Guide on What Not to Do When Training Your Dog

Impulses to harshly punish your dog should be avoided. Why? Aggression begets aggression, according to a new year-long veterinary study published by University of Pennsylvania researchers, Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (February 2009). The lead author of the study, Meghan Herron, DVM, University of Ohio, says “Nationwide, the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.”

WHY TO AVOID PUNISHMENT

Aversive stimulation, defined as anything a dog would do to try to escape from, evade or avoid (David Pierce & Carl Cheney, 2004) and is commonly described as painful, noxious or unpleasant (Chance, 2003 as referenced in Aggressive Behavior in Dogs by James O’Heare). Using aversive punishment appears to have effect, but can cause problematic fallout or secondary effects.

THE FALLOUT

The effects of aversive punishment is fallout (Coercion and Its Fallout, Murray Sidman 2001). Sidman states “Coercion is defined as the use of punishment and the threat of punishment to get others to act as we would like……..and involves the basic contingencies of punishment and negative reinforcement.”

This means, be prepared for other bad habits to replace the ones you are punishing or the resulting and increased behaviors of reactivity, fear or aggression.

There are risks in using aversive punishment to include stress, anxiety and a reduction of learning abilities. Using aversive training methods too often can lead to shyness, fearfulness, aggression. O’Heare describes aversive punishment as an alpha roll, scruffing the dog, hitting dog with newspaper, tapping dog on the nose harshly, holding the dog’s mouth shut, yelling, rubbing nose in feces.

Whenever you add an unpleasant thing or situation to dog training, you have created an aversive punishment scenario. For instance if you jerk or tug on the lead, use a choke or prong collar, or even your loud voice saying “NO!” or body parts to slap or kick. Aversive punishment even includes squirting water from a bottle in your dog’s face, tossing something at your dog, electric shock collars, bark collars and electric fences.

FREQUENCY, INTENSITY, DURATION

Behaviorists talk about frequency, duration and intensity of a behavior. Initially it appears a behavior goes away or diminishes with the use of an aversive method, but in reality it does not ensure the behavior’s frequency will be reduced. In fact, the intensity and duration can increase because of the anxiety and stress held by the dog. Punished behaviors tend to be maintained (continued) when the punishment is no longer applied. This is the reason why prong, choke and electric collars are used even on dogs that have already been trained. If they were truly “trained” these devices would not be needed and the dog could go collarless. Because of the adverse effects of the methods chosen, the dog appears trained as long as the device remains on the dog.

WHEN THE CATS AWAY, THE MICE WILL PLAY

From the perspective of a mouse, only harm can come to them when the cat is around. You could say the cat represents an aversive or impending peril. The mouse knows this instinctively.

Dog owners who use aversive punishment are viewed in very much the same perspective, as someone to avoid. Aversive training seems to reduce the frequency of the behavior when the owner or trainer is present but stops working when the owner or trainer is absent. The dog must experience some kind of anxiety when the trainer is present, because they are associating that person with punishment. An effect of aversive punishment is dogs learn to become sneaky when the person who caused the aversive punishment goes away. A truly trained dog is one who can be trusted to exhibit the same behavior when owner is gone, as when owner is present.

LEARNED HELPLESSNESS

Another effect is learned helplessness discussed in Pierce and Cheney 2004. The dog learns to become almost robotic in nature and holds anxiety, stress inside to the point they are afraid to do anything for fear of repercussion. I’ve seen dogs literally shut down and sit in the middle of a yard, for instance, when electrical fences were in use, or stop and freeze when an electrical shock collar or even a muzzle was put on or lose valuable communication skills when a bark collar was used. Learned helplessness can lead to self-mutilation, excessive barking, nervousness, or depressed shutdown.

The mentality has been to punish a dog for whatever it is they do wrong, even to the point of removal of vocal chords in a dog who barks. In some odd way this was supposed to show them what not to do. What it really does is causes the dog to learn to be fearful, which erodes trust. The owner becomes volatile and the dog can never fully trust them because they may use pain. Fear can quickly turn into anger in the right circumstances or increase, not decrease, the behavior you are trying to abolish. A better mentality would be to EDUCATE your dog on what they are doing RIGHT. This strengthens the behavior so it is repeated by the free will of the dog and builds trust in you as an appropriate guide. It stimulates team work, strong bonds and communication.

RE-TRAINING and RE-GAINING TRUST

The first thing that has to be done in re-training an aggressive dog is re-gaining their trust. This could take weeks, months or even years depending on the severity of the distrust.

Herron said, “Studies on canine aggression in the last decade have shown that canine aggression and other behavior problems are not a result of dominant behavior or the lack of the owner’s alpha status, but rather a result of fear (self-defense) or underlying anxiety problems.” This is similar to comparing a child who is abused, one child might act out the abuse, another may become violent to society due to deep-seated anxiety, another might become destructive to themselves through self-mutilation, alcohol or drug abuse and yet another might do nothing and even appear to have survived.

If your dog has shown a particular behavior such as growling, you need to note what caused the behavior. When you do you can change the association with the trigger and start to re-train your dog to what it is you WANT them to do by pairing good things with scary things. This dissolves the fear in a process known as counter conditioning, according to Pamela Dennison in her book “How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong”.

You can further avoid aversive punishment through techniques of management and prevention. Simply by changing your dog’s environment, similar to baby- proofing your home, you can change their behavior and avoid reasons to use aversive punishment.

Changing your thinking from “what do I do when my dog does (fill in the blank)” to “what can I do to educate my dog (fill in the blank)” will negate the need to use aversive punishment and avoid the effects, the fallout.

Quick fixes leave long term stress. Positive reinforcement may take a bit longer, but results are long-lasting and progressive, systematic. Choosing not to punish, but instead rewarding for good behavior makes scientific sense.

Online Resources:

Science Daily

Book sources:

Behavior Analysis and Learning, by W. David Pierce and Carl Cheney

Aggressive Behavior In Dogs, by James O’Heare

How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong, by Pamela Dennison

Coercion and Its Fallout, by Murray Sidman