The Paw Print Genetics Blog

Training: Carrots, Sticks, Drive and Enjoyment

Training: Carrots, Sticks, Drive and Enjoyment

There’s generally two camps when it comes to training: the positive-only camp and the aversive camp. Positive-only trainers eschew any use of punishment and use rewards to motivate, reward and shape behaviors. The aversive camp, in an overly simple explanation, tends to shape behaviors by punishing, in one form or another, the wrong behaviors – which doesn’t necessarily preclude rewarding proper behaviors. This is simple carrot-and-stick training: do this correctly, get a treat; do that incorrectly get punished.

Chad Culp, a certified dog trainer in California, does a great job outlining the carrot-and-stick approach to training. However, he takes it further and discusses a study done with human children (you can read it here The basic premise being that continual rewarding reduces, even destroys, intrinsic motivation (which is very interesting) – the child, or dog, no longer wants to work for the pure joy of it; they hold out for a reward. This has been one knock from the aversive side of the aisle: that sooner or later that cookie isn’t enough of a reward to counter the desire to carry out the undesirable act.

The knock on aversive training is that it can destroy the dog’s joy in working. Done improperly, this is very true – and could even become abusive.

Culp’s post does a great job of describing a balanced approach, as well as developing intrinsic desire to work and please. Chief among his points: use variable reinforcement of treats and stop using them as soon as possible (treats and purely positive training is a great, and fastest, way to teach a desired behavior), use the least amount of positive or negative reinforcement to get the job done (i.e.: petting the dog instead of feeding it treats; a verbal reprimand instead of a zap of the e-collar) and to use your words and body language (among others) to show the dog your approval or disapproval – in Culp’s words:

“So, am I saying to train without rewards or punishment? Is that even possible? No, of course not. What I'm suggesting is that rewards and punishments don't always have to be carrots and sticks. They can be more intrinsic in the form of relationship, your approval or disapproval. Your voice, hands, body language and overall presence can have an intrinsic value much more intimate, profound and longer lasting than external rewards and punishments.”

That intrinsic desire to please you is a very powerful motivator – much more than just tossing a treat to the dog. However, you also have to take into account the dogs intrinsic desire to perform specific tasks.

A dog that wants to retrieve will do so much more willingly than a dog that doesn’t have the desire hardwired into its genes. A breed that evolved to work in tandem with man will respond more to your approval/disapproval than a breed that evolved working alone or one that battled in confrontations.

This is where picking the right breed comes in. There are currently about 175 recognized purebred dog breeds, there’s no reason to try and hammer a square peg into a round hole; pick a breed of dog that has a desire to do the job you want bred into it – it will be easier and much more enjoyable for both of you.