Modern vs. Traditional Dog Training: What’s the Difference?

Before you start a program, make sure you know all the facts. Here's how we break down the two camps.


There are so many dog-training techniques represented in the media and various forums online that it can be difficult to figure out the options available to dog owners. Celebrity trainer Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Millan takes a traditional stance, while Victoria Stilwell, star of Animal Planet’s It’s Me or the Dog, represents modern training. Each camp claims to get more efficient results and cause less stress to the dog. In the profession of dog training, a common joke is, “If you put three dog trainers in a room, the only thing two of them can agree on is that the third is wrong.” Before you begin training your dog, let’s look at the major differences between these techniques.

Proactive vs. reactive

Modern training (often called “positive training”) focuses on preventing behavior problems from occurring and, when they do crop up, replacing them with positively trained alternatives. Modern trainers believe that the leader is whoever controls access to desired resources.

Traditional trainers suppress such behavior through punishment and corrections, and attempt to attain “dominance” over the dog.

Physical correction

Modern trainers avoid the use of shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, or other physical corrections, believing that the use of punishment and aversives can create more behavior problems than they solve.

Meanwhile, traditional trainers rely on these techniques, arguing that leadership is gained through intimidation and “putting the dog in his place.”

Teaching vs. manipulation

Modern trainers teach a dog a concept through capturing, targeting, or shaping, and then add a cue to the behavior that tells the dog that reinforcement may occur if he does this thing now. The dog is actively learning — he will experiment to find out how to earn reinforcement.

Traditional trainers give a command and then manipulate or coerce the dog into position using hands, leashes, or food lures. Commands indicate to the animal, “You’d better do this now, or else a correction is on the way.” The dog is a passive participant — yet he must experiment to find out how to avoid punishment.

Cues vs. control

Modern training focuses on teaching your dog to control himself by responding to well-taught cues. Traditional training relies on physically controlling your dog, which may be impractical and impossible for elderly or disabled handlers of powerful dogs.

Blaming the plan vs. blaming the dog

When a dog misbehaves, a modern trainer blames the training plan -– where did it break down and how can we fix it? Does the dog need a higher rate of reinforcement or fewer distractions? Is your cue signal clear? Modern trainers believe we can never truly know what a dog is thinking or feeling, but that we can observe his behavior, use our knowledge of body language to assess his emotional state as accurately as possible, evaluate the antecedents and consequences for the behavior, and manipulate them accordingly.

Traditional trainers blame the dog: “He knows this behavior and is not responding out of spite or to challenge me — therefore he must be punished.” They often make assumptions about “dominance” or the dog’s other emotional states.

Science vs. anecdotal evidence

Modern training is based on scientific research in the field of behavior. Traditional training is based on anecdotal evidence and advocates training techniques that are refuted by modern behavioral science.

Recommended further reading: The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s “Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in the Behavior Modification of Animals” and “The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals.”

As you might have guessed, we tend to side with modern training. What about you? What method to you prefer and why? Let us know in the comments!

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