My wife Aditi is a professional dog trainer, and I absorb a lot of information just being around her. She studies animal behavior and researches constantly to provide training that is based on science, not television shows. This post was inspired by her, as well as a movie I’ll talk about in a minute. It’s a strong departure from my usual fare. I don’t apologize for that, as I think more people need to know about these things.

I saw How To Train Your Dragon 2 this weekend and I loved it. Aside from being the sequel to one of my favorite animated movies of late, it illustrated two issues that do not receive enough attention: Positive reinforcement vs. positive punishment, and the myth of the Alpha.

How to Train Your Dragon focuses on coexistence with once-feared dragons. The animal behavior displayed by the dragons in the movie is a mix of bird, cat, dog and horse behavior, among other mannerisms familiar to pet owners of various ilk. The movie explores the concept of “alpha” — most pertinent to dogs in our society — and the harm that the myth does.

The Alpha Myth

The idea of the “alpha” canine stemmed from a study done in the 40s with a “pack” of wolves. The problem with the study was that it wasn’t a natural pack; it was a concocted group of wolves with very little familiarity with each other. The behaviors observed were not indicative of a pack in any real way, and the study has since been debunked. Personalities like Cesar Milan (The Dog Whisperer) continue to perpetrate the Alpha myth, along with the idea of having to dominate an animal to earn its respect (e.g. “Alpha Rolls”).

This behavior creates a relationship where dogs obey out of fear, proven to create potentially aggressive animals. It’s rarely publicized, but Cesar himself is regularly bitten as a result of his own tactics, and families who receive his special brand of training often report serious new issues with their pets.

This concept has somehow been translated to people, and people with leadership skills are often referred to as Alphas. It’s also used to explain the behavior of people who are, in reality, just assholes.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment means adding something to the environment that has a negative effect on the subject, physically or mentally. Alpha Rolls, choke/prong collars, kicks, scoldings, rolled up newspapers, etc., are all forms of positive punishment. Even the “tsst” sound that Cesar Milan uses is technically positive punishment, and again, studies have shown that this form of training results in aggressive behavior and unpredictable animals.

Conversely, positive reinforcement means adding something to the environment that is rewarding to the subject; it ignores bad behavior and rewards good behavior, generally with treats or other motivators. This results in a dog who behaves out of their own motivation, and, in the case of canines, is generally in the best interest of pet parents as most dogs desire the praise of their human companions more than they desire a kick in the ribs.

A spoiler that you knew happened without even seeing the movie: How to Train Your Dragon 2 culminates with the defeat not only of the “bad Alpha,” but with the moral that earning an animal’s trust and loyalty through humane and rewarding treatment is more effective than gaining their submission through harsh training methods. It was not a veiled or accidental message, and I think it was an excellent running theme in an already-great movie.

If you’re interested in learning more about positive reinforcement training (commonly packaged as Clicker Training), Aditi has compiled a great list of resources on her website. She’s also planning to start offering remote video training sessions and consultations. If you’d be interested in that, let her know and hopefully we can get that started!