Debunking Common Dog Training Myths

A woman training a black dog

Welcome to Dog Training Education Month!

Dog Training Education Month is an annual event in February that we’re going to spend sharing why you should train your dog, clearing up popular misconceptions, and talking about the future of the industry.

So, without further ado, let’s get into it:

Dog Training Education Month Part 1: Debunking Common Dog Training Myths

Stop us if you’ve heard these myths before:

  • Dogs will only obey you if you’re the alpha
  • Treat training leads to treat dependency
  • You can’t train your puppy until they’re six months old
  • Small dogs can’t be trained—or, they’re not real dogs (and don’t have to be trained)
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

Even though there’s volumes of studies debunking dominance theory in dogs and demonstrating that dominance-based aversive training results in a higher rate of behavioral issues, these hoary old myths get trotted out every year to the detriment of our canine friends.

Modern dog training is rooted in the principles of positive reinforcement (adding something reinforcing to increase the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring) and negative punishment (removing something reinforcing to decrease the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring).

In the long run, dog training is not meant to enforce obedience. We now know that dogs view us as their family members; their owners function as a combination of playmate, teacher, and parent. Instead, dog training is meant to teach both the human and the dog how to communicate, build a stronger bond, and make training a cooperative, not combative, process.

Why Positive Reinforcement?

Why the Science is Important

Do a quick Google search and you’ll notice the emphasis on how modern dog training uses science-backed principles of learning theory. What does that mean and why are we emphasizing it so much?

We all know someone who’s just naturally “good with dogs.” Many of them become dog trainers, in fact—and good ones, too! How exactly do the rest of us duplicate their results?

Understanding the science behind learning theory and canine cognition allows trainers to teach their clients what their dog is thinking, why they’re behaving in certain ways, and how best to communicate with them. It removes the mystique around the canine-human bond—Gentle Beast’s motto is that *every* dog deserves the chance to be good…not just a special few.

For an in-depth breakdown of modern dog training, the terms we use, and what you’ll need to get started, check out our Ultimate Guide to Dog Training.

What's the Big Deal About Punishment?

Positive punishment (adding something aversive to decrease the likelihood of a behavior recurring) has been part of the dog training handbook as early as 1906, when Colonel Konrad Most trained military, police, and service dogs. Old school training methods focus on immediate obedience as a sign of respect. That respect only goes one way—from the dog to the human.

The problem is that positive punishment carries a high risk of fallout. What does that mean?

We can’t explain to a dog why they’re being punished, which forces them to come to their own conclusions. Sometimes, those conclusions might be in line with our own desires. Many times, they are not.

For example: take a dog that barks or lunges at other dogs on leash.

Positive punishment: Jerking or popping the leash to halt the behavior.

End result: The dog stops barking and lunging.

The dog may have learned any of the following:

  • The presence of other dogs results in an unpleasant or painful correction
  • Barking and lunging are not acceptable and the dog no longer has a way to deter other dogs from approaching
  • This correction occurs when you or some other person is present
  • The leash itself is a tool for punishment

If the real end goal of dog training is to promote a healthy, loving bond between you and your dog, positive punishment is at best ineffective, and at worst actively harmful to that relationship.

The science supports this:

From the Journal of Veterinary Behavior:

The results show that using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs. In addition, although positive punishment can be effective, there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement–based training. In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite is true. (Ziv, 2017)

From Applied Animal Behavior Science:

[T]he highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive interventions, whether direct or indirect. In contrast, reward-based training elicited aggression in very few dogs, regardless of presenting complaint. (Herron et al., 2009)

From the Journal of Veterinary Behavior:

The results show that dogs from the school using a negative reinforcement–based method demonstrated lowered body postures and signals of stress, whereas dogs from the school using a positive reinforcement–based method showed increased attentiveness toward their owner. (Deldalle & Gaunet, 2013)

To summarize...

Positive punishment is correlated with:

  • Increased stress
  • Decreased obedience
  • Possibility of increased aggression and fear
  • Continued or new behavior issues

The Importance of Food in Dog Training

Treats are convenient, they’re user-friendly, and they’re available in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and formulations.  They allow for precision, which is extremely important for clear communication. And pretty much every dog has a biological drive for food (though some dogs find other forms of interaction more motivating).

Your dog may also exhibit high levels of toy or play drive, and even prefer them over food! You can use toys and play to reinforce behaviors you like, or remove them to decrease behaviors you don’t like. But in general, food is easier to work with, especially when training something new, precise, or complex.

You might be thinking…

I want my dog to listen to me because they love me, not because they’re hungry.

Your relationship with your dog matters. Plenty of dogs prefer to work for just their family or friends, and are slow to respond to strangers. And praise can be used to encourage your dog, tell them they’re on the right track, or that they’ve made you happy in some way.

But, and we can’t stress this enough, “praise” and “petting” are not powerful motivators for most dogs.

Motivation is flexible. A happy, secure dog knows that affection is freely given. Food, however, is given only at a certain time and in limited quantities. And, think about it: how many times have you left for a few days, only to return to a dog that glues themselves to your side and won’t budge for meals?

As humans, we link two separate things—respect and obedience. If your dog feels one, they exhibit the latter. But that’s a human concept. Your dog thinks differently: they do what works. If sitting politely at your feet and gazing deeply into your gaze nets them food, they’ll do that again. Or, if waiting until your back is turned and stealing a sandwich off the table works, they’ll do that too.

When to Stop Using Food as a Reward

As you progress through Gentle Beast’s online training modules, you’ll be introduced to the concept of intermittent reinforcement.

Once your dog starts consistently nailing a cue, you can start giving your dog a food reward every other time, and slowly increase the amount of repetitions you ask for before giving the reward.

Over time, your dog transitions off of expecting a reward every single time.

Intermittent reinforcement actually strengthens a behavior, not weakens it!

If you find that your dog refuses to work without confirming that a treat is present, you may have made the treat part of the cue. A certified trainer can help you tweak the cue to help your dog understand what you’re asking from them.

And, finally, as your dog progresses through their training, you can start using life rewards. It’s not all about food—sometimes the reward can be throwing a ball, opening the door for them, or releasing them to go play.

The Alpha Wolf Myth

In 1970, wolf researcher Dr. Dave Mech released a book called The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. In it, alpha wolves fight within a pack to gain dominance over one another, with one eventually emerging as the victor.

In 2000, he recanted this observation. He and other researchers conducted their behavioral analysis on captive wolves that had no relation to one another, and from there extrapolated beliefs about how wolves behaved overall.

He now states that in the wild, wolves form family units. The “alpha” is merely the parent.

Take a look at your own household, dog included. Ask yourself: who controls the food? Who decides when to go outside or stay indoors? It’s you. Staring contests don’t add anything to you and your dog’s communication.

If you have more than one dog, you can observe a social hierarchy develop between them. But, and this is key, social hierarchy between dogs is very fluid. It’s impacted by the situation, the dog’s emotional state, and how badly they want a certain outcome. There are a thousand subtleties involved in the communication that, as humans, we’re doomed to be deaf and blind to.

The Ethical Obligations Behind Positive Reinforcement Dog Training

Canine behavior experts have a professional moral obligation to come up with and use methods that make training equally enjoyable for everyone involved. And, if humans are to consider themselves the stewards for their pets, we have a responsibility to understand how dogs think and learn, and to modify our training to a style that best suits them.

More and more we embrace dogs not as tools for use or resources to exploit, but as members of the family. When adding a dog into your life, we must recognize that they are living creatures with a unique perception of the world, and avoid falling into the trap of projecting our own assumptions and perspectives onto their behavior.

No dog trainer, regardless of their training philosophy, enters the industry wanting to hurt animals. Everybody believes they are doing what’s best for the dogs in their care.

However, everybody comes from different backgrounds and contributes different perspectives. Regulatory boards such as the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants ensure that clients receive guidance that follows a strict set of ethical guidelines.


  • Ziv, G. (2017). The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—a review. *Journal of Veterinary Behavior*, *19*, 50–60.
  • Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., & Reisner, I. R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. *Applied Animal Behaviour Science*, *117*(1-2), 47–54.
  • Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2013). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. *Journal of Veterinary Behavior*, *9*(2), 58–65.

About the Author

A picture of Melody smiling towards the camera
Melody Lee
Contributing Writer

Melody Lee is a contributing writer for Gentle Beast, and is a CPDT-KA dog trainer. She lives in Manhattan with two feral cats, Littlepip and Alphonse, that tolerate her clicker training attempts. One day, her cats might let her adopt a dog of her own.

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