 

How is classical conditioning used in training?

There are elements of classical conditioning in methods like positive reinforcement (we will get there) but the most direct link is with clicker training. In clicker training, you click the clicker every time the dog does something you like, closely followed with a treat/praise. In time the dog associates the click with the positive reinforcement and the sound of the clicker clicking will be enough to activate the dog’s pleasure centers in the same way a treat does. 

Pros and Cons

Clicker training can be very effective, it also weans your dog away from being dependent on treats to exhibit good behavior, it’s ethical, and normally not punishment-based. However, it is time-consuming and you have to be willing to commit to the clicker. If you aren’t consistently working on the association between the clicker and the treats, using the method won’t train your dog.

Operant conditioning

This one is a little more complicated. There are four sections of operant conditioning. Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, negative punishment, and positive punishment. The first important element in operant conditing is to not think of negative and positive as “bad” or “good”. Negative simply means to take something away and positive means to add something. 

Negative reinforcement: Involves delaying something bad to increase a behavior. When you put pressure on a dog’s neck by using a choke collar when they pull and you subtract the pressure when they stop pulling, that is an example of negative reinforcement. 

Positive punishment: Is adding something to delay a behavior. For example, yelling at a dog when they pull on the leash. Yelling at the dog is adding a punishment. 

Positive reinforcement: We will get into more details about positive reinforcement. But the basic principle is adding something good to increase a behavior. When your dog stops pulling on the leash you give them a treat, adding a reward. 

Negative punishment: You are delaying something good to increase behavior. A good example of that is turning your back when a dog jumps, you are removing your attention from the dog. 

How is Operant conditioning used in training? 

The truth is that all four sections of operant conditioning are used in various ways by most trainers and owners during training. A good trainer will be able to correctly identify what is needed for the situation and utilize the conditioning appropriately. That being said, trainers should always try to do the least amount of harm while training a dog. It is recommended to always start with positive reinforcement and never to escalate to positive punishment unless it’s really necessary. 

Let’s delve into positive reinforcement

There is a reason that Rover-Time practices positive reinforcement. Firstly, it’s the safest way to train a dog. It is also quickly becoming the industry standard. This method fosters relationships and trust between a dog and their humans. You get the same success rate with positive reinforcement that you do with other punishment-heavy techniques, and you don’t risk the damage that can occur. 

Pros and Cons of Operant training 

This may not quite count as a pro, but we are always operant training with our dogs. Every time we react to their behavior we are reinforcing positively or negatively. Reacting strategically is going to be beneficial for both dogs and humans.

There is some criticism of positive reinforcement. Some people say that it leads to dogs performing behaviors in the hope of getting attention and treats instead of learning to be calm. The answer to that is to make sure that you are treating when the dog is sitting still and being calm. People also say that it leads to spoiled dogs that don’t understand what not to do. But if you are balancing positive reinforcement with negative punishment you should have a good balance. You want to reward the behavior you want and ignore the behavior you don’t want. 

Less common training methods

Alpha Pack Training 

In alpha pack training you are trying to teach your dog the hierarchy of the family with you on the top so that your dog will be submissive to you. There are several problems with this kind of training. The most obvious one is that this training is based on wolf packs. However, wolves don’t act in an alpha/beta way in the wild. That is behavior we only see in captive wolves, so the argument that this is a natural way for dogs to behave falls flat. It can lead to aggressive and confrontational behavior between you and your dog and can foster an unhealthy relationship.

Relationship-based training

Very similar to positive reinforcement training. This method is entirely based on focusing on an animal’s body language and having intimate knowledge of what your dog needs. There is no adverse training used in relationship-based training. If you have a trainer who is using positive reinforcement, they are most likely to also be interested in forming a positive relationship with your dog – even if they don’t specifically say they do relationship-based training. 

Concept training 

Concept training involves going to the next level of dog training. You are asking your dog to understand concepts – not just reacting to cues. This means that a dog would be able to exhibit the desired behavior in a new setting. Concept training also involves ideas like teaching your dog to count or be able to not just retrieve a toy but a specific toy. This level of training isn’t going to be for every dog or every owner, but if you feel like your dog is ready to level up this could be a fun option to explore. 

Does breed matter in choosing the kind of training to do? The short answer is no. 

Training should work the same regardless of the breed. Personality is going to be a much bigger factor in what training will be the most effective. That being said, knowing about your dog’s breed can be a useful tool while training. If you have a retriever you can make a safe bet that they will be toy and treat motivated. Got a beagle? They are going to want to sniff everything. 

We hope that this helps choose the kind of training that is best for you and your furry friend! Remember, it’s all about choosing the tools that work best for you and your dog. 


Zoe Sjogerman is the North-East manager for Rover-Time and has been part of the RT team for four years. When she isn’t walking dogs she is the executive director of Avalanche Theatre and an avid book reader. She lives in the north-side of Chicago with her husband. Although she doesn’t have a pet of her own, she loves getting to walk pups all over the Chicagoland area.



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