Losing By Religion

By Sean O’Shea

If you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the current friction in the dog training world, let me ruin that for you. 🙂

There’s an approach that goes by various names. It might be called pure positive, force free, or rewards based. The concept is simple: for dogs, life and learning should always be 100% fun, comfortable, and enjoyable. You reward the behavior you like, and ignore the behavior you dislike. No tools or approaches that might impinge on 100% fun, comfortable, and enjoyable should ever be used. Anything that makes the dog uncomfortable is labeled inhumane.

It’s purported to be “scientifically based”, extremely modern, and highly evolved (even though it eschews 3 of the 4 learning quadrants science accepts.) It’s a new and better way to learn. Consequences, and all that nasty stuff the rest of us creatures learn by, are all unnecessary. It’s incredibly popular, has the best built-in marketing (who wouldn’t want to just use treats and love to create good behavior?), and has a near-religious, cult-like following among its devotees.

The only issue is, it doesn’t really work.

Let me clarify. It works really, really well to teach certain things. If you want your dog to “know” how to sit, down, place, recall, beg, roll over, shake, or do any number of behaviors or tricks, it’s awesome. But there’s a rub. There’s a big difference between “knowing” and reliably performing something. Your dog can “know” all day long and still not do…especially when you need it most. Also, there’s the little matter of it not working at all to teach what is absolutely NOT okay – dog aggression or human aggression, reactivity on leash, resource guarding, jumping, counter-surfing, poop eating, just to name a few.

In other words, it’s a great yes, but a terrible no.

But, if you listen to the devotees, they’ll tell you it does it all, with any dog. It creates absolutely reliable recalls…even around squirrels and other dogs. It creates awesome, non-pulling walks, eradicates reactivity on-leash, stops jumping, fixes human or dog aggression, and makes resource guarding a thing of the past. And all without any of those nasty tools, or having to be “mean” to your dog.

So we’ve got all these claims of awesome results, all done in a loving, kind, aversive-free fashion. There’s mountains of books, DVDs, workshops, and websites, all claiming amazing results and help for those in need. We’ve got trainers swearing they can do seriously amazing rehab with seriously tough dogs. We’ve heard legendary tales of truly nasty aggression being turned around. Heavy-duty reactivity issues totally sorted. The most challenging behaviors, and all of it better handled and better solved. And once again, all achieved without those damn tools, consequences, or leadership stuff.

I mean, come on, that’s amazing. That’s like dog trainer rockstar stuff. That’s the stuff that changes the world…or at least the industry. That’s the stuff you can’t wait to see in action. The stuff you can’t wait to witness and cheer on.


When you go to find it, to cheer it on…you can’t. It’s not there. All that awesomeness has been misplaced, or tucked away somewhere. Maybe it’s so awesome that you need to join a club or get some private access code?

It’s a head scratcher for sure. Where is it all? Why can’t you find all this great stuff. Surely the folks who have this knowledge can’t wait to capture it on video and share it with the rest of the world. Surely they want to help dog owners and other trainers see this great stuff so they can all make more evolved, more enlightened decisions. Right? If you truly loved dogs you’d want everyone to have access to this great information. Right?

But alas, when you go searching, it’s nowhere to be found. Not the serious stuff. Sure you can find videos of cupcake dogs, purported to be “serious” at one point, that were never really a challenge doing great. But all that heavy-duty stuff? Crickets.

And that’s where you have to ask some hard questions. If this approach is one devised by dog lovers, who only want the best for dogs, and if this approach is truly revolutionary, why would those with this information and ability keep it to themselves? Why would dog lovers rob other dog lovers who are struggling? Why would they keep something so helpful, for so many, a secret?

And you really only have two possible answers. One, they don’t care enough about dogs and owners to share what they know and how they do it. Or two, they can’t do what they say.

Or maybe there’s a third. Maybe it’s both. Maybe the only true priority is the agenda, the religion. Maybe dogs and owners aren’t the priority at all. Maybe real results and real caring aren’t the North Star of this religion. Maybe this religion is about something else altogether.

Maybe this religion is actually more about rescuing broken people by way of rescuing dogs. The dogs, their owners, and their issues aren’t the focus. They’re the window dressing. They’re the camouflage used to distract from the true motive of the religion: the practitioners attempting to heal or retroactively protect themselves by way of protecting dogs, from what they see as parallels of their own disempowerment, lack of boundaries, and coping with what they didn’t desire in their own lives.

The dogs, the owners, the truth, don’t matter. All that matters is that that nagging pain within subsides.

That’s the religion.

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  1. Gary Jessee said:

    Sean that was a awesome article!!!!! Thank God for people like you and Jeff who are fighting for what is clearly right. Please keep doing what your doing before the haters ruin this for the rest of us who can clearly see that your 110% right. Oh yeah by the way, there’s a lot of other people waiting to find these elusive videos. Also congratulations to you and Jeff on your up coming seminars together. I just saw Jeff in Richmond. You guys are awesome !!!!!!

  2. tuffy said:

    yeah, it would be great to actually see a super aggressive, child-eating dog being 100% reliably rehabilitated *on film* via ‘pure positive’ methods. pro-positive-only people seem often to have no problem filming what they call ‘inhumane methods’, so undoubtedly they can turn that camera and their resources to film their ‘humane’ methods? i’d love to see pure positive proof 🙂
    one point though: i’m not sure pure-positive methods are actually humane. it seems inhumane for example, to keep an insecure dog in a perpetually anxious state because good boundaries (and therefore security and calmness) are never imparted.

  3. Susan Chapman said:

    Exactly!! I have so many friends who believe it’s the way to go. I trained with people who were borderline abusive. I’ve “force broken ” dogs, used a shock collar, a pinch collar, ands choke chain. The voice that I hear in my head is the voice of my obedience instructor of many years. We do not train with food, food or treats are fine if you have them on hand. What are you going to do in an emergency situation when your dog must do as instructed, a life or death situation, and you don’t have a treat……then what??? I have been in so many situations where my dog must obey or real trouble would happen and they do. I can kill my dogs with the word “No” and nothing else.

    I have asked my friends what they would do, or how they would handle it if a true red zone fight broke out at the dog park. They never have a real answer other than to say, it would work. Hahaha, I don’t think so!

    Thank you Sean for this post. I will be sharing it on my newsfeed on FB

  4. Elisha said:

    This is awesome!!! This couldn’t have popped on my FB feed (per Jeff’s share). I currently live in Paraguay, originally from Arizona. Living in a third world country is tough – culture, ideas, lack of many things, etc. I push each day to be a better community member by offering balanced training to the public. But like anywhere in the world I always get caught up in a conversation where I am describing my profession and get those odd ball questions/statements. “Aren’t you hurting the dogs?” “My dog knows all commands, I just need a treat for them.” “The prong collar is so painful for a dog.” MY RESPONSE EVERY TIME IS “PLEASE WATCH OUR VIDEOS.” I also try to explain a little bit in hopes of educating. But 9-10 times they do not care about what I have to say… I mean why wouldn’t you go watch my videos along with countless other balanced trainers that have science on their side. I wish you could write in Spanish… this article could possibly go far here. One day I will write one, but I am all alone on the front lines here fighting against “pure positive” soldiers.

    • Elisha said:

      **This couldn’t have popped on my FB feed at any better of a time (thanks to Jeff’s share).

  5. Pat Princiotto said:

    Hi Sean,
    Excellent post and I read it in both my subscription email and on Jeff’s page.
    We used to use we need, no more no less. Is no different students or adult having accommodations for a learning disability . Many dogs and students sufffer Because they are not giving the help that they so desperately need. My three dogs are much happier using some of the tools available.

    Thank you for a great blog.

  6. Cyndy Kamauu said:

    Yes – if it’s true show us. That concept of %100 positive it’s frankly bull****. That’s like saying children don’t need consequences. Ignoring a behavior is like green lighting or

  7. This is all so true! I’m trying to fight this mindset by volunteering at a local shelter. Don’t know how far I will get. Their is another side I totally don’t get! !!!! They are euthanizing reactive dogs rather than allowing a pinch collar to correct the dog. Is this the great cover up? Right now I’m showing the volunteers I can change some behavior with no tools and giving them information on what behaviors I can not change Without tools. Right now I have listening ears. I believe the problem is not at the volunteer level it’s at the top. The problem lives in that quite office away from all the barking dogs. Where a problem dog is there one day and magical gone the next. As they Tout high adoption rates.
    Keep up the good work Sean being our voice! The battle is real!!!!!

  8. Mark said:

    What a great title! You are exactly right Sean! Training (with real love) EVERY creature requires a: “do this and get a reward, but NOT that or a negative consequence will follow.” Even the ULTIMATE Teacher, God himself, teaches this way.

    DO THIS – Genesis 22:18 “And through your descendants (Abraham) all the nations of the earth will be blessed–all because you have obeyed me.” NOT THIS – Jeremiah 12:17 “But if they will not listen, then I will uproot that nation, uproot and destroy it,” declares the Lord.

    In fact, as a father of 5 children and two challenging dogs, the greater and more swift the reward on the positive side and greater the consequence on the negative side (again, all in love, not anger!!!), the faster and better results. Thank you God for loving me enough to both reward and correct me.

    • Lisa Chociej said:

      Totally nailed it, Mark 🙂

    • lisachociej45750 said:

      totally nailed it, Mark. 🙂

  9. Even though I too wish The Super Friends were real, I still find it necessary to act in my own best interest.

  10. Marsha said:

    >>They’re the camouflage used to distract from the true motive of the religion: the practitioners attempting to heal or retroactively protect themselves by way of protecting dogs, from what they see as parallels of their own disempowerment, lack of boundaries, and coping with what they didn’t desire in their own lives.<<

    I have observed over the years that many (not all, but many) of the women I have encountered that are the most strident and insistent that prong collars, electronic collars, etc are "cruel" have been victims in abusive relationships. On the one hand, you could say that the experience gave them a deeper insight into how it feels to be powerless or trapped. On the other hand, I often think they are projecting their own experience onto an animal that – to the best of my knowledge – appears to be doing just fine. Ultimately, I think there is only one valid opinion on whether any situation, technique or tool is cruel. And it belongs to the dog.

    • lisachociej45750 said:

      yep. I’ve noticed this, too.

  11. Cynthia Eliason said:

    Years ago I began to suspect that the “positive only” people were reacting to having been abused as children. And when I said as much on a dog trainer e-mail list, I observed, “It’s as if they don’t know the difference between a spanking and a beating!”
    Almost immediately one of them proved my point, responding, “There IS no difference!”

  12. Karl Beilstein said:

    Amazing isn’t it? We have been training dogs for eons, and suddenly we have been doing it wrong, and are cruel. Sort of like we have changed the way we teach our children. Everything is peaches and cream, and there is never a harsh word. And you are right, it does not work all the time with all dogs or children. Isn’t it time to stop caving into fads, and work to figure out what really works???

  13. You friggin nailed it my man THANKYOU!!!!!!!!!!!thankyou thankyou so much so wise so intelligent….Laura must have helped 😉 jk wishing u the best my man!

  14. lisachociej45750 said:

    My owner-trained Service Dog often needs a lot of reminders of the rules. I will use anything that will quickly, quietly, and very effectively get my point across as gently but firmly as possible. I use a prong collar, e-collar, etc, as needed for our training sessions and even our errands. Because “Positive Reinforcement Only” just does no good. She either gets too excited or thinks I’m just starting a new game or just gets too “nuts” and tries to get the thing she wants AND the “bonus” treat or other reward. So, I use the e-collar or prong. I tried using a head collar (Gentle Leader” for a while and that was no fun for either of us, since, she would not quit throwing tantrums. But if I use the prong or e-collar and certain glares, warning sounds, and a few other gestures / hand signals. Tones of voice. She knows I’m NOT happy about something. But if I use a treat (rarely do, due to how excited she often gets) then I’m VERY pleased about something. I also use tones of voice, thumbs-up, and some other things to quietly praise her without creating the excitedness. She is doing a LOT better now than when I’d first got her two years ago.

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