Myth: Tough Dogs Need Tough Training

“Sure, clicker training might work for a Poodle. But a Pit Bull needs to be shown who’s boss.”

We hear this all the time, and I want to put a rest to this myth once and for all. Many people believe that clicker training and other reward-based training methods won’t work for their breed. Whether it be a Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Doberman, Cane Corso, Malinois, Rhodesian Ridgeback, or Dogo, I’m often told that a certain breed is stubborn or dominant, and therefore needs to be trained with harsh corrections in order to become a well-behaved member of society.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I would argue that these breeds especially need to be trained with positive methods, more than other breeds. Let’s bust the myths and discuss ways to present your “tough” dog in a positive light.

Abe, a male Pit Bull from NYC, passed his Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog certification tests with flying colors. He was clicker trained.

First of all, the myth that clicker training “doesn’t work” for certain breeds is downright ridiculous. Clicker training is used in zoos and aquariums worldwide for every species of animal imaginable. If we can train tigers, killer whales, wolves, and even goldfish with positive reinforcement, we can certainly clicker train an animal who has been bred to live and work with humans for thousands of generations.

Dolphins are trained to lie calmly upside-down in the water in order to allow blood to be drawn (and did I mention that they need to hold their breath while this is happening?), and to open their jaws and allow feeding tubes to be inserted. Orangutans, who are incredibly strong and can be very aggressive, are trained to offer their arms for vaccinations and routine blood draws. Elephants allow trainers to care for their feet. Zoo animals of every species imaginable are trained to hop onto a scale and hold still for accurate weights, to open their mouths for tooth exams, to go into and out of crates, and the list goes on.

If all of this can be accomplished with wild animals who would as soon kill a person as look at them, you can certainly train your “tough” (but domesticated) dog to walk nicely on leash with a clicker. Even the toughest dog is no match for the danger presented by working with cetaceans or large cats.

But don’t these dogs need to be shown who’s the boss? Absolutely! All dogs should look to their owner as a leader. However, we now know that the myth of a violent or aggressive “alpha” was based on faulty research, and in fact true leaders are almost never aggressive. They don’t need to be. Leadership is all about control of resources. Since our dogs don’t have opposable thumbs, we’re already ahead on this count.

A good leader is benevolent and trustworthy. If your dog is pushy and status-seeking, which some of the “tough” breeds can be, take a good hard look at his day-to-day life. Are you teaching him to be polite and patient? Are you asking him to work for things he wants, or handing him everything on a silver platter as soon as he demands it? A pushy dog is a sign of a poor trainer who’s not utilizing management and who’s not investing time in training. Your dog is not lying awake at night plotting how to overthrow you. Promise.

Still skeptical that your dog can be trained with a clicker? Consider this. Not only have I personally trained hundreds of Pit Bulls using nothing but positive reinforcement methods, but Laws Dogs USA trained bomb- and drug-detection dogs using these methods, and more and more law enforcement, service dog, and military trainers are turning to positive methods as they realize that these techniques produce better long-term results. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement are more reliable for situations that require perfection.

If you’re still using corrections to train your tough dog, there’s a better way. Contact us for help! Remember that certain breeds have a bad enough reputation as it is. Those of us who know and love them know how wonderful these breeds are, but the general public still thinks every Pit Bull or Rottweiler is dangerous. How much damage are you doing to your dog’s breed’s reputation when you walk him around with a huge medieval-looking prong collar around his neck? How much good can you do for his breed’s reputation if the general public instead sees you out walking him on a bright no-pull harness or pretty collar? How much good can you do for his breed’s reputation if your dog becomes a breed ambassador, behaving calmly, politely, and joyfully to your every cue? If you truly love your dog, show the world what a great dog he is!

Please comment below with your questions or stories about your favorite breed. We look forward to hearing from you!

16 responses to “Myth: Tough Dogs Need Tough Training

  1. Pingback: Carbon-Copy Dogs | Paws Abilities

  2. Wonderful Article. This is great!!

  3. Pingback: Good reads – dog behavior-related « Boogie’s blog

  4. Fabulous article! Love the suggestion to make your dog a breed ambassador instead of perpetuating the myth.

    In the human world, the “leaders” that rule with brute force are those that are barely hanging on…the “leaders” that are respected and followed are those that exude confidence and do not NEED to show force. I have successfully trained two Belgian Shepherds. Both are challenging in their own way, but one would have fought traditional methods every step of the way! He LOVES training the positive way :)

  5. Thank you for addressing my numero uno pet peeve! Bully breed advocates insist that their dogs are gentle, biddable, smart dogs (which they are!) that should be treated just like any other breed… but many of those same advocates use prong collars and say that positive training methods might work for [other dogs, smaller dogs, trick training – you fill in the blank] but not for bullies. Double standard alert! They can’t have it both ways. They’re dogs just like every other dog. Train them with kindness.

  6. Great article and in tune with my thoughts entirely. Back in the eighties when we had two GSDs the breeder and the man who ran the obedience club told us that GSDs are dogs who need to be kept in line because they are a dominant and will take over if you are not careful. When I remember what we, in our ignorance in those days, did to our two wonderful dogs in the name of training, I want to weep. I sincerely wish I had known then (as a new dog owner) what I know now as a +R trainer. That past experience is why I became a +R trainer and would never ever use those methods on any dog.

  7. THANK YOU!!! I think people often forget — or maybe never knew — that clicker training BEGAN with large (REALLY large!) animals.

    Can you elaborate on this point, by the way? “I would argue that these breeds especially need to be trained with positive methods, more than other breeds.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on why it’s even more important for the “tough” breeds to be trained with positive-reinforcement.

    • I’m not the author, but it makes sense that stubborn dogs especially need positive reinforcement training. I have one dog who is extremely stubborn, and I’d never let him near a trainer who wants to use harsh methods, for fear that he’d struggle so much as to seriously injure himself. My other dog would probably be terrified into compliance, which is sad but does not pose a physical danger to the dog.

  8. Excellent post. I agree that ALL animals and people should be trained with positive reinforcement. I would like to say to Rebelwerewolf, regarding your remark that your “other dog would probably be terrified into compliance, which is sad but does not pose a physical danger to the dog”. A “terrified” dog may shutdown and comply but the long-term effects of aversive training methods could be aggression caused by fear – and aggression IS a physical danger and could cost the dog its life! That is the long-term result of harsh training methods. They damage the human-canine bond and can cause fear, anxiety and aggression. There are many studies showing this and the general public needs to be made aware of the damage harsh training methods do.

  9. I have had a pitbull since week 12. Positive reinforcement works but above all setting your dog up for success is key. Just like our children you can beat them and make them live in fear which is easier for most but the Cesar way is thee best and is a life-long commitment from the VERY beginning.

  10. “you can beat them and make them live in fear which is easier for most but the Cesar way is thee best — Umm … “making them live in fear” pretty much IS “the Cesar” way. Fear, intimidation, physical punishment, electric shock — that’s what’s in Cesar’s toolbox.

    And setting dogs up for success is exactly what Cesar does NOT do — he sets them up to FAIL so that he can then punish them. That’s his method: Expose a reactive or fearful dog to its triggers, and then yank/poke/kick/shock the dog when it reacts.

    “Cesar’s Way” is absolutely the WRONG way.

    • Well Said Eileen. I can’t believe people still believe in CM and advocate his methods but claim ‘they would never hurt their dog’. I don’t think a day goes by where I read replies on FB in which a person has asked a dog traning or behavior question, that someone doesn’t answer with “the pack theory mentality of dominance, owner needs to be the boss, correct immediately” and suggest watching Dog Whisperer. Doesn’t matter how simple or complex the issue maybe, guaranteed at least one suggestion will be the above. :(

  11. please explain fully what you find reprehensible with Cesear’s methods. I am really interested.

  12. thecoot46- I am not sure if your question was for me or Eileen Kerrigan. However, the below link addresses many of the arguments usually provided by CM followers.

  13. Hello! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

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