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Don’t fall for bad science

March 13, 2019


I hear this all the time.

“My dog is [insert unwanted behaviour], l tell him to sit. Then he stops.”

“What if you don’t tell your dog to sit?”

“Then he won’t stop.”

In other words, your dog does not know doing that unwanted behaviour is wrong.

If your dog knows lunging, jumping, dragging, biting, barking, counter surfing ... is the wrong decision, why wouldn’t he stop doing that when he is walking or standing? Why do you have to say “sit”?

What if you don’t have time to say sit (a dog just appears out of no where in the dark)? Then your dog will lunge and bite the other dog?

What if your dog won’t sit? What if your dog refuses to sit because he really wants to jump on Auntie Wendy? What do you do then? Keep saying “sit”? Keep bringing out more treats?

What if you can’t sit your dog? What if there is a big crowd moving forward behind you? Are you not able to stop your dog from reacting unless everyone stops moving so you can sit your dog and ask him to look at you?

Using obedience command to stop an unwanted behaviour (I.e. tell the dog to look or sit when the dog tries to react, tell the dog to sit when the dog tries to jump, tell the dog to turn around or sit when the dog tries to drag on the leash, tell the dog to look when the dog tries to bark...) does not usually work, because these unwanted behaviours are mostly instinctive or even genetic, while following an obedience command in order to earn a treat, to a dog who has been trained only with positive reinforcement, is merely an option.

Also, even when it works sometimes when the trigger is far away and not so intense, once the reward of doing that unwanted behaviour is higher than the reward of this “alternate” obedience command, the dog simply will not pay attention.

It is like telling someone who has an addiction to go brush his teeth every time he wants to indulge in that addiction. You want to have a smoke, go brush your teeth instead, l will give you $10 after; you want to drink, go brush your teeth instead, l will give you $10 after.

You cannot drink or smoke when you are brushing your teeth, and you will get rewarded once you brush your teeth, so it must work, right?


If you really want $10 and the urge to smoke or drink is not that strong, you may comply for a bit so you may earn the $10 before you go indulge in that addiction (I.e. get the $10 then spend it on drink or smoke).

But if you are an alcoholic and there are 7 shots of tequila lining up right in front of you, there is no way in the world you will stand up, turn around, walk away from all the drinks, and go into the bathroom to brush your teeth.

In behavioural training, we teach the dog what is right and what is wrong. We show him doing that unwanted behaviour is wrong — whether he is standing, sitting, downing..., it is still wrong. The consequence of doing that wrong behaviour will far outweigh the satisfaction of doing it — so he will stop thinking about it.

We teach him the proper alternate behaviour after he stops the wrong behaviour, but we don’t use the alternate behaviour to redirect the dog to stop the unwanted behaviour.

If your dog loves to chase squirrel, you cannot use an optional obedience command with a reward that is always going to be lower value than the satisfaction of chasing the squirrel to try stop this genetic and instinctive behaviour because it is a self rewarding behaviour that is built into the DNA of the dog. You can ask the dog to sit, to look, to turn around; you can use bacon, sausage, fillet mignon — but your dog will always want to chase. If telling your dog to follow an obedience command for a treat is all you have, you can never let your dog off leash around squirrels, or you could lose your dog or your dog could get hit by a car and die.

That is why only using positive reinforcement to stop an unwanted behaviour is unscientific and unrealistic.

Science tells us we need to correct an unwanted behaviour — not simply to reward something else — in order to stop this behaviour.

Obedience commands can be taught very effectively with positive reinforcement, but dog training is not just about teaching obedience commands. We have to often stop a dog from doing unwanted behaviours.

Science tells us we need corrections to reduce the likelihood of the unwanted behaviour; it is not effective to only use obedience command without any correction to stop an unwanted behaviour.

Next time, when your dog jumps up on people, instead of telling your dog to sit for a treat, correct the jumping first, then reward the sit after.

Hope this helps. 

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