On Positive Reinforcement and Pack Leaders

If you spend 30 minutes looking for dog training videos on YouTube, you will find two very different schools of thought on the best methods to train your dog.

Some videos, including those promoted by celebrity dog trainer Cesar Milan, promote dog training methods centered on dominance theory and being a “pack leader” for your dog. These videos often contain techniques like alpha rolls, corrections (kneeing a dog, jabbing a dog, or jerking its leash), and the use of aversive methods such as shock collars. For the sake of this blog post, although it is an oversimplification, we’ll refer to these as “traditional methods.”

Other videos promote “positive training methods” for teaching your dog. These videos often contain techniques such as clicker training and the use of treats and praise.

My philosophy when working with Wiggles and Woofs dogs is the same as working with my own dog at home: I use positive training methods with my dog and yours. Let’s examine why positive training methods are often the safest and most effective choice for working with our furry friends.


One great aspect of positive training methods is that they strengthen the bond between dogs and their owners. This increases the chance that your dog will do what you ask her to do, and enjoy doing it! Corrections and other aversive methods used with traditional training are unpleasant or sometimes downright scary for a dog. Why train your dog that way if there is a more friendly and enjoyable way?


Traditional methods of dog training can actually be dangerous for your furry friend. You will see some websites that tout choke collars and prong collars as safe training tools for your dog. Don’t be fooled: many veterinarians and behaviorists agree that these collars can cause physical problems for your dog ranging from soft tissue damage to neurological problems.

Furthermore, these collars are unpleasant and/or painful for your pup. When I hear people argue that these collars are not unpleasant when used correctly, I ask them to think about putting the chain collar or prong collar on themselves and having someone correct them the same way they correct their dog. I know, I know…you’re a human and your dog is a dog. But I bet you winced at least a little bit thinking about it, right? The physiological structures in a dog’s throat and neck are very similar to our own, so in reality, what is unpleasant for you is also unpleasant for your pup!

If you have a strong puller or a dog that is otherwise rambunctious on leash, the great news is that there are other safe and humane tools available like front-attach harnesses and head halters that accomplish the same purpose without the same risk of pain or damage. There is a reason why both Seattle Animal Shelter and Seattle Humane use similar harnesses with their dogs rather than prong collars and choke collars. These helpful tools can be combined with positive training methods to teach your dog not to pull in a safe, effective, and positive way.

When you are using traditional techniques, not only do you run the risk of physically harming your dog, but you can also cause psychological harm to your dog. A dog exposed to constant corrections and aversives may become increasingly stressed and may be more likely to escalate to reactive or aggressive behaviors than dogs trained with positive training methods. Particularly for dogs that are corrected when they try to communicate their needs (e.g., correcting a dog for growling at another dog in his space), these dogs run the risk of becoming very unpredictable because they are being taught that they are not allowed to communicate. The result can be a dog that is bottling up anxiety and stress until they can no longer handle it, then exploding. On the other hand, studies have shown that positive based methods carry a far lower risk of resulting in aggression.




Many people don’t know the difference between these schools of thought. I recall going to obedience class in the early 2000s with my family dog, and the class was a traditional class with choke chains and corrections. The class was offered by a trainer in our community who seemed reputable, so we went along with it. I cringe now thinking about whether our dog’s collapsing trachea was caused by that class. We didn’t know any better.  Many people simply walk into their local pet shop or follow methods they see on TV without really questioning if there is a better or more humane way to train their dog. Fortunately, the word is getting out that evidence shows that positive training methods are a safe, effective, and humane way to train your dog.


Traditional dog training methods are often based on a dominance model that is outdated and has since been disproven. Researchers observing a group of captive, all male wolves observed the wolves forming a dominance hierarchy and performing alpha rolls, and then overgeneralized their observations to all canines, forming the basis of traditional dog training techniques. We now know that this model is inaccurate; wild wolves do not behave the same way as captive wolves in that study, much less domesticated dogs. If you have positive leadership and clear expectations, your dog will know that you are the “pack leader” in your house, no corrections or alpha rolls required.

shy pup

Will work for food!


One misconception I have heard is that some people feel that positive based methods involve showering your dog with treats all the time and otherwise just letting your dog do whatever he wants. In other words, they perceive a lack of punishment as a lack of structure. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Having a well-mannered dog actually has everything to do with the owner setting clear expectations and using consistent methods to achieve them. This can absolutely be accomplished through positive means.

One last complaint I hear about positive methods is people saying, “Well, then I have to bribe my dog with treats all the time to get her to do what I want.” That’s not entirely true. As your dog’s training progresses, you use what’s called intermittent reinforcement, meaning she only receives rewards SOME of the time, not all of the time. Eventually you won’t need many treats at all.

Also, rewards don’t have to be food. A reward is anything a dog considers reinforcing. Getting to chase after a toy after politely dropping it at your feet or being allowed to hop out of a car at the park after waiting politely for the “OK” are just a couple of examples of ways to reward desirable behaviors that don’t involve treats.

That being said, yes. You are probably going to need to carry some treats, toys, or something that your dog finds reinforcing for a while. Here’s the way I think about this: think of treats as paying your dog for working. It’s not a bribe, it’s a payment for a job well done. Creating a working relationship with your pup doesn’t create a spoiled dog; it creates a well-mannered dog that offers good behaviors and is a pleasure to be around. The truth is, there are very few breeds of dog that will work endlessly just for praise alone.

I like these treat pouches; they easily hang on my belt loop and won’t leave your pockets greasy. You should consider the calories in those treats you are giving your dog so your dog maintains a healthy weight. My dog gets half of her daily food in the morning in her bowl, the other half goes into the treat pouch, and she earns the food during training sessions and for offering desirable behaviors on our walks. Having your dog “work” for her food is a great idea.


In summary, the reason why I use positive training methods with my own dog and Wiggles and Woofs clients is that positive methods are safe, effective, humane, and fun. The great news is that if your pup is going for private walks, socialization outings, or dog park excursions with Wiggles and Woofs, she can be working on skills such as leash manners and waiting before jumping out of the car with positive techniques as part of the outing. I’m happy to share tips and pointers for these basic manners with clients at no additional charge. Working with a trainer? I am always happy to consult with any positive methods-based trainers you are working with to reinforce what you are working on with while I’m spending time with your dog.

Thanks for reading!


Thank you Pexels.com for the dog photos!

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to provide professional dog training advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this website are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this website is to promote understanding and knowledge of various pet-related topics. 

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