Mar 26 / Jay Gurden

Aversive training: more consequences than you may realise

Despite the efforts of many canine professionals and widening body of scientific evidence, aversive training techniques remain in use. Discussions surrounding the use of these tools are often acrimonious and highly divisive. Supporters insist some dogs need them, some breeds apparently too stubborn or high drive for management any other way. Reward-based training is denigrated as ‘cookie-pushing’ or permissiveness, allowing the dog to be in charge, when what dogs ‘need’ is to know their pack leader. This is despite the fact alpha theory is outdated, based on observations from the 1940s now recognised as flawed.  

Using aversive techniques carries significant risks to the physical health and well-being of dogs, and the human-canine relationship. By definition, aversive methods are things dogs actively try to avoid. They find them unpleasant, painful, or scary, and want to reduce the likelihood of encountering that stimulus again. This raises serious ethical questions. In addition, if we are causing distress or pain to dogs, what effect will that have on their view of us?  

Scientists are beginning to examine the impact training methods may have on the canine-human bond (Vieira de Castro et al, 2019). Discussing the findings on the Psychology Today website Stanley Coren wrote of reward-based training ‘Even if your timing is off and you are not a very good or knowledgeable trainer, there is no harm being done...’ This is the significant consideration. In no situation does reward based training cause a dog harm. The worst that can happen is our timing is off and we accidentally reward the wrong thing. Not what we want when training but entirely fixable without causing distress.  

Supporters claim the success of their approach shows in their dogs’ behaviour, for instance when the dog does something ‘wrong’. They attribute this behaviour to guilt, the dog ‘knowing what they’ve done’. Those educated in modern ethical canine behaviour studies recognise the language of appeasement. The dog has no concept of what they have supposedly done wrong, but try to ingratiate themselves with those around them in an attempt to avoid or stop things getting worse. No situation in which a dog feels the need to appease people can have a positive effect on building trust and strengthening relationships. One paper focused on welfare effects of training methods concluded ‘companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare during training sessions than dogs trained with reward-based methods.’ (Vieira de Castro AC et al, 2020. P. 10.)

An element of danger exists in using these techniques.

What appears to be success is instead behaviour suppression, stopping the behaviour occurring but doing nothing for the cause. Suppressing behaviour creates potential for the dog to show aggression when they can take no more. They may bite the nearest thing to them, trying to stop pain and/or find escape. It may be the trainer or perhaps an innocent bystander close enough for the dog to see them as the potential cause of their fear or pain. This type of retaliatory aggression is understandable in a species having limited ways to communicate with us, compounded by the fact many people lack skills in reading and interpreting canine body language. Unheeded, the dog feels they need to increase the intensity of their signals. When these bigger, more overt communications remain ignored, the dog has no option but to use the strongest language they have – a bite.

Alternatively, dogs finding themselves in an inescapable situation may develop learned helplessness. They have learned they cannot escape and so they do not try. They go into a state of emotional shutdown, waiting for the situation to be over. Even worse, many people mistake this behavioural void for the dog being calm and showing ‘good behaviour’ and think that their methods have worked. The dog still feels all the negative emotions, the distress and fear, but do not show them. There is no point to expressing those feelings, as they will have no effect.   The justification many pro-aversive trainers use is that the dogs they work with ‘need’ these tools, as they work better and faster than reward-based methods. Technically, punishment based methods work. The dog stops pulling when the sharp points of the prongs dig into the skin of their neck. The dog wearing an electric collar linked to an invisible fence stays away from the boundary to avoid the shock. In the short term, successful. The real issue comes when they stop working. When a lead pop on a prong collar or choke chain does not stop pulling. When something so scares a dog, they take panicked flight past the invisible fence. Is that dog likely to return home over that line that gets them a shock? When pain and fear stop working, where is left to go? Harsher punishments, more pain, more fear for the dog. This risks entering severely compromised welfare territory, and edges into abuse.  

Recent research examines the efficacy of different training methods. China, Mills and Cooper (2020. P.9.) directly compared reward-based and aversive techniques with three groups of dogs. One group worked with reward-based trainers. The second group was trainers using e-collars. The third group trained with the e-collar trainers using other methods utilised when not using an e-collar. They concluded that ‘the professional use of a reward-focused training regime… was superior to E-collar and Control Group 1 in every measure of efficacy where there was a significant difference.’ Of the two groups trained by users of aversive tools, dogs trained without e-collars responded as effectively to training as the dogs with them. 

With this conclusion, it is clear aversive tools have neither need nor place in modern dog training.  

References:
China, L., Mills, D. and Cooper, J., 2020. ‘Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement.’ Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7.
Vieira de Castro, A., Barrett, J., de Sousa, L. and Olsson, I., 2019. ‘Carrots versus sticks: The relationship between training methods and dog-owner attachment.’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 219, p.104831.

Vieira de Castro. A. C, Fuchs. D, Morello G.M., Pastur S, de Sousa L, Olsson IAS (2020) Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0225023. 
Coren, S. 2019 How Training Methods Affect a Dog's Attachment to Its Owner. [online]