Dogs are not dolphins. I’m sure that sounds like an obvious, perhaps even ridiculous, statement but there was a movement in the 1980’s that popularized the concept of training dogs in a similar fashion to how dolphins and other exotic animals were being trained for amusement parks. This training became known as Clicker Training and is based on shaping behaviors using rewards (Positive Reinforcement).

In this system of training there is no forced compliance, no use of aversive punishment (corrections) and it’s basically a “Never Say No” system. The only negative consequence is the withholding of rewards (Negative Punishment).

Because these tactics come from training exotic animals, the primary reinforcement is food rewards. Food rewards are great but only to a point. The over reliance on food can actually be corrosive to intrinsic motivation and your relationship with your dog. It appears that many of these trainers forget, or don’t realize, that dogs are one of the few animals that respond well to genuine praise and affection as rewards. I have written about this before in an article titled, Intrinsic Motivation: Beyond Carrots and Sticks, which was inspired by the book, Drive, by Daniel Pink.

Other terms you may hear for this style of training are Positive, Reward-Based, Lure-Reward, Hands-Off or Force-Free dog training. There are probably other terms as well but for this article we will call it Positive/Clicker Training.

Positive/Clicker Training is excellent for teaching new behaviors and has been used to teach dogs to do many amazing things. It’s also great for building motivation and creating positive associations with people, places, things and with training in general. There is no rational debate over these and other benefits of Positive/Clicker Training.

Every great trainer in business today borrows from Positive/Clicker Training. They may not buy into it 100%, but they definitely borrow from it. Even some of the most “Old School” trainers around have come to realize that you can’t deny the power of using positive reinforcement in your training system…keeping in mind that food is not the only form of positive reinforcement and that dogs can be positively motivated in many other ways.

I could be wrong on this, since I have never trained a dolphin, but I’m guessing they probably don’t get happy and wag their tail if you say, “Good Dolphin,” in a loving voice while petting them. Hence, they are usually trained with deprivation and buckets of fish. (If there are any dolphin trainers reading this please contact me if I'm wrong.) However, what I know for sure is that dogs will work with you because they love being with you, interacting with you and playing with you…assuming you have a healthy relationship. That being said, food can still be helpful in many cases, just beware the downside of overusing food. Don’t forget to pet and praise your dog while giving the treats, put some charm and personality into it, let your dogs know you love them and are proud of them.

A Radically Different Paradigm

Please understand that Positive/Clicker Training (in its purest form) is radically different from Traditional Dog Training. It’s not simply a softer way of training, it’s a completely different view of what dog training is and what results can be expected. For example: Positive/Clicker Training has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with enforcing commands or teaching a dog to stop/avoid unwanted behaviors. In fact, commands are never given, only cues…no telling, only asking. It is strictly about motivating dogs to want to perform behaviors and rewarding them for it.

In the extreme Positive/Clicker Training philosophy it is believed that controlling, commanding or saying, “No!,” to dogs is unethical. Therefore, they are not offering “Positive” solutions for gaining control over dogs, they are suggesting that controlling dogs is unethical. Here’s a quote from Roger Abrantes, a well respected author, speaker, trainer, PhD in evolutionary biology and ethology and a very influential man in the dog training industry to highlight how many think about the subject of dog training.

“I do enjoy being kind to other animals, respecting them for what they are and interacting with them on equal terms; I don’t believe it is right to subjugate them to my will, to command them, to change them; and I don’t need a rational justification as to why that’s right for me.” – Roger Abrantes

I'll be the first to admit that statements like this can really tug at the heartstrings and sound beautiful. However, in my experience, this is also where philosophy and reality tend to clash. When a philosophy such as this is melded into a method of dog training, by definition, it becomes very limited in what it can achieve for dog owners who are struggling with their dog's behavior problems. So, let’s put this dog training thing in perspective.


While obedient-control may be irrelevant in dolphin training, dog training is a different story. As much as dog owners love the idea of being “Positive”, most of them desperately need to stop unwanted behaviors and control their dogs. My clients are often at their wit's end because their dogs have become seriously, often dangerously, problematic. They need fast results that don’t cost a fortune. Most people have limited resources and just need to be able to live with their dog, they don’t need to teach him to do somersaults or load the dishwasher. What my clients really don't need is to be made to feel guilty, or cyber-bullied, for using tools and techniques that actually work. Especially not by people who offer little more than a warm-fuzzy philosophy that doesn't hold water. 

From the perspective of what has traditionally been called Obedience Training, from the perspective that people should be able to control their dogs, from the perspective that it’s actually an ethical imperative and social responsibility that people have control over their dogs, there are clearly massive limitations to what can be achieved with Positive/Clicker Training. In fact, those things can’t be achieved at all, it is not even a goal of that style of training. This is not my opinion, this is a fact. Anyone that argues otherwise simply does not understand what Positive/Clicker Training is.

From a Dog Psychology perspective, Positive/Clicker Training is unnatural and incomplete. Canine communication is actually rooted in avoidance or correction-based learning (Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement). Puppies start receiving corrections from their mother and having quarrels with littermates as early as three weeks old. Contrarily, dogs don’t teach each other to do tricks in exchange for food. They may encourage another dog to wrestle, chase, share a toy and so forth but otherwise they really don’t tell each other specific things to do. That is primarily a human construct. In fact, dogs are much more likely to tell each other what they don’t want than what they do want.

All that being said, we still need to teach dogs to do certain things, it’s just not exactly in line with nature. We also need to teach dogs to stop doing a lot of things, which is also unnatural. For example: Dogs don’t tell each other to sit, come or heel. Dogs also don’t care if other dogs dig, counter surf, bark, raid the garbage bins, bite the mailman, etc. In fact, they may think it looks like a great idea and join in on the action! In general, due to our human societies, we need to train dogs in ways that dogs simply don’t do with each other but, as we decide what and how to train, we should always remember that we are training dogs…not dolphins, not bears, not tigers, not chickens…dogs, we are talking about training dogs.


To be clear, I am not knocking Positive/Clicker Training, I think it is fantastic for many things, I am merely clarifying its attributes and shedding some light on its limitations. Obviously Positive/Clicker Training works well enough for dolphin trainers to entertain audiences and it has done a lot to improve the overall state of modern dog training. However, dogs are not dolphins, they have a different psychology and, more importantly, a totally different set of training requirements. Dogs are pets, they live with us. We take our dogs hiking in the mountains, to lakes, beaches, shopping centers, dog parks, coffee shops, etc. Dolphins are clearly not household pets, they live in the water. Dolphins don’t bark, dig, bite the mailman, chew up the furniture, steal food from the counters or jump on guests. The level of what I call Life Integration Training needed for a truly fulfilling dog life is going to require a Balanced style of training that includes praise and rewards along with enforceable commands and the ability to say, “No!”

This is a potentially long winded and controversial topic that, believe it or not, I have barely scratched the surface of. I am happy to cover this in more detail, dissecting articles and scientific studies, sharing anecdotes and tons of quotes from the literature, in a private consult with anyone who is interested. Otherwise, what it really comes down to is this:

The relevance of dolphin training tactics tends to be somewhat limited in the context of Life Integration Training for pet dogs. Note: I said somewhat limited, not without value. At the end of the day, the best dog trainers from all over the world know that good training is all about balance.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2019

Related Articles:

Dog Psychology part 1: What Is Dog Psychology?

Dog Psychology part 2: Dog Are Not Furry Humans

Dog Psychology part 4: Dogs Are Descendants of Wolves

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