In the dog training world there is a constant debate about whether the use of aversive methods and tools has a place in training our dogs.
Not so long ago, it was widely accepted that training dogs to behave needed a firm hand and a dominant state of mind. Dog training and behavior books touted alpha rolls and leash corrections as the only way to make your dog stop jumping on people or pulling on leash.
Dog owners never really questioned these methods because they seemed to work – for the most part. But these techniques worked for the wrong reasons, and more often than not, the bad behavior was never “fixed” — it was simply suppressed.
More recently, famous television personalities use phrases like “calm submissive state” and “pack leader” to encourage the use of such methods. But there have been many unintended consequences from these techniques, and the dogs subjected to these methods and tools have paid quite the price.
Fortunately, as the study of animal behavior has advanced, more dog trainers and behaviorists are opting to go the force-free and positive reinforcement route. The focus is shifting to setting our dogs up for success. Popular trainers on television and online are now trying to educate dog owners about better ways to understand, communicate, and train their dogs.
Leaders in the pet health and behavior industry such as The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers advocate for the use of least-invasive and minimally-aversive training methods.
What are Aversives?
In dog behavior terminology an “aversive” is something unpleasant that is used to suppress or diminish an unwanted behavior. An aversive can be an unpleasant sound, a physical correction, the pain caused by an e-collar or prong collar correction, or a harsh scolding. It's considered an aversive if it's something your dog will work to avoid in the first place or will work to stop in the moment.
Humans work to avoid aversives all the time with our own behavior. We don’t touch a hot stove with our bare hand to avoid the pain of being burned. We show up to work to avoid getting fired. Children get an aversive physical punishment when they are spanked by their parents for misbehaving (although corporal punishment is becoming less acceptable in many cultures – for very good reasons).
The most common aversives used in dog training include physical corrections via prong or choke collars, shock or spray corrections from electric collars, alpha rolls and dominance downs, shaker cans, spray bottles, yelling, hitting, confrontational staring or acting in a threatening manner towards the dog. Even something as small as a tap on the muzzle, holding your dog's mouth closed, or poking your dog is an aversive if your dog finds it emotionally or physically unpleasant.
How Do Aversives Work?
When using aversives when training your dog, you are using what is called Positive Punishment and/or Negative Reinforcement. Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement are two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. These two quadrants should be the least relied upon when trying to change your dog's behavior, and many trainers and behaviorists work to avoid using them altogether in their programs as studies are exposing the unintended consequences of these methods, including increased aggressive behavior, stress, and fear.
The words Positive (+) and Negative (-) aren’t talking about any emotional connotation, but instead mean we are either adding ("Positive") something or removing ("Negative") something from the situation. Punishment indicates that the likelihood of the behavior will decrease, while Reinforcement means the behavior will likely increase in frequency.
Positive Punishment = adding something to make a behavior decrease
Negative Reinforcement = removing something to make a behavior increase
For example, you could add a strong prong collar correction when your dog pulls on leash. They are less likely to pull on leash in the future to avoid the pain of the prongs on their neck. This is positive punishment.
You could call your dog to come and shock them continuously with their e-collar until they turn and come back to you. Next time you call your dog, they will respond to the cue faster to make the pain of the shock stop sooner or avoid it altogether. This is negative reinforcement in action.
Some trainers who rely on these aversive techniques will argue that the prong collar correction or the shock from the electric collar isn’t causing pain. But think about it — if they didn’t cause pain or discomfort to the dog, then they wouldn’t work to increase or decrease the behavior. The avoidance of pain, or wanting the pain to stop, is what is motivating your dog to stop pulling or to come when called.
Why You Should Avoid Aversives
Here’s the thing: aversives can work, but they aren’t necessary. In many cases, they are simply inhumane. When considering which techniques or tools to use with your own dog, always ask yourself "Is this necessary?" More often than not, there is a better way.
If your dog trainer relies on aversives, they are ignoring the most recent advances in behavioral science and are possibly too lazy to take advantage of more effective and humane training methods and tools.
Imagine starting a new job and only being told what not to do.
You wouldn’t learn how to do your job very quickly, if at all!
Let’s look at some reasons why you should avoid using aversive training methods with your dog:
There are more effective training methods and tools available
Positive reinforcement training has been shown to change dog behavior more effectively than positive punishment. Dogs learn faster and are more eager to train if they are being told what to do and rewarded for correct responses. Imagine starting a new job and only being told what not to do. You wouldn’t learn how to do your job very quickly, if at all! Positive reinforcement tells your dog when they get it right, which makes it easier for them to make the right choice again and again.
Clicker training has gained popularity with the rise of positive reinforcement training. A clicker is a tool used in training to communicate clearly to a dog that they’ve earned a food treat by performing a certain behavior. This tool can help you practice positive reinforcement training more effectively, and is faded out over time as your dog learns, meaning you don’t have to rely on having your clicker in hand (or treats) for your dog to behave.
Some dog owners rely on prong and choke collars because they feel they cannot physically control their dog otherwise. There is a variety of collars and harnesses that work just as effectively as aversive collars, without causing discomfort, pain, or injury to the dog.
Animal trainers and caretakers around the world who work with large non-domesticated animals simply cannot rely on aversive tools and methods. Imagine trying to control a tiger with a prong collar during a routine veterinary exam or putting a shock collar on a whale for training! If trainers can teach complex behaviors to these animals using positive reinforcement tools and methods, we can certainly use them with our pet dogs.
It's amazing to see the effectiveness of positive reinforcement techniques with exotic animals — check out these two videos to see it in action:
There is no reason to use aversive training methods and tools when there are more humane and easy-to-use alternatives readily available.
Long-Term Reliance on Aversive Tools
Aversive tools like bark collars, choke and prong collars don’t change your dog’s behavior, at least in a way that’s effective and long-term. In most instances, they simply suppress the behavior when the aversive is present. This happens when dog owners rely on prong or choke collars while walking their dog on leash. As long as their dog is wearing their prong collar, they don’t pull because they know they will receive a correction. Can you guess what will happen if they go out for a walk wearing a flat collar?
There are many dog trainers who claim they have “fixed” a dog that previously pulled on leash by throwing a prong or choke collar on them and calling it good. But without taking the time to reinforce walking politely on leash and not pulling, the dog hasn’t learned anything other than not to pull when they’re wearing that collar.
Your dog’s good behavior shouldn’t rely on whether they’re wearing a specific kind of collar. It’s much more rewarding as a dog owner to see your dog make good decisions because you’ve taught them what behaviors are rewarding and make you happy!
The use of aversives can create very strong negative associations in your dog’s mind, and it’s not always the association you’re wanting to create. These kinds of associations increase your dog’s anxiety and fear of certain stimuli, which can result in fear reactivity and aggression. Studies have shown an increase in aggressive behavior in dogs who are trained with positive punishment and aversive tools.
For example, if you are using an electric shock collar to stop your dog from barking, the desired association is that a bark equals a shock, therefore we want the dog to learn: don’t bark and you won’t be shocked. However, if your dog barks when they see another dog pass by the yard and receives a painful correction, did they associate the bark with the shock? Or the presence of the other dog? If you give your dog a correction via their choke collar when they pull to greet another dog, did they associate the correction with pulling? Or with the presence of the other dog?
You cannot know what association your dog is making in the moment since you aren’t in their brain. But you can do everything possible to prevent negative associations by not using aversives in the first place.
Aversives Kill Your Dog’s Motivation to Train
Training should be fun for both dog and owner! When your dog is having fun, they’re willing to work harder and more often. Constantly waiting for your dog to make a mistake so you can correct them doesn’t sound like much fun at all, for you or your dog. And the less fun and rewarding something is, the less your dog will want to do it.
Using positive punishment training motivates your dog to avoid an aversive altogether or make an aversive stop. Not the kind of life most people want for their dogs!
Would you rather have a dog who is only doing something you asked for so you don’t hurt them? Or one who happily engages with you and offers good behaviors because they are having a great time?
Using punitive methods also makes it harder to increase the quality of training responses from your dog. Dogs will only offer enough of a behavior to avoid a correction; they’ll do the least amount required of them to avoid that collar correction or shock.
Aversives suck the motivation to train right out of your dog!
The Danger of Dominance
Perhaps the most compelling reason for most dog owners to avoid aversive training methods like alpha rolls and dominance downs is that it puts them in direct physical danger.
An alpha roll is when the handler uses force to push the dog down into a vulnerable position on their side or on their back while standing or laying over them in a threatening manner until they “submit”.
This places the handler’s face, hands and arms very close to the dog, and if the dog decides to try and escape by responding defensively, can you guess what they’ll aim for? Ouch! You might have seen this technique used by popular TV trainers, but they purposefully have their production team edit out the dog bite footage.
A dog trainer should always set a dog up for success and work to prevent a bite history. By intentionally forcing a dog into a situation where they feel like they have no choice but to bite is incredibly irresponsible and leads directly to euthanasia of dogs for behavioral issues that were directly caused by human actions.
These techniques are also extremely difficult to perform “correctly” and consistently. Grandma won’t be able to alpha roll the family dog quite as well as her strong grandson, and neither of them should have to put themselves in such an unsafe position in the first place.
These techniques force the dog into a very tumultuous state of mind; if they can’t run away from the threat, they must choose between fighting or a state of learned helplessness and submission in order to escape the aversive.
If they choose to react defensively and try to bite you to escape, you’ve just reinforced aggression in your dog. If they choose learned helplessness (also known as a calm submissive state), you’ve reinforced fear and anxiety and taught them to suppress appropriate warning signals such as growling. This leads to a dog that seemingly “bit out of nowhere.”
Unfortunately, the idea that a human must assert dominance over their dog has yet to fade from our collective memory, and many trainers claim you must roll your dog to establish your place as leader of the pack. They’re simply wrong. You can train your dog just as effectively, and have more fun doing so, by using positive reinforcement training methods. Your dog will thank you for it!
At Preventive Vet we recommend:
Positive Reinforcement = adding something your dog likes to make a behavior increase
Negative Punishment = removing something your dog likes to make a behavior decrease
The terms are counterintuitive, but these are the best training methods for you and your best friend.