Despite the advancement of modern dog training, there are still countless dog owners and trainers who rely on using aversive dog training methods. Even veterinarians use them at times. Not too long ago, a client reported to me that her German shepherd puppy was barking at the vet when the vet decided to give the puppy an alpha roll correction because (in his belief) the puppy was trying to challenge him and deserved a lesson in respect. Still as of today, this angers me because the pup was only taught to fear vet offices and vets and being touched. It’s unfortunate that these training methods are still popular today, but it’s not surprising considering that they’re still being promulgated by television shows along with the belief that these methods are more effective.
What are Aversive Dog Training Methods?
So what exactly is aversive dog training? Let’s take a closer look into the word aversive, what does it mean? Webster dictionary defines it as “tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus.”
Wikipedia talks about aversive in psychological terms:
“Aversives are unpleasant stimuli that induce changes in behavior through punishment; by applying an aversive immediately following a behavior, the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future is reduced.Aversives can vary from being slightly unpleasant or irritating (such as a disliked color) to physically damaging. It is not the level of unpleasantness, but rather the effectiveness the unpleasant event has on changing behavior that defines the aversive.”
How are aversives applied in dog training? Here are a few examples.
- By positive punishment, by adding an unpleasant stimulus when the undesired behavior occurs. (Example: a dog is startled with a spray of water the moment he jumps on a person. Result: The behavior of jumping should reduce and stop if the dog hates water enough–by the way, this is often how dogs become water phobic, then one wonders why they dread baths and don’t want anything to do with water)
- By negative punishment, by removing a pleasant stimulus when the undesired behavior occurs (Example: a dog is punished by removing access to other dogs –timeout- the moment the dog plays rough. Result: the behavior of playing rough should reduce and stop if the dog is socially motivated )
- By negative reinforcement, by removing an unpleasant stimulus when the desired behavior occurs (Example: a dog is continuously shocked and the delivery of shock is only removed once the dog performs the desired behavior of coming to the dog owner. Result: with time, the chances for a dog not coming when called should reduce since the dog should be more eager to comply to avoid the shock. In this case, the dog is reinforced by removing shock, but there’s also an element of punishment at play since the dog is repeatedly shocked using the continuous shock feature for not coming when called. For more on this read training a dog to come with a shock collar. )
” Negative reinforcement requires that an aversive first be applied or threatened in order for it to be removed.”~ Melissa Alexander
The Individual Factor
As seen, the aversive methods described above vary quite greatly in intensity. They go from denying social access through a time-out to continuous shocks until the dog complies to come when called.
Therefore, as Wikipedia mentioned, the term aversive doesn’t necessarily need to be associated with pain. It can range from a mild discomfort from being exposed to some unpleasant social situation (a child being embarrassed in front of the class for forgetting to turn in homework) to withdrawal from attaining something desired (telling a child he can’t stay in line for ice-cream until he stops whining).
One important consideration is keeping into consideration the individual dog. The dog is ultimately who decides what’s aversive. Using a cookie-cutter approach in training methods without considering individuality, may lead to problems, big problems too. For instance, many dog trainers use negative punishment under the form of time-outs when dogs misbehave, but can you imagine how aversive a time-out can be to a dog suffering from separation anxiety?
Even what we perceive as “dog friendly” training methods can turn out not being not as dog friendly as we think if we “listen to” the individual dog. This can be shocking, but let me give an example. Not too long ago, we had a very sensitive dog over for boarding. The owner said she always dreamed that her dog learned a few basic cues such as sit and down. She took her dog previously to classes and her dog wasn’t able to learn anything. Nothing. And yes, the trainers were skilled and invested in using positive reinforcement.
Turned out, upon closer evaluation, this dog didn’t want anything to do with hands near her face. So putting a cookie (no matter how great it smelled) near her nose to guide her into a sit was highly aversive to her. Any hand movement caused her to close up and withdraw inhibiting her from learning. Did she learn to sit and lie down? You bet, and she even turned out to be an enthusiastic learner which the owner was ecstatic about, but we had to use a different training method known as “capturing “ for all that.
Now, this doesn’t mean that aversive dog training doesn’t work. To the contrary, done correctly aversive dog training methods can be effective. Do these methods work? Yes, when punishment is delivered at right time, at the right level of intensity and contingent on the problem behavior, it can be very effective but…, and this is a big BUT, is it worth it?
” Punishment is like carpet bombing. The behavior you wanted to target gets hit but so can a huge portion of the dog‘s whole repertoire.”~ Jean Donaldson
Effects of Aversive Dog Training Methods
One main issue about aversive dog training methods is the problematic fall-out; basically, side effects that can be far worse than the original problem that owners and trainers were trying to correct. These effects are more likely to happen with the more intense versions rather than the minimally aversive ones.
Back to the German shepherd puppy, sure, the pup stopped barking when once pushed to the floor by the vet, but what happened next? What did the puppy really learn? Dogs learn by consequences but also by association, so likely, the pup learned that vet offices are scary places and vets are not to be trusted.
But perhaps even most concerning, the pup likely learned that since his warning bark to “please stay away, I am not comfortable around you,” was suppressed, he had to rely on a more effective strategy to protect himself from somebody cornering him and putting his hands on him next time. And not surprisingly, that’s what the client was actually seeing me for that day. This German shepherd pup was nipping at hands and had a high reluctance to being handled and touched. Of course, it didn’t help that the owner continued applying the training advice from the vet, that “sound advice” to alpha roll the pup any time he engaged in undesired behaviors. But this is only one fallout out of 13 (and likely more) that can derive from the use of aversive dog training methods.
13 Negative Effects of Aversive Dog Training
1 ) Aversive dog training methods can be risky, especially when applying methods that can induce defensiveness from the dog. A dog who is being alpha rolled may (rightfully so!) decide not to take it one day, as the pup described above, and may bite as soon as he sees the hands moving towards him.
If the vet performed the alpha roll instead of on a puppy, on an 85 pound, 3-year old German shepherd he could have been severely injured.
Therefore, as seen with my client’s puppy, aversive training methods potentially evoke defensive behaviors to surface that often were non-existent if such methods weren’t utilized in the first place!
Why does the popular National Geographic show featuring scruff shakes and alpha rolls feature a big disclaimer: “do not try this at home”? Because of these risks. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, warns about these risks explaining how people recommending these techniques are taking a liability risk.
Did you know? According to a study conducted by Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB, Frances Shofer, DVM and Ilana Reisner, DVM, DACVB, of the Matthew Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, it was found that when dog owners resorted to harsh confrontational techniques, dogs responded with aggression.
More precisely, just to get an idea: 43 percent of dogs responded with aggression when being hit or kicked, 39 percent reacted to an alpha roll, 38 percent responded aggressively to having an owner grab their mouth and take out an object forcefully and 26% percent responded defensively when given a scruff shake.
2) Aversive dog training methods can be potentially reinforcing to the person applying them. If a person is frustrated by a dog who is repeatedly jumping, he or she may feel better when he pinches the dog’s paw and the dog stops jumping and yelps in surprise or pain. This circle of reinforcement is what causes the person applying such methods to want to use them more and more, even possibly as the first line treatment of choice. It’s what makes people swear on the effectiveness of aversive methods and be reluctant to want to try other methods. It’s also sadly what causes some to want to engage in more and more severe forms when they milder ones may no longer be working, initiating a vicious cycle that’s abuse or very close to it.
3) The application of aversive dog training methods have a tendency for generating emotional response such as fear and anxiety. Through conditioning, dogs tend to form associations with the unpleasant happening. As in the case of my client, it would not be surprising if her German shepherd would develop fear or a general dislike of the vet’s office and veterinarians in general or just being approached by a stranger.
“Positive reinforcement should be the first line of teaching, training and behavior change program considered, and should be applied consistently. Positive reinforcement is associated with the lowest incidence of aggression, attention seeking, and avoidance/fear in learners.” ~Association of Professional Dog Trainers
4) On top of forming negative associations with certain stimuli or events, through a phenomenon known as “generalization”dogs may generalize their anxiety to other similar stimuli or events. For instance, a dog may be fearful of a broom because a person in the past used it to scare off the dog but then may expand his fear to people walking with canes or people mopping the floor.
“Even when punishment seems mild, in order to be effective it often must elicit a strong fear response, and this fear response can generalize to things that sound or look similar to the punishment”~American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
5) Once aversive training methods allow fear to establish and put roots, these responses become difficult to eradicate and this is because dogs (and generally all living creatures) have an instinct to act defensively or avoid stimuli or events that are perceived as frightening.
6) When a dog is subjected to training methods based on aversion and intimidation, their cognitive functions can potentially shut down and this may interfere with their ability to learn.
7) When a dog learns to rely on defensive behaviors, such behaviors quickly become part of a dog’s new behavior repertoire because these behaviors are often reinforcing. If the German shepherd tries to bite hands that are moving towards him and the person quickly withdraws his hands, the snapping at the hands behavior is reinforced and will become more difficult to eradicate. Of course, this problem would be non-existent if aversive based methods were not employed in the first place.
8) Aversion-based methods contribute to stress and on top of developing defensive behaviors, dogs may develop escape behaviors and displacement behaviors such as repeated paw licking and scratching.
9) Aversive training methods are not guaranteed to work. If a dog’s paw is pinched when he jumps on the owner, not necessarily this will discourage further jumping, if the joy of greeting the owner supersedes the temporary pinch. This is why many dog owners are frustrated that their dogs still pull on the leash despite being choked by a collar holding them back. The reward of sniffing a bush or greeting another dog may supersede the temporary pain or discomfort.
10) If punishment is not always contingent upon the undesired behavior, the dog has the opportunity to rehearse the undesired behavior without consequence, which means the undesired behavior will continue to surface and even become more troublesome since the behavior is put on a variable schedule (sometimes it’s punished, sometimes it’s not) which is the schedule that triggers addiction (just as it happens with people gambling at Vegas.)
11) When an unwanted behavior is suppressed through aversive dog training methods, it creates a void that will likely be filled with other problem behaviors. For example, if a bored dog is punished for chewing in the yard, he’ll likely start digging and barking because he’s not provided an outlet for his needs for mental stimulation.
“Punishment can suppress aggressive and fearful behavior when used effectively, but it may not change the underlying cause of the behavior. “~American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
12) When using aversive dog training methods, there are risks that the dog starts associating punishment with the person’s presence. If a person smacks a puppy with a newspaper for urinating on the carpet, such punishment will not teach the puppy to go to the door next time, but rather to urinate under the sofa out of the owner’s view. This because the puppy has learned to associate punishment with the person’s presence.
““Receiving shocks is painful experience to the dogs, and the S-dogs (the dogs who received shock) evidently have learned the presence of their owner (or his commands) announces the reception of shocks even outside the normal training context.”~Matthijs B.H. Schilder a,b,∗, Joanne A.M. van der Borg
13) Last but not least, aversive based training can inhibit dogs from offering new behaviors as it may happen with dogs who become tentative in picking up objects. If a puppy is consistently punished for picking up objects with his mouth such as the remote control or shoes, the puppy soon learns that it’s bad to pick up anything with their mouths. This can create great difficulties in the future when training the dog to retrieve an object. A better option with no negative side effects? Teach the trade game.
Alternative to Aversive Dog Training Methods
“But I have been using these methods for years, they have worked for me, why should I ditch them?” This is often a self-defense mechanism due to fear of something new, it’s the (normal) resistance associated with the hesitancy of embracing an unexplored world.
It’s often comforting to stick to past methods, just as it was comforting in the past for teachers to have all children use the right hand because that was the “right side.” Long time lefty here who survived the right-hand movement, thanks to a stubborn mom!
Most of all, the resistance is because of lack of awareness of alternatives to effective non-aversive methods.”If I don’t use aversives what is left that can equally effective?” Knowledge is ultimately power.
There are plenty of alternative methods and more and more trainers, behavior consultants and veterinarians are embracing them. They are effective, most are minimally aversive, but never forget the golden rule of considering the individual dog.
- Management, sure this is not actual active training, but it prevents rehearsal of problem behaviors
- The use of prompts helps the dog to perform desired behaviors
- Antecedent arrangements can be incorporated so to help dogs make good choices
- Positive reinforcement strengthens desired behaviors and increases the chances of them repeating
- Differential reinforcement can be used to specifically reinforce desired behavior and extinguish the undesirable
- Desensitization with counterconditioning work great for behavior modification
- Negative punishment used to stop unwanted behaviors by removing access to things the dog likes.
- Extinction helps extinguish problem behaviors because they no longer gain reinforcement
- Learn how to implement Leslie McDevitt’s LAT or Jean Donaldson’s Open Bar, Closed Bar
Having a hard time? Don’t be too quick to move on to using aversive methods! Ask around, many trainers will be willing to help out, ask what methods they use or get creative and invent your own methods and give them a try, you might come up with something powerful!
As seen, there are plenty of better options that do not involve, pain, fear and intimidation! Why rush up on using aversive training methods when there are many options you can try first? You’ll be surprised how you may attain results and often quickly, without the need to ever use shock, pain and intimidation.
- Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer, Ilana R. Reisner, Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, 3900 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6010, USA
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals, retrieved from the web on Novermber 6th, 2016
- Emily J. Blackwell, Caroline Twells, Anne Seawright, Rachel A. Casey, The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 3, Issue 5, September–October 2008, Pages 207-217
- Schalke, E., Stichnoth, J. and Jones-Baade, R. (2005) Stress symptoms caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs (Canis Familiaris) in everyday life situations.
- Training Dogs With the Help of the Shock Collar: short and long term behavioural effects(Schilder, van der Borg) Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85 (2004) 319–334