using pressure in dog training

The use of pressure in dog training

These days, pets are considered part of the family by more than 90% of pet owners, this means that they are held in such high value, it can trouble us deeply when they are sick, hurt or not behaving well.

This means that treating peoples pets has become a professional vocation for many, including yours truly.

Having that said, I feel that it is my responsibility to be able to provide professional services to those that need them and engage me.

What does that mean?

Well for me, it means that I feel I need to provide the most effective methods, systems, protocols and programs I can to help dog owners and their dogs through difficult times.

It is very common that I work with people that have been to other trainers or behaviourists and that person has referred on to me or they have not provided any results in the time the client was working with them.

Referring on to trainers or behaviourists that have specialised services that suit the dog in question is the way professionals operate. They may be a very good obedience or life skills trainer or trainer who trains competitive obedience or vets, but perhaps the dog in question is outside of the services they provide or the level of experience they have.

This happens with medical professionals many times every day, so it should happen in our field too as the goal is to help the dog the best way we all can.

Then of course there are the ones that fail to provide any help and will drive people away from those that can actually help.

Now I wonder myself, why would someone who ideally loves dogs and claims to be a professional would aim make it harder for someone to resolve a problem with their dog when they cannot solve the problem themselves in a reasonable amount of time.

Well one major reason is that they struggle to understand the use of pressure in dog training.

They feel that “pressure” is evil and only designed to hurt and frighten a dog and therefore it cannot be useful, but of course this means that they need to learn more about the use of pressure and learn with an open mind.

When you are using pressure and don’t even know it

If you take a look at my articles, The Magic Cure for dog problems (Click here) and The real problem I have with Punishment (Click here) these will explain some facets of dog training and behaviour modification that many people may not realise happens every day.

There is a bit of reading in both of those articles and your mind, like a parachute will work better when open, but these are written for the person and or people out there that are desperately seeking help.

Now, back to my “when you are using pressure in dog training but don’t even know it“, statement.

Pressure is when a dog either physically or mentally feels stress applied by or around a certain trigger or stimuli.

How might this happen if you are “stress free trainer?”

  • A dog pulls on a leash (positive punishment if its unpleaseant, negative punishment if it stops the dog accessing a reward)
  • A dog expects a reward and cannot get one (negative punishment)
  • Something or anything frightens the dog (positive punishment)
  • The dog is wearing a head halter that puts pressure on the facial nerves (positive punishment)
  • The dog is in any way outside of his or her comfort zone (flooding)
  • The dog is frightened of strangers and you approach with a handful of food… (positive punishment)

Just to name a few…

Stress is a normal part of life!

Hans Selye (Pioneering endocrinologist) said “without stress there is no life“. Stress can help one accomplish more,  even boost memory but it can also compromise health and quality of life.

Many dogs I work with lack any ability to deal with stress. This means that these dogs live a very difficult life as even normal events and situations may cause them to become overly stressed with no skills in which to deal with that stressor.

Teaching a dog to manage their stress is a very important part of rehabilitating a dog in my opinion.

Now back to more about our topic of pressure, I want to try and openly show how pressure is applied to dogs even though your intentions may not be to do this.

Reward Pressure

I use quite a bit of shaping in my training, this is where the dog (thinks they) came up with the idea that provides reward.

Or, this is where the dog comes up with the idea to relieve the pressure. They are both the same thing, it is just how you choose to describe it.

How is this done?

Well let’s say you have a food motivated dog, you show the dog the piece of food and then withhold that piece of food (negative punishment), the dog feels pressure to relieve the negative punishment (withheld food) so starts to offer behaviours.

When the correct behaviour is offered by the dog, the negative punishment ends by giving the food.

The same can be done with a toy that the dog finds valuable too.

No matter how you spin it, your adding stress through reward pressure so that the dog will act to avoid, eliminate and or avoid the stress.

Here is a video of a Team K9Pro Member and her dog shaping the scent indication we want.

So what happens when your dog is not food or toy motivated, or is but not in this situation. The environment, or things in the environment, such as a dog, stranger, new place or noise may lock out the dogs desire for reward. The greatest reward for this dog may be to get away from this stressor.

The problem though may be that the stressor to this dog may be unavoidable, some dogs may feel high stress just walking out of their front door.

When I talk about pressure, I can also use pressure that has not been created by the removal or withholding of reward, negative punishment. I can use positive punishment and relieve this pressure when the dog offers or experiences the correct behaviour.

This is where some people lose control of their emotions and begin talking myth and propaganda

Leash Pressure

There is a big difference between a person who grabs the leash and only can deliver a whopping hard leash and collar correction and the person that gently lifts up on the leash to add just enough pressure to get the dog to offer an alternative behaviour, although many would have you believe that any or all punishment is bad if they could, this is far from true.

There are very many dogs that will work, and work well for food and or the removal of food (positive reinforcement and negative punishment) but as many people will experience, there are many dogs where this alone will just not have a successful effect on modifying certain behaviours in any reasonable amount of time.

I often have clients that tell me their dog is not in any way food motivated, often when I offer their dog a food reward they will not even look at the food because the dog is already in avoidance just being out of the home.

There are other dogs that will take the food but find the reward of getting involved with the distraction, perhaps another dog, much more valuable than the food so will turn it down the moment they are within 1000 metres of a dog.

Now when I say “valuable” I mean that getting to the dog or driving it away with aggression may be highly rewarding.

I have seen dogs starved to increase food motivation, go through multi stage protocols to increase food motivation but in the end they still fell short of what was needed to “out reward” the competition behaviour.

Negative Reinforcement

When we want to strengthen a behaviour we need to reinforce it, BF Skinner proved this theory long ago, so Positive Reinforcement is very successful at reinforcing behaviours, that is 100% true.

For it to work though, you will need some structure that allows you to ensure that the food reward is considered positive reinforcement for the behaviour we want it to be allocated to.

To make that easier to understand, take a look at this article “The difference between feeding and reinforcing“.

So simply put, the dog sits, you give the dog a piece of food, the dog understands that the food was given because the dog sat, this will mean that the sit behaviour will be more likely to be repeated.

Times when this will not work

  • Your dog is so stressed that it will not eat the food
  • Your dog is so scared of the trainer, the attempt to feed your dog induces stress or aggression
  • The timing is so bad that the food is not allocated to the behaviour (sit).
  • Just to name a few…

In this case, Negative Reinforcement may be better, the term reinforcement means the same thing whether or not it is preceded by Positive or Negative attributes. This means that the behaviour the reinforcement is allocated to will have a higher chance of being repeated after reinforcement.

The “Negative” term does not mean bad, in fact here is an article if your learning along the way here is another article I wrote “Positive doesn’t mean good” (Click here)

Negative means to remove, minus, subtract, take away etc. So when using Negative Reinforcement, the dog may expect that you will give a leash correction if the dog does not follow a cue, let’s say “Sit”, only this time when you give the sit cue, the dog sits and no leash correction occurs.

This sit cue then has been reinforced (made stronger), negatively (taking away a leash correction).

This is a viable option when the dog in question will not respond to positive reinforcement for reasons I mentioned above.

So what is wrong with this?

Well when clients watch me train this way, unanimously they say there is nothing wrong with it, but when others describe this event they often speak of dogs being jerked and tortured.

Dogs being hammered in training this way would not see this as reinforcement as they would be in avoidance, perhaps fight, flight or freeze mode and would learn nothing.

My goal is not to stop a dog showing aggression through punishment, it is to replace the need for aggression with rational, motivated and reinforced behaviours.

To get these behaviours to display, I may need to use other than positive reinforcement and when I do, very often, the dog develops confidence as he or she knows how to achieve the negative reinforcement, this new found confidence often reduces stress and the dog starts to take food now.

This means that every behaviour now may be able to be both positively and negatively reinforced!

Bad stress

Whilst stress is a normal part of life there is good and bad stress; stress that is beyond what the dog can cope with is going to result in bad stress.

An example may be that a dog displays fear aggression towards other dogs. The dog is brought into an area where there is another dog within the dogs critical distance and the dog starts to react with aggression.

The handler or trainer delivers some very strong punishment in order to punish the behaviour the dog is displaying.

Repeated enough the dog will shut down. This will see the reactivity stop and it appears that the problem is coming to an end.

But is it?

Well  the true answer is that “it depends”.

In my programs, this is not the path I choose, I always teach the dog the correct behaviours and reinforce those first, yes, positively or negatively. This means I may give the dog calm praise, a piece of food delivered calmly or a pet on the side.

I may also give a light pop on a correction collar or even repeated light pops to give the dog the opportunity to offer the correct behaviour.

This is all done within the dogs comfort zone so that the dog CAN cope and CAN learn, which is done in a safe room where the dog can focus without the concern of dogs and or strangers approaching.

I personally believe that even very serious dogs can improve dramatically by teaching alternate behaviours and never actually punish the undesirable behaviours, this works for us a very high percentage of the time, but I know other successful trainers that do punish behaviours directly and have success with that.

As I said “each to their own” and “it depends” are the answer of this person who has worked a lot of dogs with major issues, at this stage of my life there are no solid single solutions to every problem, but I believe of all the solutions I have, there is one for every dog.

A reasonable amount of time

I have mentioned this term thousands of times whilst in lessons, presentations, seminars and articles I have written and it is worthwhile exploring what this means.

There are no amount of minutes, hours or days or months in a reasonable amount of time. It is basically an amount of time before the process becomes UN reasonable.

Let’s say a person has a dog that is reactive to people, and every time they take the dog for a walk, the dog becomes aggressive and lunges and barks at people.

The person engages a trainer who develops a strategy to modify the behaviour.

Three months go by and there may a very small to no improvement, the dog lunges at a person who calls the council and the dog is declared dangerous or seized.

That reasonable amount of time was 3 months, wasn’t it?

In that time the owner had lost or begun to lose hope at the little to no improvement that has taken place, the council became involved and has taken over your dogs freedom and or perhaps life to keep the community safe.

Perhaps a different program that by the time the dog had been training for three months was much more comfortable around people and did not find it necessary to lunge and bark, thus walking past that stranger and council never became involved.

Right now it has come to, is it worth using some positive and negative reinforcement so that your dog can progress past the point where there is no need for council to be called?

Given that the negative reinforcement may only have been created through very light leash pops, well within your dogs comfort zone?

All dogs are not the same

There are very many dogs that will thrive on positive reinforcement / negative punishment strategies where no training aids or collars are needed, there is only the addition and removal of rewards, I have always said that and I have met plenty of them and own them too.

I work with many trainers who come here for training, mentoring, master classes etc and very many of them very often see some of the dogs I am working with and remark “my god I would never want to work with dogs like that!“.

Sadly, many of the dogs that come to me are on their last chances, they have defeated every trainer and strategy put to them and remain aggressive and dangerous.

They may have been referred by other professionals, their owners may be at their wits end (read this article Are you living in an abusive relationship with your dog? Click here), council may have them under advisement to euthanize their dog or their dog may have done something terrible, such as killed another dog or bitten a child.

These are not dogs that many trainers get to see, they do not respond to simplistic methods with rewards only, the danger of catastrophe is real and the reasonable amount of time may be that we may need to show some light at the end of the tunnel in one session or the owner will feel like they are heading down another dark, endless hole.

I do not in any way care what methods a trainer chooses to use, after all I am not hiring them, but legally the service must be of merchantable quality, so we all have an obligation to provide an effective service to our clients, not one we like but does not prove effective.

Having that said, I understand that many people work with very different dogs than I do, and if they are happy with what they are doing and their clients are happy, then they should have a successful business and I wish them all the luck.

I have a very successful dog sports program, and a Team of people (Team K9Pro) that excel in dogs sports all over Australia, and not just one sport but an array of sports from ANKC Obedience, Rally Obedience, IPO, Agility, Flyball, DWD, SAR, Noseworks, Herding, Retrieving and others, in fact I don’t know of a single other group in Australia that has more podium finishes than Team K9Pro. (here is a video of them in action)

All of these dogs are primarily trained in my Training in Drive system which mainly uses Positive Super Reinforcers and Negative Punishment (adding and removing of rewards), but no matter how much I like training in this system, I accept that it is will not achieve all goals and I am versatile enough to move comfortably to a system that will work with a clients dog.


If you asked a person to run to the corner and back, and just before they took off you looked at your watch and said GO.

You just added pressure to the majority.

The result of that pressure may make them push harder to get the task done faster, it will have added stress, probably physical and mental, but as long as they were within their comfort zone, it is all good.

Therefore the pressure MOTIVATED them to try harder.

If you gave someone a complicated puzzle and said that you would give them $50.00 if the can unlock the puzzle, you just added pressure and stress.

The reward pressure may motivate them to keep working on the puzzle long after they want to give up, the stress may cause them to throw the puzzle on the floor in frustration.

It is all in how we structure the sessions as to how well the dog will respond, therefore you will find that a great trainer will get great results, regardless of methods, tools or gossip.

I have worked with hundreds of thousands of dog owners over my career, they have sat and watched me work with their dogs and never once has anyone ever said that the dog was suffering…

I am confident and comfortable in my abilities to not worry about what everyone else is doing…

Dog owners who need help, just like you are smart, smart enough to know what works on your dog and how to help your dog.

Let’s help them the best we we can, by helping their dogs.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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One comment

  1. I am confident and comfortable in my abilities to not worry about what everyone else is doing…

    I love this comment I am striving for this with my dogs !

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