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Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Training Dogs

Aversives are Unnecessary and Counter-Productive When Training A Dog – Part 1
By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | Dec 28, 2018
Photo by: Debra Bell

In September I wrote the 1st of a series of columns entitled “Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Training Dogs” [ FMI – http://bit.ly/Things-Gus-Dominance ] This month I am addressing the next stage in Gus’s training.

In 1991, dogs were routinely trained with collars designed specifically to administer an aversive: positive punishment or negative reinforcement. At the time, there were two primary types of collars: choke collars or prong collars.

Choke collars are typically made of a metal chain or nylon. They are used to give a “leash pop” or “correction” when the trainer gives a quick jerk on the leash. The intent is to cause the dog pain around its neck. A single correction with a choke collar may restrict breathing, cause damage to the spine, the thyroid gland, and even to the eyes. The use of choke collars has even been reported to cause brain damage.

Prong collars, also called pinch collars, consist of a metal chain that contains several prongs that rest against the dog’s neck. Just as with the choke collar, the trainer jerks on the leash causing the prongs to press against the dog’s neck causing pain. Prong collars, like choke collars, can cause both physical and psychological injury to a dog.

The fundamental training philosophy behind the use of choke and prong collars is to set up a training scenario where the dog will react inappropriately (e.g., the dog does not sit when cued or the dog pulls on leash) whereupon the trainer administers a correction by jerking on the leash. This jerk causes an aversive or pain which is meant to deter the dog from misbehaving in the future.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “aversive” as “Tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus – behavior modification by aversive stimulation.”

I define an aversive as; “An aversive is anything that makes your dog anxious, afraid, or uncomfortable. An aversive makes our dogs want to be away from whatever they believe caused the aversive. If they believe we caused the aversive, they will no longer want to be near us.”

Since most people get a dog to be their companion, I have to ask, “why would anyone want to use a tool that would cause our best friend to want to avoid us?” Today, it makes no sense to me. Unfortunately, not knowing any better back in 1991, the next stage of Gus’s training involved the use of a choke collar.

We taught Gus to sit, to lie down, and to stay when he was given a verbal cue by using a correction with a choke collar. We worked on the heel but never mastered it without using the choke collar. Gus never had a reliable recall until we discovered reward-based training.

I am not arguing that punishment and negative reinforcement do not work as training methods. I am alerting you to the fact that there are significant adverse side effects to using these tools. Peer-reviewed studies indicate reward-based techniques, emphasizing positive reinforcement, work as well or better than punishment. That is why organizations such as the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have policy statements that state:

“This Task Force opposes training methods that use aversive techniques. 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. Aversive techniques are especially injurious to fearful and aggressive patients and often suppress signals of impending aggression, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous.

Aversive techniques include prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating. None of those tools and methods should be used to either teach or alter behavior.” - 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines [ Emphasis added ]

This is what I would have liked to have known about aversives before I started training.

• Aversive training tools and methods are designed to hurt, and if these methods did not cause pain, they would not work.

• The use of aversives can cause physical injury and thus both acute and chronic pain.

• Causing pain and discomfort is not necessary to train a dog.

• The better the relationship you have with your dog, the easier it is to train. Aversives are damaging to the relationship.

• The use of aversives can cause reactive and aggressive behaviors in a dog.

Next month I will address other aversives still used far too often to train and manage dogs.

 

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Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop (greenacreskennel.com) in Bangor where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He also produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show heard on AM620 -WZON every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at www.woofmeowshow.com. Don also writes about pets at his blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com. He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this column are those of Don Hanson.