Canine Trade Group’s Decisions NOT Dominance Training Protocol

By John Van Olden


There is a widespread misconception that there are only two ways to train a dog – either all-positive “treat training” or dominance-based “punishment” training. This is a view that is held by many professionals in the pet industry, including some dog trainers. However, this black-and-white view of dog training could not be more inaccurate. I’d like to explain a bit about these two ways of training a dog and, along the way, familiarize you with our preferred training protocol: decision-based dog training, or “Decisions Not Dominance”.

I’ve been a professional dog trainer for over three decades, and as such, I’ve had a front-row seat for the emergence and growth of many dog-training methods. I have participated in many aspects of the dog-training industry, including sitting on the committees of the oldest professional organization of dog trainers and on the board of directors of an international association of dog trainers. Over the years, I’ve made it a point to maintain my connections throughout the industry, and I can say with confidence that the black-and-white perception of dog training is alive and well, even among dog trainers who really ought to know better.

Let me be very clear:  Dog training is NOT black and white like this!  Just because the methods that a trainer uses would not be considered “all positive” (Including head halters, no pull harnesses) and don’t necessarily rely on “treat training” does not mean that the methods involve harsh techniques, “Being the alpha”, or “forcing the dog to submit.” 

Throughout my career I’ve relied primarily on professional referral to find clients, and in doing so, I’ve maintained relationships with countless dog professionals including veterinarians, vet techs, groomers, and dog walkers. While I was a full-time dog trainer, I would often make presentations to these professionals to share my decision-based approach to training and explain how it can benefit their clients, their staff, and their business. Even now, as president of the largest organization of dog training professionals in the world, I still give these presentations several times a month.

During these presentations, there are two questions that emerge more than any other: “What is your training method” and “This isn’t dominance training, is it?”

Let me be very clear:  Dog training is NOT black-and-white like this! Just because the methods that a trainer uses would not be considered “all positive” or rely on treat training, it does not mean that the methods must involve harsh techniques, like “being the alpha” or forcing the dog to submit. The dog training protocol the Canine Trade Group dog trainers, and I, advocate is neither of these things; decision-based dog training is, by all accounts, a happy medium for both ends of the leash.

Much of dominance-based training involves putting a dog in a position where he’s going to fail, or make an undesirable behavior choice, and then correcting him when he does so. The logic behind this is that dogs communicate this way with each other. This is true – the more dominant dog will check another dog when that dog does something he doesn’t like – but we don’t need to act like an alpha dog in order for our pet to change his behavior. After all, we are families, not packs, and there is a huge difference between “pack member” and “family member” right?  I always tell my clients, “We don’t have to do it the way they do… we have thumbs!”

In that spirit, decision-based training embraces the balance between pack and pet. It is designed to set the dog up for success as much as possible so that we have to “correct” him as little as possible. No one likes telling his or her dog “No!” and that’s okay; in fact, that makes you a decent human being and pet parent!

It takes a bit of strategy and management to set a dog up for success, but since we’re the ones with the ability to reason and think a few steps ahead, why wouldn’t we?  First, we remove the opportunity for failure, a.k.a. bad behavior, by removing “triggers” – anything that causes the dog to perform the bad behavior. During this time, we’ll teach the dog what we want him to do instead. This doesn’t mean that we avoid the dog’s triggers permanently. (That’s management, after all, and not training — a protocol that is, unfortunately, followed by many trainers and behaviorists.) It simply means we take the time to develop the desired behavior before the trigger is presented again. At that point, it’s most fair to tell your dog “no” for an incorrect behavior choice or say “yes” for a correct behavior choice.

We repeat this scenario again and again to allow the dog to practice making the right decision and thus be rewarded, which strengthens the behavior and builds trust between the dog and its human.

When you consistently and accurately reinforce a dog’s choice in this manner, behavior changes…every time!  It works simply because dogs will always do what’s in their best interest, and we’ve now taken the time to set up training scenarios to teach them which behaviors are in their best interest. The fact that you’re the one providing the “best interest” part (a.k.a the rewards) is not lost on your dog. This is what begins to build and, in most cases, repair the relationship between you and your dog. Rewards are a crucial component of the process!

The idea that you can’t shower your dog with rewards if you want a well-behaved dog is simply untrue. In fact, I’d argue that rewards are a pivotal part of a healthy pet-owner relationship.

We all hear a lot of fuss from those who take issue with “correcting” or “saying no” and choose to train using nothing but rewards (praise, play, treats, etc.). Again and again, throughout my career, I’ve worked behind dog trainers who train dogs using only rewards. Don’t get me wrong; rewards are absolutely invaluable – this is how I encourage a good behavior – but as much as I’d like to be able to just “yes” away a bad behavior, it’s not possible for any species.

There are a few critical flaws in “all-positive” dog training methods, but the biggest flaw is that a dog can’t reason. If your dog performs an undesired behavior, and you ignore that behavior but reward him once he offers the correct behavior, he can’t think, “Oh, they must want me to do this and not that!” I’ve seen dogs do incredible things, but I have yet to meet a dog capable of deductive reasoning. All-positive dog training unfairly expects the dog to reason through his behavior options, which of course he cannot do. That makes this method unreliable at best and completely ineffective at worst, yet there are those who continue to insist that this is the most effective way to teach a dog to respond reliably.

In our human world, “no” is a fact of life, and it’s a fact of life throughout the animal kingdom, too. There are some things you just cannot do, and when you do these things, there are consequences. Without a consequence, a dog has little incentive to avoid a particular behavior – and absolutely no understanding that this behavior is not okay! Ultimately, when you fail to administer a consequence for a bad behavior, you set the dog up for failure. He has no idea that this behavior is off limits, so why wouldn’t he do it again?  He’ll do it again when his urge to do the bad behavior overrides his urge to get the reward for the good behavior. This is bound to happen eventually.

Think about it… How many dogs have been euthanized because no one ever explained to them that a particular behavior was unacceptable? When they continued to do it, it was concluded that they were “beyond help”. How many dogs have been euthanized because we were unwilling to say “no” to serious behavior like human aggression, leash reactivity, or resource guarding? You do not have to use harsh methods, intimidation, or extreme force with a dog in order to change these behaviors.

It’s about decisions, not dominance.


What is Consequence?


Many trainers who understand the necessity of consequences learn how to administer a consequence using a particular tool, then proceed to train every dog using this same tool. This is especially common among trainers who utilize the e-collar (which is not a tool we typically use, simply because it’s so often misunderstood and misused). I cannot possibly say that any training method that avoids consequences is a fair way to train a dog, but at the same time, I cannot say that using the same tool to train every single dog is fair, either. Every dog is different!

I would argue that a fair consequence is just enough to make the dog want to avoid a particular behavior, but no more. To give more is unfair, but to give less is equally unfair because you’ll constantly be punishing and developing a contentious relationship with your dog. Moreover, it’s also unfair to stop the process at administering a consequence. When you fail to take the time to show the dog what happens when he does the correct behavior and give him a reward, you fail to set him up for success in future scenarios. Probably the biggest component of our training protocol is coaching our clients on how to do this. If a consequence is necessary, I would hope that it would be followed by repeating the scenario multiple times to give the dog a chance to succeed. In a perfect world, the reward-to-consequence ratio should be at least 5:1.

I advocate viewing each dog as an individual (and each client and environment, for that matter) and teaching the dog’s owner how to say “no” to their dog in a way that is fair but effective. Most importantly, I focus on coaching and encouraging owners to follow a consequence with reward-based training opportunities. Set your dog up to succeed by taking away the opportunity to fail!

“Good” dog training is fair, effective, and individualized, and Canine Trade Group dog trainers are the best! We are talented in teaching a dog’s human family how to shift the relationship with their dogs away from one that is conflict-based and full of frustration, in which their dogs hear “no” continuously and ineffectively, to one where they primarily hear “yes”.

If your dog’s behavior has some (or a lot of) room for improvement, please don’t fall for the black-and-white perception of dog training. There is a happy medium that has stood the test of time, and we have tens of thousands of happy clients and dogs to show for it. Our methods get results, even with the most dramatic behavior problems.

Change is possible!