Reward-Based Training Depends on Owner Perceptions

Linda Lombardi

Having a dog who displays reactive behaviors is one of the biggest challenges that can face the average pet owner. It’s also one where it’s crucial for them to use positive reinforcement training, because reactivity and aggressive behavior can be made worse by aversive techniques. But persuading the public to use positive training methods is a continuing struggle.

A recent study seeks to understand what’s involved in people’s choice of training methods for reactive behaviors in dogs and provides some insight into how to influence this choice.


Researchers collected and analyzed answers from 630 respondents to an online survey about how owners managed the reactive behavior of their dogs. Reactivity was defined as showing one or more of the following: stiff posture with hackles raised and intense staring, barking, growling, snarling, lunging, snapping, nipping, and biting.

The questionnaire defined four types of training techniques using examples, with neutral labels (Type A,B,C,D). So for example “Type A” technique was defined as “Giving the dog something nice (rewarding) to increase the behavior” and an example of this technique was “Giving the dog a treat/toy if it ignores another dog passing by.”

Questions then related to factors that were hypothesized to affect choice of training techniques: how severe and likely the owner perceived the behavior to be, how confident they felt in applying the technique, and how effective they expected it to be.

Survey Says

The results found that the most important factor was the person’s confidence in how well they could use the technique at home, followed by how confident they were that they could use it in public. The implication for trainers and behaviorists is that it’s critical to be aware of the owner’s feelings of confidence – or lack thereof – and explicitly address them.

Coauthor Emma Williams of the University of Bristol says, “The results suggest that it is important that practitioners focus on fully understanding how confident owners actually feel with using methods, discussing these aspects with clients and encouraging an open and honest dialogue where we actively listen to, and engage with, people’s concerns. This may relate both to their concerns about the effectiveness of the techniques themselves, and their confidence in using the techniques.”

Emotional Challenges

Owner emotions about their situation were investigated by open-ended questions: for example, completing the sentence “When I Encounter a Situation Where My Dog Is Likely to Display Reactive Behavior, I Feel . . .”  Responses like “stressed,” “nervous” and “anxious” are familiar to anyone who has worked with reactive dog owners (or been one), as are reactions to situations where they felt they hadn’t done a good job of managing the behavior: “disappointed,” “frustrated,” “sad,” “heartbroken,” “like a failure.”

Trainers should address the existence of these feelings. “Some people are likely to cope with these emotional challenges better than others, and it is important that owners have an adequate support structure in place to help them to appropriately manage these difficult aspects,” says Williams. “It is also important for professionals to communicate to owners that such feelings are entirely to be expected and do not represent a ‘failure’ on the part of the owner.”

Zazie Todd, PhD, author of the blog Companion Animal Psychology, says, “This study shows that having a reactive dog can have a big emotional impact on the owner. It also found that negative emotions and a lack of confidence in using positive reinforcement techniques can impact whether or not people will use positive reinforcement.”

The results suggest ways trainers can address these emotional challenges. “Sharing success stories would help dog owners know they are not alone in having these issues and show them that reward-based methods work,” says Todd. “A useful strategy suggested by this research is to see tricky situations as a training opportunity, which helps to reframe it in a more positive way.”

Sources of Advice

One possibly encouraging finding is that respondents were more likely to rely on advice from dog trainers than from TV shows and online sources, but that’s encouraging only if they’re getting that advice from trainers who use positive reinforcement. This highlights the continuing need for publicity and education. “We need to make sure people know positive reinforcement is an effective way to train dogs,” says Todd.

It’s not easy for the average dog owner to evaluate competing advice. “There is just an overwhelming amount of information out there, particularly for people who are new to this area,” says Williams. “This is where it is important for positive reinforcement approaches, and their trainers, to effectively ‘sell’ themselves within this market. We need to do more to understand this landscape and how owners are currently navigating and making decisions in this respect, so that the positive reinforcement message can best position itself to be noticed.”

People who rated themselves as knowing more about dog training were more likely to use positive reinforcement. This suggests that educational efforts do make a difference, so keep talking it up. Says Williams, “The more information we can keep putting out there about positive reinforcement and why it works, the more this information will be at the forefront of people’s mind when they actually need it.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals who share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.


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