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Dog Training: Positive Reinforcement vs. Alpha Dog Methods

How these two popular dog training styles differ.
By Pamela Babcock
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Editor’s note: Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 52, died on Jan. 12, 2011.

Mention training methods to a group of dog trainers, and you might want to prepare for a fight at the dog park. Some call those who use only positive reinforcement “cookie pushers” or “treat slingers.” The other side calls those who use more dominance-based techniques “choke folks” or worse – cruel and inhumane.

These days, at least one person hopes to silence those barks and says it doesn’t have to be so black or white.

Cesar Millan, star of National Geographic Channel’s Dog Whisperer, realizes not everyone agrees with his "alpha dog" approach. So he consulted trainers of all backgrounds for his new book, Cesar’s Rules: Your Way to Train a Well-Behaved Dog.

The book provides a range of theories and methods so dog owners can find what works best.

“Human beings need options,” Millan tells WebMD. “If the dog people don’t know how to become submissive with each other, how can we lead by example?”

Here’s a brief look at two major dog training styles and advice on choosing a trainer.

All Things Positive

Purely positive reinforcement has been made popular by trainers such as Victoria Stilwell, of Animal Planet’s TV show It’s Me Or The Dog. It’s also the method taught by Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz. Based in Hume, Va., she trained Bo, the Obamas’ dog.

The belief is simple: Dogs learn good behavior by being rewarded for doing well. And punishment doesn’t have to come in the form of a harsh reprimand or physical force.

Sylvia-Stasiewicz says more dominant training and techniques focus too much on “bad” things a dog does and force the animal to figure out, through trial and error, what he must do in order not to be punished.

“Training doesn’t have to be cruel and punishment-oriented,” Sylvia-Stasiewicz says. “If you train using positive reinforcement, you’ll get a trained dog and you will maintain the spirit of that dog.”

Positive reinforcement trainers often use verbal cues, hand signals, treats, clickers, toys, and even games to help modify behavior, correct bad habits, and even to teach tricks. Trainers use both positive reinforcement (giving rewards) and negative punishment (taking away rewards.)

“Anything the dog likes and enjoys is fair game to train with," she says.

To Knee or Not to Knee?

Sylvia-Stasiewicz, who wrote The Love That Dog Training Method, says a client’s Australian shepherd wouldn’t stop jumping, despite reprimands. A trainer who used a more traditional, alpha dog technique taught the client to knee the dog in the chest each time it jumped.

Rather than punish the dog for doing something bad, Sylvia-Stasiewicz had the client greet the dog only when it was sitting. If the dog jumped, the client ignored it or turned his back. But when the dog sat, he got his favorite treat of a stuffed Kong or praise as a reward for not jumping. After five weeks of class time plus practice, the dog stopped jumping.

Sylvia-Stasiewicz admits results can come slower with purely positive reinforcement, but says the method has even saved so-called “death row dogs” who some thought impossible to rehabilitate.

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