The Problem with Aversive Training

How do dogs learn?

Dogs learn by association – behaviours followed by desirable consequences are likely to be repeated. Likewise, behaviours followed by undesirable consequences are less likely to be repeated.

Dog training uses these rules of learning by employing a combination of techniques:

  • Positive reinforcement involves rewarding desirable behaviour so that it will happen more often, e.g. dog sits and gets a treat
  • Negative punishment involves removing rewards when undesirable behaviour occurs so that the behaviour will happen less often. For example, a dog jumps up at person so the person turns away and ignores dog. The dog will then jump up less because attention is removed when he does.
  • Positive punishment involves applying something unpleasant when undesirable behaviour occurs so that it will happen less often, e.g. the dog barks so he gets sprayed by a citronella collar
  • Negative reinforcement (this is a tricky one!) involves applying an unpleasant experience until the desired behaviour is shown, then removing it, e.g. pressure is applied to a dog’s back by pushing down with the hand until he sits, then the pressure is taken away.

For the purpose of this article the term ‘punishment’ is used to refer to the use of positive punishment.

What is aversive training?

Aversive training usually involves the use of positive punishment or negative reinforcement – both of these techniques involve subjecting a dog to unpleasant experiences in order to get them to behave as desired, or to stop undesirable behaviour.

Physical aversive training techniques may include shouting, lead jerks, holding a dog in a down position, hand jabs or kicks.

There is also a variety of equipment designed to apply positive punishment or negative reinforcement.

These include items which:

  • Inflict pain such as check chains and slip leads, shock collars or prong collars
  • Emit unpleasant smells or sensations such as citronella, water or air spray collars
  • Make a scary sound such as pressurised air cans, homemade rattle devices e.g. cans filled with stones, sonic or ultrasonic collars and stand-alone devices.

Products like these are often seen as quick fixes to problem behaviour – after all the packaging says it will stop the behaviour, right? However the use of aversive training methods can have serious unwanted side-effects which can adversely affect the welfare and behaviour of your dog.

The side effects of aversive training

Aversive training techniques:

  • Can cause physical pain or injury to dogs.
  • Can cause fear, anxiety and stress to dogs
  • May create further behaviour problems as the dog may associate punishment with their owner, trainer, the location or events in the surroundings (e.g. a passing dog or child). This could lead the dog to become frightened of these things, which could result in behaviours caused by fear and anxiety, such as aggression.
  • Can be dangerous for owners to implement as there is a risk of being bitten by their dog as he/she tries to protect him/herself from punishment.
  • Can worsen behaviour, especially if the behaviour you want to stop is based in fear or anxiety (e.g. aggression or fearful barking) – the addition of an unpleasant experience makes the situation more stressful and frightening for the dog.
  • When used for certain behaviour problems, can suppress important signals such as growling, resulting in dogs which do not give these warning signals and go straight to using aggression instead.
  • Are counter-productive to progress. Punishment creates fear and stress which are barriers to learning – training using punishment is not enjoyable for your dog and will slow down their learning.
  • Do not tell a dog how you do want him to behave. Although the problematic behaviour may be eliminated, alternative and equally problematic behaviours may develop instead as the dog still needs an outlet for the motivation behind the behaviour. Punishment does not address this motivation, nor does it help the dog to learn a more appropriate behaviour instead.

Is there another way?

Yes! Modern reward-based dog training involves rewarding the behaviour we do want and removing rewards for behaviours we don’t want. For more difficult behaviours, techniques of behaviour modification can resolve these problems by:

  • Identifying the underlying emotions, motivations and learning processes causing the problem behaviour.
  • Rewarding alternative, desirable behaviours.
  • Changing negative emotions such as fear, stress and anxiety to positive emotions by gradually associating things which cause the dog fear with pleasant experiences.
  • Changing the environmental conditions and owner behaviours which influence the problem.

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