Why Positive Reinforcement is the Best Method for Dog Training: Science-Backed Insights


Humanely Effective: Debunking Myths About Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training

by Will Bangura, M.S., CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, FFCP (Dog Behaviorist) Certified Dog Behavior Consultant


The world of dog training is often polarized by differing philosophies and methods, particularly when it comes to the debate between “Balanced Training” and “Positive Reinforcement Training.” The crux of the matter lies in whether aversive techniques—often employed in balanced training—are necessary or humane. Critics of positive reinforcement often levy two primary criticisms: firstly, that this method fails to inform dogs about what not to do, and secondly, that it disregards half of the science in operant conditioning by avoiding punishment.

This article aims to counter these criticisms by delving into scientific evidence and ethical considerations. By taking a closer look at key behavioral theories, real-world case studies, and the wisdom of foundational behaviorists like B.F. Skinner, Thorndike, and Watson, we’ll make a compelling case for the efficacy and humaneness of positive reinforcement.

The discussion that follows is meant to serve as an eye-opener for both seasoned professionals in the field of dog behavior and newcomers who may be navigating the maze of dog training methods for the first time. So, let’s unpack these myths and explore why positive reinforcement stands as the most effective and ethical choice for training our canine companions.

The “Dogs Don’t Know What Not To Do” Argument

Misconceptions Surrounding Positive Reinforcement

One of the prevailing criticisms against positive reinforcement training is that while it excels at teaching dogs what to do, it purportedly falls short of teaching them what not to do. Balanced trainers argue that the absence of punitive methods leaves a gap in the dog’s understanding of undesirable behaviors. But is this truly the case?

The ‘Incompatible Behavior’ Technique

A robust counter to this criticism is the principle of training an “incompatible behavior.” In essence, this involves teaching the dog to perform a behavior that is mutually exclusive to the undesired action. For example, if a dog has a habit of jumping on guests, one can teach it to “sit” when people enter the home. A dog can’t simultaneously jump and sit; thus, the new behavior naturally extinguishes the old one.

Role of Extinction in Behavior Eradication

Another tool in the positive reinforcement toolkit is “extinction,” a concept borrowed from behavioral psychology. Extinction involves the cessation of reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior, resulting in a decrease of that behavior over time (B.F. Skinner, “Science and Human Behavior,” 1953). In simpler terms, ignoring a behavior can sometimes be as effective as punishing it, but without the accompanying risks of increased aggression or fear.

The “Throwing Out Half the Science” Argument

Understanding Operant Conditioning Fully

Critics often contend that positive reinforcement trainers neglect the comprehensive scope of operant conditioning, which includes not only positive reinforcement but also negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. While it’s true that operant conditioning encompasses these four quadrants, the selective use of positive reinforcement is not a rejection of scientific principles but an ethical choice informed by research and practical experience.

The Ethical and Behavioral Impact of Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement

Using aversive techniques like positive punishment and negative reinforcement may lead to unintended behavioral issues such as aggression, fear, and anxiety (Hetts, S., et al. “Influence of housing conditions on beagle behaviour,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 1992). These adverse effects undermine the very goals that trainers and pet owners aim to achieve, making these methods questionable both ethically and practically.

 Skinner’s Advocacy for Positive Reinforcement

B.F. Skinner, one of the pioneers of operant conditioning, emphasized the value of positive reinforcement. In his book “About Behaviorism” (1974), Skinner argued that positive reinforcement is not only more humane but also more effective for long-term behavioral modification. His advocacy lends a credible voice to the argument that not all quadrants of operant conditioning are equally beneficial or ethical.

By understanding operant conditioning in its entirety and weighing the ethical and behavioral consequences, it becomes evident that the science behind positive reinforcement training is not incomplete or selective. Rather, it is a focused application of scientific principles aimed at achieving effective and humane results.

The Science-Backed Effectiveness of Positive Reinforcement

Long-term Behavioral Change

One of the strongest points in favor of positive reinforcement is its capacity for eliciting long-term behavioral changes. A study by Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., and Bradshaw, J.W.S. in “Animal Welfare” (2004) showed that dogs trained using positive reinforcement exhibited fewer behavioral problems and retained training commands more effectively over time compared to dogs trained using aversive techniques.

The Role of Positive Emotions in Learning

Beyond long-term effectiveness, positive reinforcement also enhances the learning experience by releasing ‘feel-good’ hormones like endorphins. According to a study published in “Animal Cognition” (McGowan, R.T.S., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., et al., 2014), these positive neurochemical changes make dogs more eager to learn, improving not just the speed but also the quality of training.

Quotes from Prominent Behaviorists

Although direct quotes from Thorndike and Watson specifically advocating for positive reinforcement over other methods may be limited, the overarching principles of their work in behavioral psychology support humane, ethical training methods. B.F. Skinner, a key figure in the field, has explicitly stated that positive reinforcement techniques are more effective for long-term behavioral modification.

The science in favor of positive reinforcement is robust, showing its advantages in creating lasting behavioral changes and fostering a positive learning environment. When the effectiveness of training techniques is supported by scientific research, it becomes clear that positive reinforcement is not merely a choice but a recommendation backed by evidence. Shall we move on to the next section, which will cover real-world examples and case studies?

Case Studies and Real-world Examples

Rehabilitation of Aggressive Dogs

The application of positive reinforcement techniques has shown remarkable success in rehabilitating dogs with aggression issues. A study by Blackwell, Emily J., et al., published in the “Veterinary Record” (2008), observed lower rates of aggression and anxiety in dogs trained with reward-based methods compared to aversive-based methods.

Training Service Dogs

Service dogs require impeccable behavior and swift, reliable responses to cues. Organizations like Assistance Dogs International advocate for the use of positive reinforcement in their training protocols, citing better performance and well-being of the service animals.

Family Pets: From Basic Obedience to Complex Behaviors

Everyday dog owners, too, have seen the benefits of positive reinforcement. Anecdotal evidence consistently shows that dogs trained using positive reinforcement methods are often more engaged, less anxious, and more dependable in following commands than those subjected to aversive methods.

Case Study: “Max, The High-Energy Terrier

To illustrate, consider Max, a high-energy Terrier who was initially deemed “untrainable” due to his hyperactivity. A switch from a balanced training approach to a positive reinforcement approach resulted in remarkable behavioral improvements. Max’s owner reported not only better obedience but also a noticeable reduction in anxiety and destructive behaviors.

Real-world examples and research-based case studies demonstrate that positive reinforcement training works across various contexts—from rehabilitating aggressive dogs and training service animals to improving the lives of family pets. These examples serve to underscore the scientific and ethical rationale for using positive reinforcement techniques.


The realm of dog training is fraught with varying philosophies and approaches, but one thing remains constant: our ethical responsibility to provide the most effective and humane treatment for our canine companions. The criticisms levied against positive reinforcement—namely, that it fails to teach dogs what not to do and that it allegedly ignores half the science of operant conditioning—have been addressed and effectively countered in this article.

Through a closer examination of the principles of incompatible behaviors and extinction, we’ve demonstrated that positive reinforcement does, in fact, offer effective solutions for eliminating undesirable behaviors. Additionally, we’ve countered the notion of “ignoring half the science” by showcasing the ethical and behavioral efficacy of focusing on positive reinforcement as outlined by pioneers in the field of behaviorism like B.F. Skinner.

We also explored the robust scientific evidence that supports the use of positive reinforcement, emphasizing its long-term effectiveness and positive emotional impact on dogs. Real-world case studies further underlined its applicability and success across different scenarios, from aggressive dogs and service animals to everyday family pets.

As we continue to strive for the betterment of dog training methods, it is imperative that we base our approaches on evidence-based practices that not only achieve the desired behavioral outcomes but also prioritize the well-being of the animals we are entrusted to care for and train.


  1. Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. Free Press.
  2. Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism. Knopf.
  3. Hetts, S., Clark, J.D., Calpin, J.P., Arnold, C.E., and Mateo, J.M. (1992). “Influence of housing conditions on beagle behaviour.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 34(1-2), 137-155.
  4. Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., and Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004). “Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare.” Animal Welfare, 13, 63-69.
  5. Blackwell, Emily J., Twells, Caroline, Seawright, Rachel A., and Casey, Rachel A. (2008). “The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs.” Veterinary Record, 155(14), 435-439.
  6. McGowan, R.T.S., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., Keeling, L.J. (2014). “Positive affect and learning: exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in dogs.” Animal Cognition, 17(3), 577-587.
  7. Assistance Dogs International. Training Standards. Retrieved from Assistance Dogs International Website