Dog sitting on command

My family and I are at odds about how to train our dog. I’ve been trying to use praise and rewards, but everyone else is convinced that scaring or punishing her will be more effective. What’s the best approach to teaching the dog how to behave — and how can I handle this conflict with my family?

It is important that you and your family all be on the same page when it comes to training your dog. I am a firm believer in reward-based training; using rewards to encourage desirable behavior can help to increase your dog’s confidence and strengthen her relationship with you. Punishing or scaring her, on the other hand, only teaches her that people are unpredictable and frightening, which can make her anxious and afraid.

Mixing reward-based and punishment-based training strategies can be confusing for your dog. Conflicting human messages, unpredictable consequences and uncertainty about what behaviors are acceptable can heighten stress and anxiety. Inconsistent training methods may also cause your dog to be inhibited around people and less likely to respond to commands or requests.

Why Rewards Work Best

Reward-based training is the best way to change and shape your dog’s behavior. Consistently rewarding specific behaviors, such as keeping all four paws on the ground when greeting people or walking calmly on a loose leash, allows your dog to learn what is expected of her. Ignoring unwanted behaviors like leash pulling or begging help teach your dog that they are not worth the effort.

Reward-based training also teaches your dog that she can trust you by creating predictable and consistent patterns of interaction: When she does what you are asking, she receives a reward, every time. Rewarding her for acceptable behavior also helps to build her confidence, both in herself and in you. And positive reinforcement strengthens the bond between you and your pet.

The Myths About Reward-Based Training

In order to change the way your family members are training your dog, you will need to start by finding out why they think punishment is the best option, and why they might be resistant to trying a reward-based approach. Positive reinforcement training sometimes gets a bad rap, largely due to a lack of understanding about what it means to use rewards instead of punishment. A good first step would be to talk with your family and dispel some of the more common assumptions about reward-based training.

One common misconception is that reward-based training is synonymous with letting the dog do whatever she likes rather than establishing clear boundaries. In fact, the opposite is true: Positive reinforcement training teaches dogs that only certain behaviors are acceptable, and that unacceptable behaviors will not be rewarded or reinforced. In other words, instead of being punished for doing the wrong thing, your dog is rewarded for doing the right thing. This helps her to learn which behaviors are desirable — they are the ones that earn her  a reward.

Another assumption about positive reinforcement training is that “reward” is always synonymous with “food.” Your family may assume that this means they will need to carry treats with them all the time or that overfeeding the dog is the only way to get her to behave. In fact, food should not be the only type of reward your dog is given for good behavior; the goal is to fade the treat once the behavior is established and replace it with other forms of positive reinforcement, like petting or play. This eases the burden on the person (you’re not required to tote dog treats everywhere you go) and helps make good behavior a way of life for the dog (coming promptly when called results in extra petting and verbal praise).

Finally, some dog owners assume that the best way to teach a dog to behave is to be clear about what she should not do — and the easiest way to do this is to punish or scare the dog when she does something she shouldn’t. Unfortunately, what the dog really learns is that humans are dangerous and unpredictable, and this can make her  anxious and skittish.

Put a Stop to Punishment

Getting your family to change their training approach may take time — in fact, you may need to train them just like you are training your dog. It may be helpful to schedule a consultation with a dog trainer who specializes in positive reinforcement training or to sign everyone up for a dog training class; your family may be more willing to listen to a neutral outsider than to you. And as an extra bonus, you might all learn something new about how to work with your dog.

Unfortunately, it may be impossible to convince everyone to try the reward-based approach to training. If this is the case, you will need to take steps to manage or limit interactions between the dog and family members who will not give up punishment as a training tool. This may mean that the dog cannot be left unsupervised with some members of your family.

This may seem like a drastic step, but there can be a fine line between punishment and abuse. And if you feel that your dog’s safety or welfare is threatened, talk with your veterinarian or local law enforcement.

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