All-positive dog parenting is a myth

The "all-positive" parenting approach is a fashionable new methodology based on empirical data that positive reinforcement works best to modify behavior. The data is correct. I encourage my clients to use a minimum 6-1 ratio of praise to discipline, the same as recommended by many child behavior counselors.

The problem lies in the interpretation of this data and its application in reality. In our all-or-nothing society, we should not construe this to mean that discipline should be eliminated altogether. Discipline is a critical component of proper brain development in dogs and children. In particular, the enforcement of boundaries through discipline ultimately brings a dog (and kids) feelings of security.

Pandering to a dog's every whim violates their sense of security. It also impedes their ability to concentrate and compartmentalize emotional impulses. When unable to self-control, dogs (and kids) tend to make outlandish choices that could bring them physical harm, such as chasing a squirrel into the road.

All social creatures require boundaries in order to remain safe. Boundaries are everywhere. Even the physical body itself is a boundary from harmful elements found throughout nature. The skin, bones, and blood vessels in the body each keeps things out (viruses, harmful bacteria, etc), while maintaining rigidity and posture to enable locomotion.

This same theory applies to the mind of dogs. Boundaries should be created for thinking, feeling, as well as movement. These are physical, intellectual, and emotional boundaries -- the Three Dimensions of boundaries.

Operant theory does not describe this dog parent's concern for the well-being of this puppy.

The phrase "dog training" means to teach a dog new skills. Dog "parenting" describes the life-long, evolving process of nurturing physical, intellectual, and emotional development over time. In the dog behavior field, these two terms are constantly confused. Training is a function of parenting, not the other way around. This is one reason there is so much theoretical conflict in how obedience trainers and behaviorists work. One area encourages dogs to do more. The other arena encourages dogs to do less.

Problems with the "all positive" approach are further compounded when it is revealed that 50% of operant theory dictates the use punishment. So, while exalting operant theory, "all-positive" parenting adherents deny the very foundations of operant theory itself. This is a contradiction of monumental proportions.

The author even goes as far as to omit critical details in the scientific studies. They fail to mention that researchers do not fully discount the use of positive punishment, only that it should be minimized. I know very few dog trainers who are unaware of this fact. It is widely understood that positive reinforcement is more motivating than positive punishment. However, this DOES NOT mean that positive punishment should be avoided altogether. Discipline (i.e punishment) is critical for dogs to learn impulse control and for the development of attentive focus skills.

At this point, it is necessary to insert a caveat, lest I be thrown into the other extremist camp. These facts do not mean it is acceptable, nor effective, to hit, yell, or force dogs into submission. No amount of intimidation will rehabilitate a dog's emotional disorder. In fact, it will likely make it worse.

In summary, critically question everything you read in regards to dog training. It is a minefield of contradiction, rhetoric, and misinformation. Many of the empirical research studies lack an appropriate lexicon for discussion, and the field of canine behavior is an ideological battleground where ideas are still competing for prevalence on social media. Tread carefully.

If you would like a resource that untangles the disparities and outlines a consistent, integrated cognitive theory, pick up a copy of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior.


Explore the mind and intelligence of your dog with Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior. Learn to see dog behavior in a new way.

Join the real canine cognitive revolution on Facebook!

Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author. He can be reached via

#cognition #3Ddog #caninecognition #dogtraining #threedimensionaldog #howtotrainadog #dogtrainerbirminghamalabama

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
  • Facebook - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle
  • Instagram - White Circle
  • Blogger - White Circle
  • Google+ - White Circle
  • LinkedIn - Grey Circle
RSS Feed

© 2017 by Three Dimensional Dog, LLC