Mar 24 / Dr Teresa Tyler

Hegemonic Masculinity & Dog Training

The two main paradigms of dog training have never been fought out as much as they are now. You only have to glimpse at social media to see the positive reinforcement v’s balanced trainers, trying to battle it out, each insisting that their way is the best.  
Balanced training has become quite a trend with high profile trainers gaining a pseudo-celebrity status on platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram. These trainers who appear to have desirable masculine traits, use aversive training techniques to gain quick results, but as you will read, it is to the detriment of dog welfare.
They may use tools such as electric shock collars, prong collars and choke chains which they claim are effective and harmless, if used correctly, however those in the positive camp would argue to the contrary.  

For those of us who work with clients and their dogs, it is imperative that we focus on the human as much, if not more, than the dog. To understand the human psychology and relationship between human and their dog is the key to finding effective solutions. To this end, we must take a trip down memory lane to understand the background of behaviour modification in humans to see how it translated to dog training.    

In 1976, Lichstein and Shriebman published a paper in which they state:  

“The use of electric shock in a punishment paradigm has continued to be a highly controversial issue in the treatment of autistic children. While the experimental literature argues for the effectiveness of the procedure for reducing maladaptive behaviors, some clinicians and researchers have expressed fear of possible negative side effects. The reported side effects of contingent electric shock were reviewed in an attempt to evaluate the validity of these fears. The review indicated that the majority of reported side effects of shock were of a positive nature. These positive effects included response generalization, increases in social behavior, and positive emotional behavior. The few negative side effects reported included fear of the shock apparatus, negative emotional behavior, and increases in other maladaptive behavior.” (Lichstein & Shriebman, 1976. P163).  

The use of electric shock on autistic children still occurs in some Western countries, being described by antagonists as a form of torture that remains highly controversial.
Yet this procedure is still acceptable to some and indeed for many dog trainers to use on dogs too.  

During the 1990’s, research demonstrated that positive behaviour intervention support was a more effective way of modifying behaviour. The motive for an unwanted behaviour was identified and steps taken to remove it. For example, a child who was afraid of the dark, would be given a night light rather than being punished. This sounds like common sense today and the thought of using electric shocks on neurodiverse humans is quite unbelievable. Imagine how a child must feel being subjected to this aversion therapy?

Using pain, torture, or humiliation to control behaviour is abuse, yet we still do it to non-human animals. So, lets take a deeper dive into why.

Why do people use aversives to train dogs? There are lots of reasons but for the sake of this blog I will discuss three factors: people’s beliefs about dogs, the socio-cultural backgrounds, and ideologies about masculinity. This is an area of research being studied by Albhon, et al. (2024) who have discovered links between dominance theory, use of aversives and beliefs about masculinity.  

There has been quite a resurgence in the use of aversive methods and popularity of certain figures within the industry who use them. Aversive methods in the context of learning theory and behaviour modification are anything that causes pain, are forceful or intimidating, and in dog trainer language, positive punishment. Those of you who have studied dog behaviour, may well remember the research conducted by Seligman in 1972:  

 “Behavioral manifestations.-When an experimentally naive dog receives escape-avoidance training in a shuttle box, the following behavior typically occurs: at the onset of the first painful electric shock, the dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating, and howling, until it accidentally scrambles over the barrier and so escapes the shock. On the next trial, the dog, running and howling, crosses the barrier more quickly than on the preceding trail. This pattern continues until the dog learns to avoid shock altogether. We have found a striking difference between this pattern of behavior and that exhibited by dogs first given uncontrollable electric shocks in a Pavlovian hammock. Such a dog's first reactions to shock in the shuttle box are much the same as those of a naive dog. However, in dramatic contrast to a naive dog, a typical dog which has experienced uncontrollable shocks before avoidance training soon stops running and howling and sits or lies, quietly whining, until shock terminates. The dog does not cross the barrier and escape from shock. Rather, it seems to give up and passively accepts the shock. On succeeding trials, the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give.” (Seligman, 1972. P.407).  

This graphic account demonstrates how learned helplessness develops. The dog who feels he has no control of the aversive, gives up and no longer tries to escape it, even if it can. Despite this purported under-reactivity to the stressors, later researchers found, through analyzing cortisol levels in the blood, that unsurprisingly, the animals were in fact very stressed (Ackerman, 2022).

More recent studies show that dogs trained using aversives are more likely to exhibit aggression towards people, especially their guardians (Ziv, 2017).
Dogs trained with these methods show less of a bond with their guardians, showing less affection and a lower eye gaze (Viera de castro et al., 2020).

The use of aversives is closely linked to the myth commonly referred to as Dominance Theory. Dominance Theory says that dog social behaviour and that of wolves is based on a single Alpha hierarchy. This Alpha, in layman terms is the single, most dominant dog/wolf to which the others all submit, and the leader of the pack.
This is translated into human dog relationships in expressions such as ‘you must be the boss over your dog’, ‘always eat before feeding your dog’, and that humans must always ‘show dominance over their dogs’.  

Dominance in ethological terms is a very different subject, but ‘dominance theory’ has been taken by the general public and used mistakenly to control and aggress over their dogs.  

If we think back to humans again, there is an overlap between dominance theory and the traditional gender roles of men and what it means to ‘be a man.’
In his book Paying for Masculinity, Murray Knuttila argues that male dominance is best understood in the context of hegemonic masculinity – a mythological, cultural representation of stereotypically heterosexual males being dominant, strong, competitive, muscular, and who are implicated in the subordination of women and marginalised men (such as gay men).

This type of masculinity permeates through our culture, being represented in a variety of ways, but dominance and control are essential components. Boys are expected to ‘man up’ to be successful, yet they pay a price in restricted emotions and blunted humanity.
Sandra Bem created an inventory of masculine and feminine personality traits, arguing that genders could share traits, see below:      
Unfortunately, the combination of these two elements; dominance theory and hegemonic masculinity, have infiltrated the dog training world as much as elsewhere in Western societies.

Masculinity as a social identity is proven through behaviours and attitudes. Training based on dominance appeals to people (not just men) who have hegemonic masculine identities and is culturally valued and accepted. Animal care and positive reinforcement training appeals more to those with feminine identities (not just women).  

When we consider the two main camps of training, people generally believe that we fall into two types of leadership, that is benevolent or adversarial. We either work with them in a kind way, or we get into conflict and assert dominance.  

Dominance theory + Endorsement of male norm roles + Aversive training methods
 (Palmer, 2024).

When we are working with clients, it is important to consider not just what their understanding of dominance theory is, but what their beliefs about masculinity are too, as this will link to their willingness to use (or not) aversive methods like punishment.

You can give clients an hour-long lecture on how dominance theory is not relevant to the dog/humans relationship, but if their belief about themselves is linked to hegemonic masculinity, they are unlikely to lean towards reward-based methods, preferring to assert dominance, power and use aversive techniques to achieve the desired result.

Training is educational, yet balanced trainers continue to use aversive methods to ‘educate’ dogs. We therefore need to consider the bigger picture and include cultural and social identities too.  

Is it time to rethink how we engage those people who train dogs using aversive methods? To encourage the need to focus on the relationships with our dogs and other animals, and start to reflect on broader subjects such as human supremacy, speciesism, and gender?

Understanding human behaviour is key to improving the welfare of animals, and without consideration of the human, their culture, society, and beliefs, we will not create any positive change for dogs or other non-human animals.    
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