Lately I've been hearing a lot of hype about a training technique called "pressure and release". These seemingly innocuous words actually describe two quadrants of operant conditioning. Animals (including us) learn through consequence. The consequence of one's actions, determine the probability of that action being repeated.
Positive Reinforcement (+R) is the addition of something the dog finds reinforcing (often food), as a consequence of behavior. For example, if my dog is walking on a loose leash and I reinforce his behavior with food - he is likely to walk on a loose leash more frequently.
Negative Punishment (-P) is the removal (or withholding) of something the dog finds reinforcing to reduce the likelihood of a behavior occurring. If my dog is pulling, and I stop walking - eliminating forward motion - he is likely to stop pulling in order to receive the reinforcement of forward motion.
This is where the whole pressure (+P) and release (-R) technique comes in to play. You see, those words are actually describing the use of Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement.
But what does that actually mean?
Positive punishment is the addition of something that is unpleasant (aversive) for the dog, in order to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring. Using the same example as above, if my dog were pulling on leash and I gave a "correction" using a collar (flat collar, martingale collar, slip lead, choke, prong or e-collar), the dog would stop pulling.
Following this train of thought, once the dog has received the "correction" (+P), he is likely to stop pulling in order to avoid future "corrections" (-R).
When trainers advertise their pressure and release technique, they're actually telling you that they will be applying Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement to your dog. Remember, in order for +P and -R to actually work, the dog MUST find the "pressure" to be aversive. This means that trainer is going to apply something that scares or hurts your dog. Many trainers are using deceptive language to describe their methods in order to hide this truth from dog owners.
I will always be completely transparent with my clients, because my methods are humane and effective. As a trainer who adheres to the Humane Hierarchy (LIMA) I use a combination of classical conditioning and operant conditioning, however the use of Positive Punishment (+P) and Negative Reinforcement (-R) are last resorts. I know how to use those tools, but I don't have to in order to change behavior - even with extreme aggression towards animals and people.
The bottom line is this - do some research before you buy! What is going to happen to your dog if they get it right? What is going to happen if they get it wrong? What tools will your trainer be using? If you're not comfortable, follow your gut and find a fabulous force free trainer. A great resource for local dog owners is the Vermont Professional Dog Trainers Network.
Emily Lewis is a professional dog trainer and veterinary technician. She lives in Vermont with her three rescue dogs, tuxedo cat, corn snake, crested geckos and Russian tortoise.