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The Case Against Training With Aversives

“Am I safe?” is the preeminent concern of a companion animal and should be the raison d’etre of responsible animal ownership. Working and police/military dogs have long been subjected to a number of training strategies or techniques which involve positive punishment, that would raise an eyebrow of concern to an observer or perhaps outright revulsion. In some venues, positive punishment is viewed as a sufficient and necessary means to produce a reliable and durable behavioral result. Anecdotally, I was told of a trainer of hunting dogs who would use extreme, but effective means of dealing with an intractable training problem with positive punishment. If one of his dogs were to persistently track a raccoon rather than the target animal during training forays, he would enclose the dog with a raccoon skin in a barrel and roll it down a hill with a long and moderate slope. Needless to say, the dog would form an extremely negative association with raccoons and be expected to usually avoid them in the future, but at the expense of the relationship with the trainer and possibly, with a future owner.

Electric shock collars have been employed as the only means of teaching avoidance of dangerous situations. In San Diego, where rattlesnakes are not uncommon even in suburban areas, there are legitimate services with highly trained personnel for effectively training companion animals to avoid snakes for which a shock collar is the reinforcing device. Unfortunately, shock collars are available in pet stores to serve as invisible fences and to discourage excessive barking of dogs by owners unwilling to understand, let alone resolve the problem by positive techniques. In our practice, we have seen enough instances of fear-induced aggression to reject the propagation of methods and devices likely to instill a sense of a lack of safety in animals by the unsophisticated, the frustrated or even sadistic. Research has pointed to the downside potential of the indiscriminate use of devices such as shock collars. We do not permit shock collars, prong collars, choke chains or other pain systems in our classes at The Educated Pet and actively discourage their implementation by our clients.

In our practice, we frequently work with people who hold positive punishment techniques in high regard. They come to us to correct refractory behavior problems – animals that are resistant to training methods they’ve employed that emphasize punishment – which have been exacerbated in their dogs.

We have also seen owners attending puppy socialization classes with inappropriate preconceptions regarding training. Another issue is the application of a dominance training approach, promoted by certain enthusiastic practitioners, where it is believed that a dominance hierarchy involving the owner and the pet is the key to training success. The argument for this approach is that since the putative ancestor of the modern dog is the wolf and dominance hierarchical social structure is the norm in wolf packs, such a structure must also be the norm in dog groups. True dominance-based social structures are a rarity in the modern dog with the exception of ancient breeds. The Ancient breeds include the following (not an exhaustive list): Basenji, Saluki, Afghan Hound, Samoyed, Dingo, Chow Chow, Shar Pei, Akita, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, and Akita. Unlike most European-based dogs and herding breeds, which have undergone considerable artificial selection and modification during their 30,000 to 50,000 year-association with humans, these ancient breeds have undergone little change during this period. However, ancient breed dogs are an anomaly, since few modern breed dogs will understand, let alone attempt to impose, a dominance hierarchy. Owners using a dominance based training approach are likely to induce generalized fear in their pet. In working with animals, trust is everything. Aversives, or punishments, and dominance generally work against setting up a trust-based relationship (with clear guidelines of expectations) between dog and owner, particularly when the dog is trying to act appropriately to its interpretation of the environment. Stress induction is not going to be conducive to effective learning if the dog perceives that it is under constant threat. Approximately 80% of the cases we see involve aggression and in the vast majority of these cases, the aggression is anxiety or fear induced. Further, we recall many instances where chaotic and perhaps even dangerous relationships that have developed between dogs and owners have required an extensive and intrusive social revision under a new modus vivendi to achieve a positive and healthy outcome. Since fear induced aggression is what we’re trying to avoid, a dog training approach, or approaches, which provide viable alternatives to positive punishment and dominance is desirable.

We are unaware of a single, competent trainer who wouldn’t agree that positive reinforcement is far superior to application of aversive techniques in changing a dog’s behavior effectively. Why raise the unfocused anxiety levels of our pets to the point of perhaps generalized aggression? After all, aren’t our pets supposed to be and feel safe?

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