Across the dog industry, it’s common to use labels to describe methods, practitioners, and philosophies. But what do those labels really mean?

What’s in a Label?

As dog training and behavior professionals, we purposely avoid labeling dogs with words like “bad” or “naughty” or “aggressive.” Jumping to conclusions and labeling dogs can prevent us from seeing the full picture. Instead, we take time to understand an animal’s full situation and needs, observing and gathering as much information as possible before making recommendations that can help the client and their dog live well together.

But across the dog industry, it can save time to use labels to describe certain methods, practices, and philosophies. How should we think about those labels? During a recent roundtable podcast, Victoria and the team explored the question of labeling. Here are some themes that emerged from that conversation.

Labels: helpful or confusing?

Labels are a common way to quickly communicate our foundational philosophy and approach. For example, dog industry professionals talk about “force-free” and “positive reinforcement” methods as important elements of working humanely with dogs. 

But to a lot of the public, labels in the pet industry can feel confusing. For example, many people do not understand that the official term of “behaviorist” is reserved for those individuals who have completed specific advanced academic programs from qualified educational institutions, and that “certified dog trainer” applies to a range of practitioners who might follow any number of pathways to training proficiency. (The Victoria Stilwell Academy, as you know, offers a premiere pathway to training certification!) 

Relying on science

Labels can be useful to help us speak a common language, particularly when those labels have been standardized by decades of study and research. 

Experts who study learning and motivation use four common labels to describe methods of operant behavior modification, used in different types of training techniques. These four labels differ in whether a rewarding or aversive stimulus is added or subtracted from the situation. Here at VSA we’re very familiar with the one known as positive reinforcement, which involves giving the learner a pleasant outcome or reward for the desired behavior. The other three operant labels are negative reinforcement (removing something unpleasant), positive punishment (adding something unpleasant), and negative punishment (removing something pleasant). 

Looking behind labels

Labels in the dog industry can also serve as a marketing tool for attracting clients. When we encounter these types of labels, or use them ourselves, it is helpful to look at what’s behind them to discover which of the four operant behavior modification methods is actually being used. Techniques like “off leash training,” for example, can be done in different ways. While some trainers may offer the learner a reward for compliance (positive reinforcement), others administer an aversive for noncompliance (positive punishment). Training protocols described as “games” are typically built on a foundation of positive reinforcement.

When Victoria and her team talk about “positive training,” they’re not using a scientific term. Instead, they are describing a philosophy for engaging effectively with dogs, for teaching dogs using kind and effective methods, and for making dogs’ lives better in the modern world. Positive training is a way of describing a methodology backed by science that puts forward what we believe and how we believe animals should be taught and treated. Yes, positive training has a lot in common with positive reinforcement, but there’s quite a bit more to it than that—as explained in the Harmony Model.  

Check out the full podcast episode about labels in dog training.

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