Clarity and Conflict in Dog Training

My travels have introduced me to trainers, competitors, and enthusiasts who have a passion for dogs and an obvious understanding of how to connect with them. I’m grateful for having had the  opportunity to meet so many talented dog people through the years. Jonathan Brinkley is one of those people. We met while I was teaching a workshop at Kennel Club USA in Ohio a few years back. Jon understands how dogs learn, has a versatile tool box, and an open mind that is always willing to explore new ideas. I asked him if he would be interested in a guest post and here what I got back. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jon and tell your wife to say “Lobster” next time you need dinner plans! 😉

Clarity and Conflict in Dog Training

In dog training, I believe understanding clarity and conflict’s role is monumental. In my honest opinion, through the history of the dog, dogs have become conflict resolving experts. So often the idea of dominance is argued, but at best, we generally now interpret it as a way of establishing cohesion, order, and resolving problems within groups of dogs. As dogs have been forced to adapt to human life and expectations (and honestly done a phenomenal job at it) they face conflict on a daily basis. Unfortunately for them, the human dog relationship evolves quicker than nature, and has been somewhat unkind in allowing them to be quite as successful in resolving contention under the terms of human life, which is partly due to the average person’s understanding on dog behavior and communication in general. In part this lack of understanding creates a lack of clarity and reduces the dog’s opportunity not only to develop conflict resolving mechanisms, but hinders their chance to use them. Perhaps this is why social programs such as large field socialization for dogs have been so successful in dealing with social dog aggression, fear, and other social behavioral problems.

In these socials, dogs are given the chance to understand and build confidence in using natural communication to work through stressful scenarios. In most cases, this is most successful when clarity accompanies it. A well-adjusted dog can correct with very little conflict applied to the scenario, through displacement, spatial pressure, calming gestures, or even physical contact. At first, a dog new to this may not understand a correction, and may even react. But the application of pressure and the precise release of it is what it allows for the dog to understand, not escalate and learn from it.   During training, creating clarity remains one of the most important goals we have with each dog we work with. It is what allows resolution to be effective.

So how does this apply to remote training, or balanced training? Recently a dog came to me who would do sit, down, heel, walk nicely, but attack other dogs, bite when you touched its collar, flip out over grooming, and bite its owners during petting. What was most clear to me, was the dog was facing conflict and no one had shown the dog how to avoid it. The dog had been completely reward trained (to provide a disclaimer, this doesn’t mean that the dog couldn’t have succeeded with positive training) but it had failed to create a clear path through stress for this dog. The dog could offer a variety of positive behaviors, but could not use them in the face of discord. A variety of methods including systematic desensitizing, counter conditioning, and classical conditioning were used in her training, alongside a prong collar and a remote collar, corrections and pressure, both conditioned separately to their own purposes.  Let us not forget, a correction or pressure given clearly and clearly understood is a way of resolving social issues among dogs. Instead of just showing the dog that conflict could be resolved by taking action, we can show it could also be resolved by avoiding certain action as well. This perhaps is why I believe so much in open mindedness in training surrounding the tools of the trade. If they are used to create clarity, they increase the chance of resolving conflict. A dog can at one moment, face a wide variety of competing motivators of a wide variety of values to the specific dog. We unfortunately cannot choose what has the highest value. We can manipulate drives, encourage, etc…but in the end, it is what the dog believes is rewarding. Unfortunately, we cannot always control all the elements in real world environments. Perhaps in a sterile environment, where owners were willing to wait months or a year to see the needed change to not give up their dog, we could approach it without using the “dark side” of training. For some dogs, this may be easier to achieve. The question lies in how long drawing out stress in certain situations is less productive or more productive.

Now one may say, you are applying conflict to resolve conflict, isn’t that somewhat counter-productive? Choosing to do a self-rewarding behavior or an owner rewarded behavior produces conflict as well. Choosing between a cookie, and lunging at the other dog is a conflict. Yes, a remote collar can create conflict. The goal is to make it a short term problem, that later provides clarity and reduces the struggle in whole.  Wait, here comes those words coined as bad: Punishment and Suppression! Suppression in training is not a dirty concept. I look at suppression like a lock in a room with multiple doors. If the goal is to get out of the room, only locking the doors is sure to fail. The subject will eventually beat down the door. However, locking one door and placing an exit sign on another, reinforces one path and creates inhibition towards the other. By showing the dog that pressure is applied when certain actions are taken, it creates space for a dog to look for another option in coping with the situation. That pressure can also guide the dog to the alternative option that is also highly rewarding. The stress applied becomes short term, because it allows the dog to practice the alternative behavior or coping mechanism, and allows for the dog to be reinforced for a better mechanism for dealing with the stress as well as not reinforcing past coping mechanisms. When the dog begins resorting to these appropriate coping mechanisms, clarity is achieved.  IT can become easier to choose one rewarding option over another competing motivator, because the value of the uncontrolled motivator can be lowered.

In layman’s terms, I see this as making the choice easier. The easier the choice is, and the more defined the path, the greater chance success can be achieved. The goal of any behavioral modification program should be the reduction of conflict the dog will eventually face in the long term.  How well this is achieved is hardly because of the tool itself, but the application of the tool by someone skilled in using it. If you gave me a cookie every time I walked away from the guitar, I would walk away from it, until playing guitar sounded like a better idea. My cookie drive is pretty low.  However, if the guitar no longer seems like the better option, I would be more likely to choose moving away from it. Only showing what is desirable leaves many options with desirable outcomes. I’ll end with a quick anecdote. My wife and I are the kind of people who can be equally indecisive about what to do with our Friday night. Secretly, I love it when she says, “Well let’s do this!” and puts her foot down. Why? Sometimes options are more stressful than having a clearly defined path, even if it wasn’t the top choice on my list of preferences.

remote collar


  • “The dog had been completely reward trained (to provide a disclaimer, this doesn’t mean that the dog couldn’t have succeeded with positive training) but it had failed to create a clear path through stress for this dog. The dog could offer a variety of positive behaviors, but could not use them in the face of discord.”

    I see this a lot in my training business. I work with a lot of shelter adoptees, and they are, by and large, goofy, strong, and lacking in social skills. Many have been through “purely positive” training, and are still conflicted. They aren’t aggressive, but they have little connection to the human at the other end of the leash, and they are constantly seeking a treat.

    Many have never been taught how to be physically touched without turning around and mouthing, how to have one’s collar touched, how to deal with everyday stresses and pressure.

    Clarity is the best gift we can give to a dog. The dog gets to decide what is clear and what is not, and what is aversive, and what is not. Leaving out pieces of information that the dog needs to be happy and part of the family, because one personally doesn’t “like” certain tools, is not helping the dog.

    The evidence that the tools used in this training example can be used to provide clarity–at no harm to the dog–is all around us. The evidence that eschewing the use of negative reinforcement and calm pressure/release is contributing to out-of-control dogs is also prevalent.

    I will continue to read dogs and choose tools that will help them, and their owners, succeed.

  • Certified Canine Behaviorist,
    I agree, I could’ve provided much more information about that case in general. Most the training was based off positive reinforcement, and negative punishment. The last thing I would recommend in this specific case was to slap a tool on the dog and start pressuring it into activities. Most of the process was based on counter conditioning and desensitizing. This was not about dominance, or necessarily force. I also agree the blog could’ve been written better, and yes, I wrote it. Communicating over a platform like the internet, where one can only give certain peices of information without writing a book on the specific case will always be limited, and always has a potential to be interpreted in unintended ways. Pressure is not necessarily what we sometimes construe it to be. Whether you are using a gentle leader, practicing silky leash, removing pressure with your body or adding it, it is pressure. I find it ridiculous that one can know so much about how something was done off a simple article they read over the internet. Instead, such comments are fueled by an agenda, not an attempt to have a basic conversation on the philosophical differences in training approaches.It seems short sighted to think we understand this and to be so quick to assume as well. However, my life does not revolve around pleasing all those involved in the training world. So far, what I see, is a dog that has learned to not fear its owners touching the collar, that can now be groomed without biting, and is actually running, collar or no collar to engage in activities that before wouldve been scary. The dog went from reacting to other dogs, to engaging with them in healthy play. We may never agree with every step another trainer takes. But, we should be able to be happy when a dog goes back in to its world with less fear of the world, and better able to engage with its owners. I understand that this article will be shared around many circles, ripped apart, like ti was supposed to be some study. However, it was more an informal blog to discuss a open mindedness in how we see the use of different quadrants. I don’t ask that you agree with it. But save me the nonsense that only comes from assumptions with very little information on this case otherwise.

  • First of all this was a very poorly written article. Secondly why would a “professional” use such aversive methods in a situation where a dog is clearly under enough stress. Obviously this person does not have any education regarding dog, dog behavior or physiology of dogs. As far as rewards go, one must know how and when to implement them. This is a situation that requires counter conditioning methods that rely heavily on rewarding for non-reactivity, which in turn provides the dog with a new behavior to perform rather than the one it has been relying on. This writer needs to get a proper education before attempting to give out such false information to the public.

    • Is the information false because it is something you don’t agree with? From what I know of the author, the methods he used weren’t all that aversive, but they did provide much greater clarity to the dog and thus fixed the problem so both dog and owner could move on and enjoy a successful life together. Same goal that hopefully all of us professionals are striving for.

  • If using prong collars, and shock collars are such a great training tool then why are they banned in some countries, and proven by science to be outdated training tools? The ASVAB has issued statements about them, as well as other modern dog trainers and companies a like…

    • So according to your logic if something is banned in a location that means that location is more enlightened and therefore “right” in their law? How do you feel about breed bans?

  • Sometimes options are more stressful than having a clearly defined path

    That statement jumps off the page to and with your permission I would like to include it in my classwork. Great article Jonathan I look forward to maybe seeing more.

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