Dog Training with “Aversives” or Punishment

When you examine the various advertisements for dog trainers or behaviorists, you will find a number of them describe the approach they use in training as “balanced”, or will indicate that they follow the “Koehler Method” or some other methodology such as the use of “e-collars”.  You should take the time to research what is meant by that terminology.   In general, these training approaches incorporate the use of “aversives” or punishment as part of the dog’s training.

What is an “aversive”?  Why are they used?

Essentially, an aversive is something that the training does to the dog when that dog does something undesirable.  They can take the form of an electric shock, an unpleasant spray to the face, throwing an object at the dog, making a sudden startling sound, jerking the dog’s collar, jerking on a prong collar or choke chain, or physically punishing the dog by hanging or choking.  In short, an aversive is an action on the trainer’s part to make the dog afraid of not obeying, or afraid to do something other than what the trainer wants.  The use of punishment in dog training is closely associated with the dominance or “pack” theory, in which trainers physically correct dogs with unpleasant outcomes for their actions.  This theory of behavior will be addressed in more detail in a later article.

A “balanced trainer” typically follows the training philosophy that punishments should be part of the trainers’ toolkits, along with incentives.  This is a carrot and stick approach.  Some of them claim that it is a science-based approach and point to the four quadrants of operant conditioning as justification for this thinking. Proponents of the Koehler method will state that dogs are being given freedom of choice about their actions and are learning to not make certain choices because of the pain or discomfort that they receive afterwards.

William Koehler (1914 – 1993) was a well-known, celebrity dog trainer and his book The Koehler Method of Dog Training was for many years considered to be the bible for dog trainers.  Like many trainers of the last century, he used extreme methods of punishing dogs for disobedience or for perceived “defiance”.  These methods included hanging a dog by a choke lead until he ceases moving and is unconscious, as well as the use of a weighted hose to discipline a rebellious dog by beating him.  In Koehler’s view, allowing a dog to be untrained or disobedient was more inhumane than using harsh methods to instill obedience in the dog (Koehler, 1962).    Koehler’s methods are still practiced by a number of trainers today, notably some of the trainers involved in the training of police or military K-9s.

In addition to the beating described above, trainers who incorporate aversives in their programs may use a wide range of tools, including but not limited to prong collars, shock collars, choke chains, thrown objects, loud noise makers and unpleasant sprays.  They can also use personal corrections, such as swinging the

Bull Terrier with prong collar

dog on its leash, hanging the dog by its collar, choking the dog, striking them, yelling at them, or a number of other physical punishments.

Why use aversives?

The use of aversive measures in dog training is based on the belief that the dog is intentionally and willfully being disobedient and that he needs to learn that this deliberate behavior leads to punishment.  Alternatively, these methods are used to form such unpleasant associations with certain behaviors so as to make the dog avoid performing them.  This second aspect is why these methods are sometimes called “scientific” by the trainers using them, as they involve some form of reflexive or Pavlovian behavior modification.

So what’s the problem?

The simple fact is that the use of physical punishment, intimidation and aversive measures in dog training isn’t necessary, or any more effective than positive training methods (Ziv, 2017).  In fact, the use of harsh corrections in training has been found to be counterproductive and actually increases behavior problems.  Studies have shown that punishment-based training not only increases a dog’s fear of his owners, it affects the dog’s social behaviors and overall trust of humans; the dogs actually become more resistant to training (Rooney & Cowan, 2011).     The use of aversives in dog training has been shown to be no more effective than positive training, and will actually increase serious behavioral problems (Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw, 2004; Blackwell, Twells, Seawright & and Casey, 2008).  As mentioned above, dogs trained in an environment that incorporates aversives will actually be more stressed in training and resist taking part in it, due to their anticipation of physical pain and discomfort.  Their stress levels and anxiety during training are notably higher than dogs’ who are trained with positive methods.  In fact, dogs trained with punishments tend to avoid their owners and be less attentive to them than dogs trained with positive reinforcements (Deidalle and Gaunet, 2014).  These methods kill the dogs’ motivation to learn.

Studies have shown that the use of aversives and punishment in training are closely associated with increases in aggression and biting, due to the stress and strain associated with those training methods (Herron, Shofer and Reisner, 2009).  Such training methods actually endanger both the physical and mental heath of the dogs involved (Ziv, 2017).  The use of aversives actually causes dogs to be fearful and can create unintended negative associations for them – damaging their relationship with their owners and humans in general (Todd, 2018).

For these reasons, animal welfare organizations such as the RSPCA, the ASPCA, the HSUS, the AAHA and the AVMA have issued statements supporting positive training methods and condemning the use of aversives in pet training.  According to the AVMA “Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem-solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals.” (AVMA, 2015).  The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the International Association of Animal Behaviorists and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers have all established the Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive  (LIMA) protocol, which emphasizes the use of positive training methods with an absolute minimum of any aversive measures.

Summary

The bottom line is that we have learned a lot about animal behavior and learning in the 60 years since Koehler published his training method, and have found that punishment and aversives are not only cruel, they are harmful to animals’ welfare, and result in behavior problems and fear-based aggression.  Further, they don’t get any better results that positive methods.  In spite of this, although many trainers and owners are resistant to positive-only training, citing their own expertise and questionable authorities.

References

American Veterinary Medical Association (2015). AAHA Releases New Canine and Feline Behavior Guidelines.   Retrieved from AAHA releases new canine and feline behavior guidelines | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)

Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A. and Casey, R. A. (2008).  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 3 (5). 207 – 217. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008

Deidalle, S. and Gaunet, F. (2014).  Effects of 2 Training Methods on Stress-Related Behaviors of the Dog (canis familiaris) and the dog-owner relationship.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior (9) 2. 58 -65.  Doi 10.1016/J.veb.2013.11.004

Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S. and Reisner I. R. (2009).  Survey of the Use and Outcome of Confrontational and Non-Confrontational Training Methods in Client-Owned Dogs Showing Undesirable Behaviors.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 117 (1-2). 47 – 54.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011

Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J. and Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004).  Dog Training Methods:  Their Use, Effectiveness and Interaction with Behavior and Welfare.  Animal Welfare 13 (2004).  63-69.

Koehler, W. R. (1962).  The Koehler Method of Dog Training, Kindle Edition.  Retrieved from Amazon.com

Rooney, N. J. and Cowan, S. (2011). Training Methods and owner-dog interactions:  Links with dog behavior and learning ability.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 132 (2011). 169-177.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007

Todd, Z. (2018).  Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Training Methods.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 25 (2018), 28 – 34.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2018.03.004

Ziv, G. (2016).  The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs – a Review.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 19 (2017). 50 – 60.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004

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