Charlotte also gave me permission to post this article.
The Effects of Aversion in Dog Training
By Charlotte Wagner
Throughout history, humans have reared, raised, and trained domesticated canines to aid in specific work-related tasks and provide companionship within the family. Dogs have been marketed as “man’s best friend” through television series such as Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Homeward Bound, however, man has not always proven to be canine’s best friend. Regrettably, many inhumane and forceful techniques used to train the original hunting, herding, and service dog still exist in training today. Fortunately, the scientific study of learning has proven that the traditional use of force, aversive tools, and hierarchy-based methods is not longer necessary, and can have a detrimental effect on the dog’s mental health and overall well-being.
Physically punishing a dog who has displayed undesired (yet often natural) behavior can have detrimental consequences to the dog’s physical and psychological well- being. If the punishment itself is not correctly executed to extinguish the behavior after the first two to three trials, then there is serious danger for punishment to cause the escalation of extraordinary pain. World renowned clicker trainer Karen Pryor explains that: “the hideous thing about the escalation of punishment is that there is absolutely no end to it” (Pryor, 105). Punishment placed in the judgmental hands of the individual has the potential to reach severe and brutal force. In addition, the associations made during the time of physical discomfort can also contribute to psychological distress, which can lead to extreme behavioral problems. “Repeated or severe punishment has some very nasty side effects: fear, anger, resentment, resistance, even hate in the punished one and sometimes the punisher too” (Pryor, 106). In the best case scenario punishment does not teach a dog an alternative response, but evokes avoidance behaviors in order to dodge a correction. In most cases however, punishment worsens behavioral issues and can even conceal alternative behaviors. “generally, the more intense the aversive stimulus, the more the response will be suppressed” (Reid, 119).
In conjunction with using forceful punishment, pain-inflicting training tools such as choke chains, pinch collars, and shock collars can have further damaging effects on a dog’s disposition. One of the most common complications with using aversive tools is the incorrect association between the consequence of the behavior and the environmental circumstance in which it occurs. “Such 'training' aids lead the dog to associate pain with the object he is lunging or aggressing at - not a good start to the desensitization process!” (Dennison, 18). Unfortunately, owners use these tools when undesired behaviors such as jumping, barking, whining, and lunging occur, yet dogs do not associate these natural behaviors as incorrect; rather, they learn to react aggressively or fearfully towards their environment. Additionally, aversive tools can have physical ramifications, due to pressure and electronic shock during their use.
Along with using punishment, force, and aversive tools, many trainers, owners, and handlers opt to use dominance-based hierarchy techniques to train dogs. This method is merely a facade for using intimidation techniques, in which behaviors are suppressed by the human assuming an “alpha” role though punishment. Although in some cases there are immediate responses, assuming an “alpha” status in a domestic environment can cause suppression of both desired and threatening behaviors, which commonly resurface with greater intensity. “The whole dominance idea is so out of proportion that entire schools of training are based on the premise that if you can just exert adequate dominance over the dog, everything else falls into place. This is dangerous. Not only does it mean that incredible amounts of abuse are going to be perpetrated against any given dog...” (Donaldson, 19). Moreover, humans displaying dominance behaviors conflict with the human-canine bond “If you think your acting-out dog is the leader and you try to emulate his behavior in controlling him, what you are really doing is acting aggressively towards him. This way of thinking is not useful in trying to maintain a positive relationship or good training environment” (Dennison 22). Conflicting messages often occur when owners exhibit dominance during training without being anatomically equipped like a canine. Undesired behaviors are challenged when the owner punishes a behavior that is an absolutely natural ritualized display for the dog without teaching an alternative. “For instance a dog is punished for jumping up when greeting people faces a conflict because it is motivated to greet the person but expects punishment if it does” (Reid, 123). Since fear-based alpha methods require dominance-based techniques, they are also not safe for children to practice. Dominance trainer Jan Fennel confesses: “ Young children are clearly not going to be able to grasp the principles of my method instantly.”(Fennell 63). Since children are not capable of physically pushing, pulling or prodding dogs into a desired position, it is easier to show them how to lure a behavior using a reward, as commonly seen when teaching a dog to sit by lifting a treat.
The use of forceful punishment techniques, painful training tools, and hierarchy based dominance methods is no longer justifiable for training the working or companion dog today. Since the days of traditional dog training, there have been many advances in the scientific study of learning and animal behavior which prove that dogs are not out to get there owners, nor are they vindictive by nature. Psychological learning theory is the basis on which positive, non-aversive, motivational, and reward based training is built. Using positive reinforcement techniques allows people to establish a harmonious relationship in which the dog learns and the human teaches in an optimal, force-free, and pain -free environment. Jean Donaldson confirms that: “they don’t need to be promoted to intelligence or morality to merit fair treatment or places in our families.” Donaldson’s approach to training is researched and realistic in contrast to the hierarchy-based methods practiced by Fennel, who states that: “... my method cannot remove the aggressive tendencies of any dog... my methods will never be able to alter their potentially savage nature. What my methods can do is allow people to manage their dogs so that this aggressive instinct is never called upon” (Fennel, 06). Trainers, owners, and handler should consider giving back to their dogs, after they have been “man’s best friend” for decades. Luckily, the scientific study of animal behavior has made it possible for humans to continue bonding with their canines for centuries to come: “The prevailing winds, in fact, would make it our responsibility to have a clue about the basic needs of the species we are trying to live with as well as a clue about how to modify their behavior, with as little wear and tear on them as possible, so that they fit into our society without totally subjugating their nature” (Donaldson, 11).
Copyright Charlotte Wagner
1 October 2008
Dennison, Pamela. How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong. Loveland: Alpine, 2005.
Donaldson, Jean. Culture Clash. Berkley: James & Kenneth , 1996.
Fennell, Jan. The Practical Dog Listener. London: Harper Collins, 2002.
Pryor, Karen. Don't Shoot the Dog. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
Reid, Pamela. Excel-Erated Learning. Berkeley: James & Kenneth, 1996.