Introduction to Dog Training Techniques


There is a well known adage in the world of dog training, which is this: ‘The only thing two dog trainers can agree on is that the third one is wrong.’ Whilst clichés are usually exaggerations, often there is a kernel of truth to them. This is one situation where the cliché has some merit. There are a multitude of different training methods and techniques advocated by different trainers.

For starters, there is reward based training, scientific training, operant conditioning, pack leaders, positive reinforcement, dominance theory, the Koehler method, ‘Cesar’s way’…the list goes on.

With all of these training methods, the basics are all the same. It is just the application of the method that differs.

This article gives an overview of the most popular dog training techniques, compares them against each other and gives the low down on the jargon and terminology used in each.

Dog TrainingUltimately, the training technique you choose to use with your dog should only meet two criteria: Firstly, it should suit both you and your dog’s personality and lifestyle and secondly, it should cause no fear or pain for your dog (or you!)

Classical Conditioning

Everyone has heard of Pavlov’s dog, yes?

In a famous experiment, scientist Ivan Pavlov carried out tests where a bell would be rung each time before meat powder was sprayed into a dog’s mouth. The meat powder made the dogs salivate. A classic example of cause and effect.

At the beginning of the study, the bell ringing was entirely separate to the dogs salivating – it was just the meat powder making their juices flow. However, over the course of the experiment, it was noted that the dogs started salivating when the bell rang just before the meat powder was sprayed. The dogs had learnt that the bell signaled meat powder and reacted appropriately.

This is classical conditioning at its core.

Classical conditioning happens without us noticing it. The cupboard door opens and your dog starts licking his lips ready for breakfast. Take the dog lead off the hook and he starts hopping about, excited to go for a walk. These behaviours aren’t natural to dogs – they learnt them through classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning isn’t used as a distinct training method, but it can be hugely useful t a trainer who is trying to make connections between events and behaviours. DogStarDaily has produced a great introductory article ‘classical conditioning’ which gives further information about this fascinating process. As ever, Wikipedia also comes up trumps with a more in-depth classical conditional article.

Operant Conditioning The Most Popularly Used Training Method

‘Operant conditioning’ is using and controlling the environment to drive behaviours that result in a positive or negative consequence.

Basically, if your dog doe something that results in a reward, over time, he will learn to repeat that behaviour. Conversely, being punished for a behaviour repeatedly will teach him to refrain from that behaviour.

Reinforcing good behaviour increases the instances of that behaviour, punishing bad behaviour reduces instances of that behaviour.

If your Dog performs a certain behavior and something good happens, he’s likely to increase performing that behavior. However, if your Lab performs a behavior that results in a bad consequence, over time he’ll learn to decrease that behavior.

There are 4 components (or quadrants) to operant conditioning. Positive, in this context, means adding something o the equation. Negative means taking something away – neither are necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

  • Positive reinforcement– Promote good behaviour by rewarding it – your dog sits and gets a treat.
  • Positive punishment– Reduce bad behaviour by punishing it – your dog jumps up at you and you walk away, ignoring him.
  • Negative reinforcement– Increase good behaviour by removing something unpleasant – keeping a lead on your dog in the park until he sits and stays, then removing it when he is calm.
  • Negative punishment– Decrease bad behaviour by removing something pleasant – holding a toy out of reach when your dog jumps up at you during a game of fetch.

This method forms the basis of practically every training technique. The only difference is which of the four approaches you decided to take to train your dog (or dolphins, parrots, rats and other animals – it works across species!)

A great insight into how operant conditioning works can be found in the Scientific American, which looks at how operant conditioning was used to teach dogs how to drive a car!

‘Traditional’ Dog Training

“Traditional training” refers to the type of training used predominantly before modern science based methods were found to have a more beneficial effect on dog training following increases in knowledge regarding how dogs think and learn.

This method is not recommended by The ILoveDogsClub, because it can be upsetting for both you and your dog. It makes use of punishment, aversives and physical coercion in order to drive desired behaviour. The theory has its roots on dominance and wolf pack theory, both of which have been disregarded by modern science.

Traditional training essentially allows dogs to make errors, but then punishes it to lessen future instances of undesirable behaviour. According to traditional training theory, dogs behave badly because they are trying to be the most dominant in their ‘pack’. The trainer, in turn, spends their time asserting themselves as ‘top dog’.

Corrections including pinching, sharp tugs on leads, grabbing and ‘alpha rolls’ to correct behaviour are used, sometimes combined with praise, to reinforce what the ‘top dog’ wants from his dog.

The Koehler method is a famous model of traditional training and Cesar Milan and his dominance theories fit well into this camp.

One thing to remember here is that dominance theory is based on what dogs did thousands of years ago when they lived in the wild and were in a more primitive wolf like stage in their evolution. Us humans used to be similar to chimpanzees, but we don’t now go around craving bananas all day, do we?

Science Based Training – Our Recommended Training Method

“Science Based” dog training covers a lot of ground and it is difficult to pin it down to one over arching ‘rule book’.

Science based dog training is an ever moving feast, responding to research into dog behaviour, nature, operant conditioning, classical conditioning and much more beside.

As animal behavourists and scientists better understand dog behaviour, science based dog training develops to encompass new findings and promote the best ways of training dogs.

A science based trainer is aware that traditional training, dominance theory and wolf pack theory have been debunked as not being effective and false. They know that physical punishment and coercion results in a scared dog that may develop further behavioural issues, and only respond to training through fear.

Science based trainers train dogs humanely, incorporating individual psychological and physical needs alongside the dogs natural learning style. This method is about working with the dog, not against it, or using a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

As new studies bring new evidence to light, science based training goes with the flow, throwing old theories out and adopting new methods.

Whilst the basis of science based training has its roots on operant conditioning, other factors also come in to play. Whenever a trainer tries to change a behaviour, first, everything surrounding that behaviour is analysed: environment, social factors, personality, situation. Everything.

Science based training covers such a wide spectrum of different methods and techniques, it would be impossible to list all the information here. Google is your friend. Search for ‘science based dog training’ and discover more about this fascinating method.

Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement makes up part of operant conditioning, but is also a training method in its own right when used solely by trainers to encourage good behaviour. Good behaviour is rewarded but bad behaviour is ignored in this method.

Whilst positive reinforcement is an obvious choice for training your dog humanely, it does have its downsides. By never teaching your dog that what he is doing is wrong, or dangerous, you are effectively leaving him to find his own reward for bad behavior, meaning things could get more difficult down the line.

An example of this could be your dog chasing a cat and you ignoring it. By ignoring the unwanted behaviour, your dog finds his own reward, because let’s face it, chasing cats is fun! Your dog will want to do it again and again and the bad behaviour becomes the norm.

Using only positive reinforcement as a training method could therefore lead to some problems. It is generally thought that some sort of punishment/correction is needed for bad behaviour in conjunction with this technique.

Negative Reinforcement Training

Negative reinforcement is all about taking things away, rather than being abusive to your dog! Negative reinforcement is designed to increase good behaviour by takings something desirable away.

Negative reinforcement could also be seen as positive punishment. For example, if your dog pulls on the lead too far to the right, you gently correct him by pulling to the left.

The positive punishment here is adding a punishment by pulling left to prevent a certain behaviour. The negative reinforcement part is your dog disliking the feel of being pulled on his neck, so he returns to his true course. The behaviour of walking in front of you is reinforced.

Clicker Training

Clicker training can be an extremely effective form of marker training and is a hugely popular method of dog training.

A clicker is a small device that emits a ‘click’ sound when it is depressed. This make sit easier to accurately mark where a desired behaviour begins and ends. Communication between you and your dog becomes quicker and easier, making training more effective.

Classical conditioning forms part of clicker training. Your dog learns that good behaviour is marked with a click and then

So how does it work? First there’s a little classical conditioning where you mark a good behavior with a click and then they are rewarded with a treat. Repetition of the click then reward will teach your dog that a click means a reward is coming. After a while, they will learn to perform good behaviours to get a click by itself, and the treats can be phased out.

Operant conditioning then takes over, where the clicker is used for positive reinforcement, clicking every time your dog shows a desired behaviour. A clicker combined with commands can be effective in teaching your dog basic obedience commands.

The website is a great resource for all things clicker training and contains a plethora of information about this training technique.


This article gives a brief introduction to the various methods by which you can train your Dog effectively. Whichever method is used, your dog is trained by rewarding positive behaviour and punishing negative behaviour.

Punishment in the dog training world simply means the way in which you try to minimise negative behaviour. Punishment does not mean harming your dog, it simply means using corrections to prevent undesirable behaviour, such as walking away or taking a time out from playtime.

Some training methods DO advocate stronger punishments, such as electric shock collars, or causing physical harm, however minimal. This method of dominance training is NOT recommended.

Some punishments can complement positive reinforcement and helps a dog learn what is right or wrong. Leading your dog away from danger by pulling on a lead is perfectly acceptable. To fully train your dog, both reinforcement and punishment is needed, in the appropriate amounts to ensure both you and your dog’s happiness and progress.

The training technique you choose for dog training will have a big impact on the relationship you have with your furry friend. Using humane and ethical techniques will encourage your dog to feel safe and secure, and make him much more likely to respond positively to training.