Dog Training Terms Explained

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Our dogs trust us to speak up for them and make the most scientifically and ethically informed decisions we can when it comes to their care. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the terms frequently used in dog training and discover how a better understanding can help us help our inquisitive canines.

dog during training session

Humane Compared to Aversive Training Techniques

Humane: having or showing compassion or benevolence. A humane approach to dog training involves training without the use of force, fear, pain, coercion or intimidation. The aim is to teach you and your pup real-life skills while keeping you both safe, having fun and enhancing the canine-human bond, or put another way, using a humane approach when working with people, as well as pets. Techniques in this category are based on a love-of-dog training approach and:

  • Can enhance the human-canine bond by helping build and maintain a trusting, loving, joyful, and mutually respectful relationship.
  • Focus on fostering behaviors that you want through positive reinforcement, using whatever techniques best motivate your inquisitive canine.
  • Are rooted in the scientific methods of animal learning. 
  • Can help you to be able to physically handle your dog using friendly, gentle methods.

According to leading veterinary behavior scholars (see resources), a humane approach to dog training is safer and more effective for learning compared to using aversive training methods and tools.

Aversive: Anything an animal considers ‘bad’ – anything unpleasant, painful, annoying, uncomfortable. A strong dislike or disinclination causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus. 

  • Examples in dog training include: Shouting (in anger), hitting, ignoring (unmet needs), jerking with the leash, squirt bottles, applying pain intentionally, choking, pinching, grabbing, noxious sprays, and electric shock. 
  • By definition, an aversive stimulus can only change behavior by causing fear, pain or stress. 
  • Causing pain, fear or stress can harm your relationship with your inquisitive canine.  
  • An aversive approach can result in injury to your dog, self, or other animals and people by increasing fear-related and aggressive behaviors. 
  • Beware of unintended consequences. An accidental shock or pinch to your dog can inadvertently create a negative response to everything and everyone around at that moment – including you, other pets, and children. 

“Aversive training methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to animal welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and causing direct injury,” according to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists’ Position Statement on Humane, Effective and Evidence Based Training. 

bull mastiff sitting to greet

Learning Compared to Learned Helplessness

Learning: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught. The process in which relatively permanent changes in behavior are produced through experience and memories.

Learning:

  • Is a lifelong process for everyone — both people and dogs! 
  • Can help build self-confidence through mental stimulation and problem solving.
  • Can help inquisitive canines understand what you want and what you expect, and how to perform the skills they need to thrive in our human world. 

It is important for guardians to set their dogs up for successful learning. Dogs who are given the opportunity to make their own choices are often less stressed and more enthusiastic about participating in learning new skills. 

Learned Helplessness: A condition created by exposure to inescapable aversive events. When a human or animal gives up and stops trying due to multiple failed attempts at trying to control a situation. 

  • Learned helplessness can lead to delayed or prevention of learning; stress can lead the dog to shut down.
  • Harsh training methods risk creating learned helplessness. Dogs fearing harsh corrections might be so afraid to do anything that they decide to do nothing at all.

Training Compared to Escape Learning

Training: the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior. Training is teaching dogs what you want them to do, when you want them to do it.

Reward-based training program: Using anything an animal finds appealing and ‘rewarding’ to elicit, reinforce, or inhibit behaviors. 

  • A highly effective way to teach dogs (or any animals) is to use rewards to reinforce desired behavior. Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated. 
  • If your goal is to share your life and home with a family dog who is eager to listen to you and offer desired behaviors, you can start by building and maintaining a mutually trusting canine-human relationship and providing consequences your pup likes and wants, instead of harsh consequences.
  • Important note: Avoid positively reinforcing some behaviors while using aversives to stop unwanted behaviors.This confusing approach can lead to dogs becoming afraid of training sessions and can harm your bond, trust, and relationship.
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The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Humane Dog Training states, “Based on current scientific evidence, AVSAB recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems.”

Escape Learning: A technique in which a person or animal has learned to escape or terminate an unpleasant stimulus. Punitive methods tell dogs what you don’t want them to do; aversive tools such as training collars do not teach dogs what you want them to do instead.

Small Dog Leash Walking

Motivation Compared to Bribery

Motivation: A general term referring to the forces regulating behavior that is undertaken because of instinctual drives, needs, or desires, and is directed towards a goal. One factor that can influence whether or not a learned behavior will be performed. In other words, motivation is the reason your dog will want to perform a behavior. 

There is a strong relationship between learning and motivation. Learning (and therefore, performing a behavior) does not occur without the proper incentive. It’s not the request, it’s the “What’s in it for me. Why should I?” Animals need to be motivated in some way to perform a specific behavior.

  • Discovering what motivates your dog is an important key to training success. By identifying motivators for your dog – every dog is an individual – and applying some basic learning theory, you can easily work training into everyday activities and have fun doing it!
  • Since you know your dog better than anyone else does, you’re in a great spot to observe what motivates, excites, and engages your canine pal. Good motivators encourage participation in learning because they are things your dog enjoys. 
  • Rewards can motivate your dog to stay interested, curious and engaged with you.

Reward: Anything the dog considers ‘good’- stimulates at least one of the five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, sound; a return that is obtained upon the successful performance of a task. Specific examples include a belly rub, rousing game of fetch, comfy bed, something stinky to roll in, kissy-face with family members, liver treat. 

  • In short, a reward is anything your dog wants. Of course, that will vary depending on the pet and the circumstance. Context matters! If your dog has just had a big dinner, your treats might not be worth as much as a game of tug. On the other hand, if you’ve got a fresh meatball in your pocket, the opportunity to greet a new person might not feel as rewarding to your dog as staying right by your side, nose glued to your hip.
  • Treats, petting, praise, and interactive games can help to strengthen your bond, providing opportunities for enjoyment and connection while you’re training together.
  • Since behaviors that are reinforced are repeated, dogs learn what we would like them to do, leading them to offer more of the behaviors we find preferable. 
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Bribe: Persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement. The desired item is provided before the goal behavior is performed.

Is training with rewards bribery? Well, if you’re delivering the food before the dog performs the behavior, then yes, it could be considered bribery. You can prompt the dog, using food as a lure. But you’ll want to deliver the tasty morsel after the dog performs the behavior, as a reward rather than a bribe. If given before, then why would the dog want to perform the behavior? They already received what they wanted. 

To sum up, as loving, responsible pet parents, when we take the time to understand some important dog training terms, we are better able to provide for their overall physical and mental well-being. Our inquisitive canines bring us joy, love and lots of laughs. Let’s work to enhance and enrich their lives, so they can thrive as treasured family members.

Here’s to you and your inquisitive canine enjoying a pawsitive approach for positive results™!

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