What’s The Truth About Using Aversive Methods In Dog Training?

No normal person wants to harm a dog. Let’s get that out of the way up front. This article is not about how to harm any dog. If you are someone who would take your anger out on a dog, or get pleasure from harming a dog, then you should stay about a million miles away from any dog. The question we are going to examine: is there a role for making a dog uncomfortable, stressed or afraid in training? Scientists have determined there are fear systems in the brain. When those systems are stimulated, animals and people display behaviors that are associated with fear. Fear has a necessary survival function. Without fear, animals would not survive. One of my promises to all my students is that whatever I do will be done intelligently. So, let’s use our intelligence here and not succumb to maudlin tales of woe from those in the dog community who don’t know what they are saying or are being dishonest about what they do themselves. I’m not here to give you permission to start yelling and abusing your dog. If you do that, it’s on you. That isn’t good dog ownership or good dog training. This article is about straightening out concepts, so we do what is right.

I was emailed by a professor several years ago about this topic. She wanted a debate over aversive dog training methods. In my last email to her, which shut her down, explained that I want my dog to be afraid of some things. LOL, I think my statement made her head explode or something. She went away in a huff. I never got to explain to her what I meant. 

Young puppies which are not exposed to appropriate stresses are unable to handle normal stresses as an adult. They will always be more reactive and less healthful. This is one of the main purposes of exposures through socialization. Handling and interactions with any young puppy entail stimulating them in ways that will be perceived as uncomfortable, stressful and fearful. The benefit is that normal stresses help preserve essential brain tissue in puppies. During the first 16 weeks of life, millions of nerve connections are either made or discarded. Permanently. A dog’s DNA is partly responsible for how a dog’s brain will get wired, but the other part is left up to exposure from the environment. The adaptations made through exposures to external stimuli are so that the organism can better survive in that environment as an adult. Thus, we want a puppy to be raised with its mama (who will sometimes get grumpy with that puppy). We want a puppy that isn’t an only puppy with no littermates. We want to start at least 5 minutes of daily handling of puppies by a variety of humans starting at 2 weeks of age. We want to expose young puppies to a variety of noises, scents, temperatures. Not only will the resulting puppies be easier to own they will have stronger immune systems. If these measures are not implemented, a range of full expression of fears will display months later, and unsuspecting owners won’t get the connection as to why their 6 to 8 month old dogs are now afraid of strangers, the vacuum cleaner, strange dogs, the doorbell, and such. Proper early stresses stimulate the fear circuits in the brain, in a healthy way. Without the proper brain connections, dogs don’t have the equipment necessary to deal with life appropriately. So, do I want young puppies to experience their fear circuits being activated? Obviously, the answer is “Yes”. 

Next, let’s consider why littermates fight so much and are born with sharp needlelike teeth. The main outcome we want is for puppies to learn bite inhibition and to learn how to “fight” with gestures and noise and slobber rather than biting as adults. Well socialized dogs make a lot of noise, which sounds like a horrible fight, when they argue. But they don’t make a mark or injure the other dog. Unsocialized dogs bite, and bite hard. Dogs need to learn, early on, before their teeth can do real damage, how to have a disagreement without a full-blown fight. Once again, these early and uncomfortable bites are necessary and are activating the fear centers in their brains. We harvest the benefits of a well socialized puppy. There might be some noise, but no one gets hurt.

Furthermore, appropriate levels of fear prevent fights. Let’s say someone walks up to you, and for no apparent reason, slaps you across the face. That pain makes you very angry. But, before you take a swing at the guy who hit you, you see he’s about 7 feet tall, has scary tattoos all over his face, he is with a gang of 10 other Frankensteins, and he has a weapon in each hand. There’s no way you are going to take that on. Your brain’s fear circuits will tell you to inhibit your desire to fight. You will instead try to get out of there, even offering statements and gestures or humor to try and diffuse the fight. You also see that because you are backing off, the big guy decides not to attack you further. You back away and get out of there. Well, that’s the same thing that well socialized dogs do when faced with an overwhelming opponent. They “apologize” and get out of there. The fear of being hurt saves their lives. Yes, you want your dog to be afraid of some things. 

There was a certain couple who had a son born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. It caused permanent brain damage. As a young boy, they had to make him wear padding all over and a helmet because he had no fear of being injured. He broke multiple bones over the years and he had no fear of harming himself. Yes, you want your dog to be afraid of some things, such as jumping off a cliff, going into a dark hole, getting stepped on, getting a tail slammed in a doorway, being grabbed by a stranger, or jumping out of a moving vehicle. No one would want a fearless dog. 

Now, what’s the wrong way of using aversives? Simply put, whatever done should not cause injury, “crack” (my term) a dog psychologically, or make them unable to be properly social. Any aversives should be easily understood by the dog and owner, should given in a way in which a dog is given a fair learning opportunity to avoid future aversive stimuli, and should not be used unless the dog has been well trained in advance to do a substitute behavior or action that is better for the situation, the owner, and the dog. Many experiments on animals over the past century have demonstrated what types of situations will break a dog. What was done then shouldn’t be done in training today. Your job isn’t to experiment on your dog. You aren’t conducting a scientific experiment. You are training a dog. If you don’t know what is aversive, and how to use aversives, you should not use them at all. You should, instead, learn the proper ways to train dogs. 

Some lessons in life need to be taught in ways that will save a life and increase the quality of life. For example, let’s say your baby has learned how to crawl. Would you let your baby go over to a lamp, pull on the cord, and have the lamp fall on them to teach them a lesson? Or would you come up with a way of correcting your child? It isn’t that hard to teach “No” to a child, and that simple lesson can then be generalized to other forbidden activities. Teaching “No” to a child will require the use of some kind of primary aversive stimulus. “No” has to be associated with a primal fear of harm, whether physical or social. Since you can’t baby proof the world, you must teach kids that some things can hurt them, and to listen to your instructions and warnings. You have to correct them. In a similar way, it is wrong to allow a dog to be bitten by a rattlesnake, to run into the street and get hit by a car, to chew on a live power cord, to get in a fight with another dog, or a hundred other such situations. Some things a dog should be afraid of.

Now, what about training dogs? Is it appropriate to use any method that is aversive, which frustrates, stresses, or makes them afraid? 

The PP (purely positive) trainers claim they don’t use any aversives. Yet, I see them use aversives in all their training. First, they use abundant methods of restraint. Restraint is aversive. They severely limit their dog’s freedom. They use negative punishment, withholding rewards for incorrect response. They use boredom, hunger, and lack of activity to get their dogs motivated to work. They use head halters, no pull harnesses, leashes, collars, crates, gates, and doors. Do you not realize every one of these devices are aversive in some way? I won’t mention names since I don’t want to get in a turf battle with these people. These well-known trainers also often use a variety of grunts, startles, leash pulls, loud vocal reprimands, scruff grabs, various techniques which induce frustration or conflict, and will chase down a dog that runs away. Their dogs show the typical submissive or fearful body language after using these corrections and methods. They are aversive, the dogs find them uncomfortable, stressful, and fearful. Their body language says it all. All these trainers are using aversives while at the same time preaching that you shouldn’t use aversives. Now their dogs don’t look abused because they do use positives in their training, but that doesn’t act as camouflage to those of us with knowing eyes who can clearly see they are using aversives. And let’s be honest: if you own a dog, you are using some kind of aversives. Every professional knows aversives work since they use them. it’s just that many don’t want to admit it because their gimmicks, branding, and methods make them a lot of money. If you can get them to speak honestly, they will say they use THESE aversives, but not THOSE, without quantifying whether their methods and tools are less aversive or more effective. Then you’ll get the guilt trip to shame you into using their ways and paying them money. They will say they are following the “science”. Can they point to double blind, properly set up studies? Highly unlikely. Most studies quoted are typically opinion polls, not properly performed scientific studies. I call their assertions scientific heresy.

Since there are responsibilities and risks associated with the use of aversives, I am not going to instruct you in this article how to apply them and in which circumstances. But, I will say that if and when aversives are be applied, they should only be used if they are effective and administered sparingly, to get lifesaving results. That is my boundary, and I think my position can be defended with evidence and in terms of proper animal welfare ethics. There is no joy in correcting a child, and there is no joy in correcting a dog. But both need correcting at strategic points along the way. 

Finally, let’s quit pretending that dogs need to be trained to do no more than circus tricks on a controlled stage. For example, no one should be impressed if a dog can earn a ribbon for agility, or any other sport, but can’t be managed or trusted if that dog gets off leash in public. Most competition dogs at the highest levels today can’t do the actual work they are simulating in competition: they are just circus acts. On the other hand, companion and working dogs require actual obedience and control. Circus tricks are fun to watch, but more than 99% of the time, most dogs aren’t performing for an audience. Yes, we should positively reinforce appropriate behaviors and actions, but we also need to be realistic that the real world needs of companion and working dogs requires us to ensure their wellbeing and safety. 

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