Changing a Friend’s Approach to Dog Training

Moving away from aversive training methods to positive training methods.
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2020, Updated January 2021

Dear Bark: A friend just adopted a new pup, and she mentioned administering training corrections. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, she will not be attending a puppy class, where she might have learned more positive methods. Is there an easy way to explain that there are other effective training methods that don’t use corrections, fear and pain?

The short answer is that this will pose a great challenge. The goal you have in mind is analogous to changing someone’s parenting style. We all know that people feel strongly about the best way to raise children, and that parents don’t appreciate being told they’re doing it all wrong. With that comparison on the table, it’s wise to accept that there’s nothing simple about converting someone from one style of dog training to another.

However, there are things you can do that might make a difference in both the way your friend treats and teaches her new puppy and the relationship that develops between them. Remember that changing behavior is a tricky business—a fact that applies no matter what species you’re talking about. In order to maximize the chances of influencing your friend’s behavior, consider carefully what works and what doesn’t when it comes to convincing people to change their views so they will change their behavior.

What Works

Positivity is what you’re advocating for the training of the dog, so it only makes sense to use that same approach with people. After all, you want your friend to use positive training methods because you want the dog to be treated kindly during the learning process. It makes sense for anyone who favors these gentle methods to see the value of being just as benevolent and positive with people, and for of the same reasons: It’s an effective way to teach, it’s kind and it benefits the relationship. So, remember to be nice, always, to your friend as you gently attempt to move her toward a better way to train.

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One way to be positive and kind when trying to influence behavior is to catch your friend doing something right and to reinforce that behavior. In other words, if you see her doing any training that even leans towards the positive, let her know that you noticed, and be positive about it. “I love that he is so happy when the leash is loose!” or “Your praise is obviously meaningful to him—he clearly adores you.” You’re not likely to see her reinforcing the dog with treats or using other standard positive training techniques as you start to praise her positivity, but noting any kind, gentle and effective training she does is a start to opening the conversation. (If she does use treats, be sure to mention that in a complimentary way.)

Being involved with the dog yourself may allow you to help out and model the kind of training you have an interest in encouraging. Ask if you can join her for a walk with her dog, or even walk the dog for her on occasion. With her permission, train the dog to do a trick using positive reinforcement. If she won’t allow you to use treats, offer a toy or a burst of speed by breaking into a run in response to the correct response. (Again, this must all be done with her consent.)

Don’t make a big deal of it, but if you have an opportunity to demonstrate how fun and easy it can be to teach a dog something in a positive way, that might get her thinking. Success is what people want in training, and if she sees you have success with her dog and specific methods, that may be appealing to her. And be sure to say, in a sincere way that’s natural for you, something honest and complimentary about her dog. Everybody likes to hear that their dog is attentive, a fast learner, fun to train or similar remarks.

Though Covid-19 has turned the world, including the dog-training world, upside down, there are a lot of online training options, so the pandemic is not an excuse to skip training classes. Many trainers are holding live Zoom classes, and others are offering prerecorded instructional sessions. If you and your friend are willing, you could participate in such a class together, each with your own dog. It could be a fun activity to share from your own homes, and the class would make a great gift, assuming she wouldn’t perceive it as pushy.

What doesn’t work

As tempting as it can be to judge or criticize your friend for using corrections and punishment with her dog, such an approach is unlikely to work. It’s natural to want to tell others the error of their ways in an attempt to convert them to positive techniques, but I advise you to resist this temptation, however strong it may be. The irony (and futility) of trying to use corrections and punishment to prevent people from using corrections and punishment is important to recognize. Doing so is more likely to make your friend defensive and close her off to what you have to say than it is to change her behavior or encourage her to develop an interest in your approach.

Providing her with information about the effectiveness of positive training and its many benefits or adopting a know-it-all attitude is also unlikely to have the effect you desire. Being told the facts—that positive training methods are effective and have many other benefits over training that uses punishment, corrections, fear or pain—is not as likely to change people’s minds as we might like.

People only take in information about areas near and dear to them when they are ready, not when it’s forced upon them. If she asks questions about positive training, answer them without judgement or disdain for other methods. Keep it casual and brief rather than turning it into a long-winded, persuasive speech. Don’t shame or lecture your friend if you want her to be open to the ideas you have to offer about positive training methods. This is a case of “less is more.”

Training methods vary across fields. The move away from coercion and toward force-free training has been resisted in fields both within and beyond the world of dogs. For example, it’s not unusual for sporting-dog and hunting-dog trainers to use coercive methods, and it has taken a lot of time and effort by influential individuals to change the way animals are trained in zoos and aquaria. But the movement continues to grow and spread, and resistance is overcome when people see that it works so well and that it improves relationships.

Knowing that your friend is likely to receive information from people who share her point of view on dog training, adjust your own expectations accordingly. Consider it a success if she makes any moves toward positive training methods. All behavior change takes time and proceeds little by little rather than all at once.

I know it’s frustrating to see your friend about to start down a path with her new puppy that is different than the path you would choose. However, you’re more likely to make progress in the long run (and to make more of it) if you are strategic in your own behavior toward her. A general guideline is that people often change faster if they feel like they are being led rather than being pushed.

Change is possible, and you can be a part of it. You clearly care very much about your friend and her dog, and I hope you’re able to make an impact on her training decisions to the benefit of her, her dog and the relationship between them!

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life

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