The Neuroscience & Behavioral Science Behind Dog Training

To access this as a PDF: TRAINER TUESDAY

One question I often get as a trainer is why force free? Why not follow this norm of punishment-based training? First, to answer this question let’s look at the quadrant (Also understand that these are all over time):

  • Positive Reinforcement: Giving a dog a treat (stimulus) to increase behavior over time
  • Negative Reinforcement: Taking allergy medication to escape allergies (Over time you keep taking the medication because it helps you escape allergies – getting rid of a stimulus you don’t enjoy. Therefore, the probability of you taking the medication increases over time). With a dog this can be seen as a dog in a prong collar learning to avoid the prongs by walking next to you instead of pulling.
  • Positive Punishment: Adding a stimulus (shock, vibration, yelling, hitting the nose, etc) to decrease behavior (Barking)
  • Negative Punishment: Getting rid of a stimulus (playtime) to decrease behavior (play nipping)

I’m sure many of us are very aware of positive reinforcement, but how about the rest of the quadrant listed above? Is Punishment ALWAYS bad? The answer is no – to ½ of the “punishment” side of the quadrant. Science based dog trainers will always tell you “don’t yell at your dog/don’t shock the dog/don’t hit the dog” which were all used in archaic methods of dog training (Positive Punishment = do not use). The reasons being come from the fact that the side effects positive punishment are increased aggression, anxiety, and avoidance to name a few.

Now let’s get a little more geeky, shall we? Okay – so those are the behavioral issues above with positive punishment, right? Now what’s going on in the brain? What exactly is the cause of these behavioral outputs? As someone who studies Neuroscience & Psychology (Both canine & human) at university, I am here to bring you some scientific information on what’s going on with your dog internally. I’d like to introduce you to my favorite part of the brain, the amygdala (which acts upon the HPA-Axis), also known as the fear center of the brain. When dogs (or humans) receive positive punishment our amygdalae go out of whack and in return makes a lot of cortisol from the HPA axis. Cortisol is a stress hormone. When a dog is overly stressed it means that cortisol is continuously produced in the brain. The scary part about cortisol is that it kills brain cells.

Yes, you read that right.

It kills brain cells.

Cortisol increase (from stress) kills brain cells, so yes. Stress CAN indeed kill you.

Now what does this mean besides the horrible fact that cortisol is a brain killer. It means that a more stressful dog will have a hard time learning. I’m sure many of you have seen your own dogs experience this in-group training classes, on walks, or when unfamiliar people come over. You try and try to make them more comfortable; you try to shove hot dogs down their throats and… nothing. They won’t take the hot dogs, they won’t look at you, and they are in hyper drive looking at this stimulus that is increasing cortisol in their brains. And the increased cortisol is acting back upon the amygdalae making your dog more fearful. Cortisol killing brain cells is also why some dogs who take medications don’t see the direct benefits that other dogs do, even after trying ssri after ssri. If a brain isn’t fully functioning, the ssri’s could not generate the same effect of how they would act in a healthier brain.

This is why I am force free. This is why when dog training is studied scientifically the only way to go is force free – meaning no harm is done physically or mentally on your dog. To find that balance of “okay my dog is okay being 20 feet away from the stimulus” (and this will vary from dog to dog) to learning when to walk away. The old dog-training methods of using prongs, choke, and shock collars are embedded in the alpha/dominance theory, which has been discredited by science time and time again – even by the very man who coined the term “alpha.”

What you can do:

  • If you are experiencing problems with your dog that seem to go along these lines listed above (same effect for anxiety, separation anxiety, etc) contact a force free dog trainer
  • Counter Conditioning & Desensitization: A good dog trainer would never throw your dog in a room with the thing they fear most. Counterconditioning and desensitization are both a slow process, and dogs take this at their own pace with lots of positive reinforcement.
  • Keep logs of your dogs behavior if you know their triggers or if you don’t. Check out daily how your dog is doing and what made situations worse or better (ex: did my dog flip out on the mailman when he was across the street? No. Did he flip out when he was at the front door? YES.)
  • Understand where your dog is coming from. I know it’s extremely frustrating at times, but understanding is key. They have their issues as we do ours, and just like you would visit a doctor about your health problems visiting a force free dog trainer or a veterinary animal behaviorist would be key for your dog.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek help. We are all understanding and there are many people in this group who started on prongs and ended up with a clicker. Change is good and we accept change – don’t worry we won’t roast you for making mistakes (but we will let you know where the mistakes were made).
  • Management: If your dog reacts to other dogs on a walk, walk during the times of the day when there are fewer dogs. Walk the path LESS traveled (literally).


Michelle Belio, CPDT-KA

Pawsitively Waggin Academy LLC

IG: @PWAdogtraining





1- Simple video of SSRI’s in action:

2- The Genetic mapping of Canine Aggression and it’s Counterparts:

3- Canine Emotion (with respect to the brain)

4- Below is a very entertaining video that breaks the alpha theory down in an easy way:

5- Dominance Statement:

6- Punishment Statement:

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