Avoiding Aversive Methods in Dog Training

As a certified professional dog trainer, I am often contacted after clients have already tried aversive training tools or methods to “correct” their dog’s behavior.   Most clients do not understand the principles upon which these methods are based.  They haven’t given much thought to how a tool or training method is intended to work and are just focused upon stopping the problem behavior.  Aversive techniques may appear to have “worked” on TV or for other people they know.  Some aversive tools or training styles are promoted using clever marketing messages about stopping problem behaviours quickly, with little effort required, which appeals to busy dog owners.  The distress the dog experiences from these tools or techniques, is, of course, downplayed.
Aversive measures involve applying an unpleasant consequence, such as physical harm or threat of physical harm, after the dog engages in problem behavior, to decrease the probability of the behavior occurring in the future.  For example, leash yanks, pinning or forcing a dog to the ground, or the use of choke, prong or shock collars all involve applying physical discomfort to the dog.  Electronic fencing means that the dog wears a collar which delivers a shock when the dog crosses the boundary line.  Even when a correction or punishment seems mild, in order to be effective, it often must elicit a strong fear response in the dog, such as with the use of compressed air to emit a loud “hiss” sound.  Dogs are instinctively fearful of this sound, since it mimics the sound that a dangerous predator (snake) will make in nature. 
Using aversive consequences when training a dog causes the dog to experience distress which is both harmful to the dog and to your relationship with it.  Applying unpleasant consequences can elicit strong emotional reactions in the dog, such as fear of people and situations.  The dog may react to the discomfort or threat being applied by trying to escape or avoid the unpleasant situation. The fear created by aversive consequences is very real for the dog, and will often generalize to other things or situations which appear similar to the dog.  Aversive treatment can also elicit increased arousal, anxiety, and aggression.  The dog may feel defensive or frustrated and may attack his punishers or redirect his aggression onto another object or person.
Besides ethical concerns with subjecting a dog to distressing consequences in order to train it, there are a variety of other problems with using aversive measures. 
Training which is based on punishing the symptoms of the problem or stopping what the dog is doing wrong may appear to solve the problem in the short-term.  The dog may refrain from acting out or suppress its behavior in order to avoid the unpleasant consequence being applied.  However, the underlying problem still remains.  For example, some dogs who feel threatened by the presence of other dogs and bark and lunge at dogs, when physically corrected by their owners, may stop barking and lunging.  However, these dogs do not feel better about the presence of other dogs.  In fact, they may develop an increased negative association with other dogs, as a result of having been subjected to punishment by their owners.   They are still fearful of other dogs and may actually act with more aggression and fewer warning signs if pushed into a situation, making them more dangerous.
Owners who “correct” their dog using force, fear, or unpleasant consequences may find that they need to keep raising the intensity of the correction for it to continue to interrupt the problem behavior.  There can be an adaptation/tolerance effect with punishment, where the same intensity no longer works to stop behavior and the dog just endures the punishment.  As well, if a person needs to continue using repeated “corrections” to teach the dog to avoid engaging in behaviour, then the corrections are obviously not working to change the behavior, and should not be continued.
Punishing the dog for misbehaviour does not teach the dog what an appropriate alternative behavior might be for that situation.  Punishment may be able to interrupt or temporarily stop behavior, but the dog may substitute one problem behavior with another, potentially worse behavior if we have not taught it what to do instead.   If the dog doesn’t know what behavior is desired by us, it is very difficult for it to comply with performing that desired behavior.  It is unfair to subject the dog  to unpleasant treatment or cause it distress when it may not even understand what arbitrary rules it is breaking and being “corrected” for.   We need to teach the dog which behaviors we would like it to perform and reward this, instead of focusing on stopping problem behaviors.
There is no way to ensure that the information which dogs interpret from the application of aversive consequences is the same information that was intended for them to understand.  For example, does the dog attribute its correction collar tightening around its neck to its own barking/lunging behavior being the cause of this unpleasant feeling, or does it believe that the mere presence of the other dog results in pressure around its neck and increased feelings of arousal?  Does the dog associate the correction with the person applying the correction rather than the dog’s own behavior, thus causing confusion, fear, and lack of trust toward that person?  Does the dog interpret that it is dangerous to engage in a particular behavior when their owner is around, but fine to engage in that behavior when the owner is not present?
“Correcting” a dog’s problem behavior using unpleasant consequences is unnecessary.  There are more informed, humane, and effective training methods available.  Positive reinforcement training should be used instead to address problematic dog behavior.  To solve behavior problems using positive reinforcement methods, we need to look for the actual reason or motivation that causes the dog to engage in the behavior, and address that issue.  Positive reinforcement training focuses on teaching dogs what we would like them to do instead of what not to do.  The dog will be motivated to repeat a particular behavior in order to obtain a reward or positive consequence from you.  Rather than being afraid of how you might treat it, the dog will trust you and be willing and eager to work with you.  Dogs trained with positive reinforcement enjoy the process of being trained and this strengthens their feelings of positive regard for their trainers, thus strengthening the relationship.

Cheryl Wittevrongel is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA), in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.