Dog Training: Could positive methods ever cause stress?


by Carolyn Fuhrer

The answer is yes. While all well-educated trainers strive to use positive methods to train, this choice of method does not automatically imply the learning situation is stress-free. Poor communication between dog and handler, lack of proper manipulation of consequences by the handler, failure to accurately recognize feedback from the dog, and poor timing and/or lack of feedback from the handler can lead to great stress in training, even when no harsh methods have been used.

It is important that the pathway of communication between handler and dog remains an open, two-way street, where the handler is looking and respecting feedback from the dog and the dog clearly sees the handler as a partner ready to assist and offer feedback during learning and performance of skills.

Sometimes, when we embark on a new activity, we can be over zealous because we are excited and we really think our dog is going to love this new activity. Our enthusiasm can bring with it a great deal of pressure even though we are happy, providing plenty of cookies and telling our dog how much fun this new activity is. Sadly, many new handlers come away from a new activity saying “oh, we tried …. and my dog doesn’t like it.”

When you introduce a new activity to your dog, you must take into consideration what kind of dog you have. Is your dog bold, inquisitive, likes surprises – or, is your dog thoughtful, shy maybe a little timid or wary. Introducing all dogs to a new activity the same way will not work. One size does not fit all. The way your dog is introduced to a new activity will have a profound effect upon how he views that activity in the future.

Too many trainers want to see the finished product or the complete exercise instead of building confidence and enjoyment each step along the way and usually the best results you can hope for is that the dog tolerates the exercise but never really enjoys it. You need to recognize and reinforce the early stages of initiatives each step along the way so that the dog becomes confident and will begin to drive the training.

Dogs are empowered by training and learn to be self-confident when they know they will receive consistent, fair feedback regarding their behavior. They learn to pay more attention and to try harder because they understand winning behaviors will pay well and that they can win.

We, as trainers, need to pay close attention to the choice the dog makes after he receives feedback (a consequence for behavior) in order to understand whether we are changing the behavior (strengthening or diminishing it) the way we intended to change it. We need to be observant and listen to what our dogs are trying to tell us. Just continuing down the same training path despite feedback from our dog that this is not working is a recipe for disaster.

We must keep the pathway of communication open in order for our dog to be confident and trust us. We want to build on success, not repeat failure; so, many times we must really simplify what we are asking or work with less distraction.

Training is a balance. – a two-way street between you and your dog. Without an open pathway of communication where we look for and accept feedback from the dog, we will never develop the training relationship we want.

By making a sincere effort to “listen” to what your dog is telling you and adjusting your feedback to the dog, you will open up a whole new world of enjoyable training.

Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 80 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 2 Champion Tracker titles. Carolyn is the owner of North Star Dog Training School in Somerville, Maine. She has been teaching people to understand their dogs for over 25 years. You can contact her with questions, suggestions and ideas for her column by e-mailing


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