Balanced training versus (Purely) positive, the great divide….

I might as well call this article “Working dog trainers versus Pet trainers.” Because that is really what we are talking about here. The great divide that exists between the two forms of training and the ongoing skirmish that ensues whenever one side meets the other.

Over the last few days the skirmish has been very visible on a lot of media outlets and both sides dug in for a battle of wills over who was better and why….

The problem is tho, the views tend to be one sided. Specially from the (Purely) positive side. There is an attitude of “Everything you can do, I can do better.” And boy does that rub us working dog trainers the wrong way… Why? Because we know when it comes to working dogs, that training a dog for a task like taking down a bad guy, or to go into a fight and risk its life, over and over, that (purely) positive training simply does not work! It’s not that we are extremely stubborn in this and stomp our feet because we want to be right. It is that we have tried and failed miserably in the process to produce the type of dog that is needed to protect and serve. What rubs us the wrong way even more is when someone then proceeds to step into our world and proclaim “We want to change your training because we know better.” We get told our ways are outdated, that we are cruel, mean, abusers of dogs. We get told that “one training fits all” to ignore the bad, and reward the good. We just don’t understand how it works and if we just adjust our views to see that we are wrong, and they are right, things might change for the better for the dogs.

Here is the thing tho? Not many, if any of those (purely) positive people has ever set a foot inside the working dog trainers world to see for themselves how it works. They have mostly based their views on what they think happens and not what they know happens. There is no such thing as an open mind in (purely) positive training. You either follow suit, or you are evil. Every dog is a pet that needs to be loved on like family. And, I will be honest here, in part I agree with that theory. I have trained xMalinois and xDutch Shepherd’s in KNPV for the last 30 years and yes, I loved and love each and every one of them and they were family to me, right up to the moment that they moved on to their new life in law enforcement or the Military. But I also draw a line as far as loving on and treating as family goes when it comes to dogs. A dog is still a dog. It is not one of my children and it does not get the same rights as a human would. I treat it as a dog. I use a dog perspective when dealing with my dogs. I try to keep things as dog logical as possible and I do not let my human thoughts, ideas and feeling interfere with those thoughts, ideas and feelings. A dog, in my eyes, should be treated with respect and in a dog worthy manner. Not expecting from it to understand our human emotions or to adjust to those human emotions and ideas of what a dog should truly be.

As a working dog trainer I have a very simple set of views when it comes to dogs and how they should be trained. The training should suit the dog in front of you and you should adjust your training according to what the dog gives you to work with. What are the basic rules I use for training of Police K9’s ?


  1. When my dog shows me unwanted behavior I check what I am doing wrong.
  2. Gray areas do not exist in the working dog world. Black and white only. No means no!
  3. What I do not want to deal with tomorrow, I do not allow today.
  4. I never ask my dogs anything. I tell them.
  5. Every action deserves a reaction. Good is reward, bad is correction.


Now, here is what I see in the (purely) positive camp….


  1. Reward the good.
  2. Ignore the bad.
  3. One training fits all.

I can only agree with nr.1. The rest? Nope, not buying it. You are waiting for it to discover on its own how things work and not teaching it what it should know. You are not giving it the skill set it needs to make decisions for its own. You are not teaching a dog the consequences of its actions. This is something I am against when it comes to raising, training and educating your dog to be a balanced and healthy family member and or working dog.

The biggest problem I see or rather the divide between the 2 groups is this. Assumption. The working dog owners and or handlers / trainers see the positive trainers as cookie tossing, tree hugging hippies with fur babies as to where the positive trainers see the working dog trainers as abusive, angry, dominant dog kickers that beat their dog across the field in order to train it. I will admit, I am the first to throw out the cookie comment and even add a “Go hug a tree” when I am frustrated at once again having to deal with a positive trainer coming in on a conversation with proclamations of grandeur over how they can train the dogs we train just as well, if not better. Not because I don’t know about their form of training, but because I know exactly what their form of training is and I know the comment will rile them up to unreasonable levels. The thing is tho, they do not know what our form of training is. They have based their entire view and idea of how police dogs and or working dogs are trained on nothing more then assumption and speculation. They do not have any intimate knowledge of what happens. They just heard stories, from other non working dog people and take it for scripture. They see training tools and immediately begin to create this dramatic picture inside their brains about dogs being tortured into submission on a daily basis. You use an E collar? YOU ARE MEAN! You use a Prong? YOU ARE MEAN! You use a pinch? YOU ARE MEAN! They do not look further beyond the mean part. You are doing something that is vile as a working dog trainer and that’s that! If you dare reply or give an indication of how the tools are used…. YOU ARE A BULLY! It never enters their mind that nothing could be less true, or that the might learn something about working dogs as a whole by asking questions… No, you do not follow suit of the positive training rules so therefor you are now to be chastised and labeled a BULLY, and a mean one at that.

If I look back over the last 30 years in the dog world, how it has evolved, and the impact that evolution has had on dogs in general I can only say that it has not been that much of an improvement for the dog as a whole. Political correctness has reared its ugly head and dogs are more and more being treated as human, children, babies…. And the end result of that is? More bites to children and adults. More dog related human deaths due to irresponsible owner actions. More dogs being put in shelters because of the humanization of dogs as a whole. More dogs being euthanized due to lack of knowledge and control over the dogs that are being bred and owned. The dogs may get a better treatment in people’s eyes, but is it really getting a better treatment? Or is it now paying a higher price for this perceived better treatment? Ever notice how the dogs that end up being killed in shelters are Pets? Not working dogs? Ever notice how the dogs that have aggression issues are pets? Not working dogs? Ever notice bites to children are made by pets? Not working dogs? Ever notice how human deaths in relation to dogs are in relation to pets? Not working dogs? Ever notice how you hardly ever hear about issues in the working dog world with dogs? But in the pet world it is drama galore. In the positive world of training they managed to build a whole industry around it to make money out of it. What does this tell you? That the working dog world is a bad place? That it is a cruel place? That it is a dangerous place for the dogs? Or does it tell you that the working dog world still has its eye on the ball! And it will keep its eye on the ball. It will keep doing what it has always done… Look at the dog, see what it needs, reward the good and correct the bad….

That is the great divide between the working dog world and the positive working dog world. We deal with reality every day. We take the dogs that would be put to sleep in the pet world and give them a task, any task! And they do it, and enjoy doing it! We give them a part in our lives where they know what they are, what is expected of them and what the bottom line is. They get treated as dogs! Not as humans…. It is so easy for people to say, I can train the same dogs you do and do a better job of it but you do not know the type of dogs we work with, or how we work with them, or why we use that particular breed for the work they do…. Instead of assuming something, ask, learn, listen…. There are plenty of us out there willing to explain how it works but sadly enough there are more out there unwilling to listen… Stop thinking with your heart and start using your head. Instead of saying that one training fits all, realize that every dog needs a different approach and that a pet dog is not the same as a working dog that has been bred for a specific purpose for decades. Be open minded for a change… That is what the great divide is about….


Alice Mackenzie.


7 thoughts on “Balanced training versus (Purely) positive, the great divide….

  1. Hi My name is Steve Dean, I am a retired police dog handler/trainer from the uk. I read your blog with interest and couldn’t agree with you more. Below is an account of an encounter with a positive only dog trainer I had some years back at a dog show. If only both sides could find some common ground it would open up an opportunity for us all to learn. I wrote this in response to a Facebook comment.

    The woman approached the police dog stand and introduced herself with the words “and exactly how are police dogs trained these days”. A friend of mine and a qualified behaviourist jumped in and said “it’s all done with praise and reward”. I then said “mainly”. My behaviourist friend raised her eyebrows as if to say ‘I tried to help’ 🙂

    The woman said “what do you mean by mainly’ to which I replied ” exactly that, in the main we train using positive methods based on rewarding correct behaviour however there are occasions when we may need to use an alternative such as a check chain, pinch collar or an e collar”. It was at this point she called me morally disgusting. I then asked her if she could think of any situation where she would accept that an e collar was justified. She nearly exploded in her denial. I asked her if she had the time to listen to a scenario and comment on it using her extensive positive only experience. She agreed and so I recounted the following case that had occurred not long before.


    An 18 month old male GSD was donated to the police. A nice dog with excellent temperament who was unsuitable as a family pet as he needed to work and was knocking the kids over and keeping himself busy resulting in damage. Nevertheless a nice dog.

    He was put on to a basic training course and excelled in every way. Towards the later part of the course he began to show reluctance to ‘out’. At first he could be persuaded to out using a toy or another bite but he soon became oblivious to any and all ‘positive’ means of persuasion to release the bite. Please believe me when I say everything was tried using the knowledge of both police and civilian (sports) dog trainers. This dog was not going to out.

    I explained to my posi only friend that as the course reached its final week and testing was imminent unless this dog outed on command it would fail. If it failed on a safety issue which could not be rectified by further training its future was bleak. It couldn’t be returned to its previous owner as it was now a trained bite dog. Other agencies required the same standards so wouldn’t take an unsafe dog. In all probability the police management would recommend that the dog was euthanised.

    Faced with the choice of using an e collar to achieve the out or putting the dog to sleep which would she choose?

    Initially she wouldn’t commit herself saying that there ‘MUST’ be some other way but believe me we had tried everything and taken outside advice.

    I then asked her if she would be prepared to hold this young, happy, nice temperament dog while the vet killed it. She replied no she wouldn’t. I replied that neither would I, not until I had tried EVERYTHING in my power to rectify that one small issue, including the use of the e collar.

    I then asked her the question again to which she agreed that the e collar was acceptable in those circumstances.

    For the record, the e collar did solve the problem and the dog went on to complete 8 years service and was a super police dog.

    I’m not sure what would happen today as the pinch and e collar are banned in police dog training. Maybe modern police dog trainers are better than we were in those days and wouldn’t need an e collar but I don’t think that is the case.

    I’m not a cruel man but I do believe that the more tools you have in your box the better practitioner you can be even if some of those tools are only used in very exceptional cases and may appear unpalatable to many of the uninitiated.

    What can be more cruel than killing a healthy young dog ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree more with you if I tried. I know what would happen if the tools got banned here in the Netherlands. We would end up with dogs that either did as they pleased, therefor becoming a liability that would end up dead or they would not have the heart needed to actually get in the fight when the moment came for them to do their jobs. I have been doing this for 30 years and I have seen it evolve in such a manner that the humanization of dogs is becoming unstoppable. It does not make sense to the dogs tho. In their incessant need to be political correct people are overshooting the actual well being of the animals they think they are protecting. They would rather see it die then get helped if the helping is somehow in the form of correction. People refuse to see both sides of training. It is not just correction, it is reward as well! But that gets forgotten. I have trained my dogs with correction and reward and an amount of compulsion. They all went into the Dutch Law enforcement. Solid dogs, good nerves, happy and level headed workers that knew right from wrong. The problem is tho, the PP crowd can not look beyond the correction to see the other side of the dogs. They can not comprehend such a thing or blatantly refuse to see it. We live in a crooked world my friend. Where everyone is a winner, no is to be held responsible for their own actions and where political correctness rules the roost…. And lets face it… It’s not even the tools we use, it is the way we feel about how a dog should be treated. A dog is a dog, not a child or human being, it does not grasp the concept of human emotion yet todays thinking and training of dogs in the new age is all about what we think and feel that the dog is, not about the actual dog anymore. No deadlier word in the dog world then “Humane”

      Thank you for sharing your story! I appreciate it immensely!


  2. The great divide between purely positive and working dog trainers is similar to the divide between behaviorists and modern learning theorists that occurred in the late 1960s and early 70s. Purely positive dog trainers operate according to behaviorists’ (old outmoded) stimulus-response (S-R) theory in which it was supposed that the strength of learning a response was governed by the frequency with which it was followed with reinforcement. The strength of an associative connection between environmental events (stimuli) and a response was thought to increase with each successive reinforced trial. Thorndike called this strengthening of S-R connections by pleasant events the “law of effect”. According to S-R theory it was repletion and the temporal contiguity between a to-be-conditioned event and reinforcement that was important; a reinforcement contingency, which involves differential reinforcement (two different outcomes), was unnecessary.

    An underlying factor behind stimulus-response theory was the belief that behavior could be understood without appeal to concepts such as knowledge, beliefs, intentions, or other cognitive influences. Thus, subjects did not know why they were performing a particular response or what would happen when they did so. Subjects did not acquire knowledge that a particular stimulus signaled an increase in the probability of a particular outcome or that a particular response would cause the occurrence of a particular outcome. Instead, behaviorists believed that environmental events elicited behavior, rather than the individual (see e.g. Skinner, “About behaviorism”, 1974). All behavior, even complex behavior, for all animals, including humans, under all circumstances could be explained by the stamping in of a series of stimulus-response connections. For behaviorists, stimulus-response connections were automatically and directly established either by simple contiguity between a stimulus and a response (classical conditioning) or by a combination of contiguity and the strengthening of a response through reinforcement and repetition (instrumental conditioning). All successful conditioning (learning, which to behaviorists was a change in behavior as opposed to the acquisition of new knowledge) was assumed to be the automatic consequence of temporally pairing stimulus-response events with reinforcement. Furthermore, it was assumed the presentation of an effective outcome that followed the stimulus-response served only to strengthen the connection between the stimulus and response. The reinforcer supposedly did not enter into the associative structure; it functioned only as a catalyst to strengthen the connection between the stimulus and response.

    However, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a series of experiments showed that successful conditioning is not an automatic process of associating temporally paired events. The findings from those experiments led theorists to question the importance of contiguity for successful conditioning, which had an important impact on how associative learning is now viewed. For example, Rescorla (Predictability and number of pairings in Pavlovian fear conditioning.1966) showed that successful conditioning is not governed by the temporal contiguity between a to-be-conditioned event and reinforcement, but rather it is the reinforcement contingency between the to-be-con
    ditioned event and reinforcement that is crucial.

    Rescorla divided experimental subjects into two groups. In both groups, the reinforcer always occurred five seconds after the to-be-conditioned event. Thus, both groups shared the same temporal contiguity between the to-be-conditioned event and reinforcement. However, the difference was that in the experimental group there was a reinforcement contingency and in the control group there was no reinforcement contingency. In the experimental group, if the to-be-conditioned event occurred, the reinforcer always occurred five seconds later, but if the to-be-conditioned event did not occur, reinforcement was omitted. Thus, the to-be-conditioned event was a very good source of information predicting the occurrence of the reinforcer. In the control group, in addition to the reinforcer always occurring five seconds after the to-be-conditioned event, the reinforcer also occurred more temporally distant after the to-be-conditioned event and also before the event. Thus, the occurrence of the to-be-conditioned event could not predict the occurrence of the reinforcer. After conditioning, the effects of the contingency were assessed by comparing the behavioral changes that were maintained when there was a reinforcement contingency with responses that were maintained when there was no reinforcement contingency. The results showed that very good conditioning occurred in the experimental (contingency) group but that although in both groups the reinforcer always occurred five seconds after the to-be-conditioned event, little or no conditioning occurred in the control (no contingency) group. The results also showed that animals are active processors of predictive or causal information because in order to learn the reinforcement contingency subjects had to compare the probability of the reinforcer occurring just after the to-be-conditioned event with the probability of the reinforcer occurring in the absence of the to-be-conditioned event.


  3. You’re wrong that dogs that bite are only pets.

    Recently there was a dog attack that resulted in one man dying and a woman being seriously injured. The culprit was a K9 malinois owned by a police officer. The dog had escaped his yard and attacked 2 elderly neighbours for no reason (they weren’t tormenting or antagonising the dog in any way). Dog was put down as a result and the officer quit and left town.

    There are multiple other examples of police dogs attacking innocent civilians – one that I recall was a young child strapped into a car. The dog had been sent at the car to search it (officers ignored the driver’s warning that his child was in the car) and the dog bit and mauled the child.

    If you want more examples I can find links to the news articles for you.


    1. Cellany,

      The majority of dog bites to the general public is due to pets and not k9’s or trained dogs for that matter. For your one example of a K9 killing a person I can put up over 10.000 pets that killed their owners, friends, kids, neighbours, sons, daughters and what have you not. The number of deaths and or killings by pet dogs as opposed to working or trained dogs can not even begin to be compared as equal on any stage or where ever in the world it might have taken place. Simple irrefutable fact is that working dogs and or k9’s are much better controlled than the random pet. This is however not the pets fault… The owner is always to blame for such a thing occurring since certain behaviours were ignored or not dealt with as they should have been. Even with the k9 that killed a person there is only one guilty party, the handler of the dog who let the dog escape to begin with.


      Alice MacKenzie.


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