Thirteen Negative Effects of Aversive Dog Training
Is an alpha roll coming? Pleazzz,I can't watch that!
There are still many dog owners and dog trainers who use aversive training methods to train dogs. Not too long ago, a client reported to me that her German shepherd puppy was "alpha rolled" by a vet because he was barking at him. The vet told the owner that the puppy was trying to challenge him and that he had to learn respect. Still as today, I feel angry that that vet did that and wonder how the pup might have felt being in the vet's office for future visits. Unfortunately these techniques have been promulgated by television shows and outdated books and are still quite widespread either due to lack of education or the belief that these methods are more effective.
The problem with utilizing aversive methods is that they come with problematic side effects that can be far worse than the original problem dog owners or trainers were facing. The German shepherd barking at the vet was likely acting in fear, as for many dogs, being enclosed in a small room with a stranger is a stressful event. On top of that, when this negative experience happened, the puppy's age coincided with a fear period, a temporary phase during which a dog's reactions to stimuli are heightened.
One of the biggest reasons to refrain from utilizing aversive methods is safety. Aversive methods can trigger defensive behaviors in dogs that may have not occurred in the first place if such methods weren't utilized. For this reason, a popular television show aired on National Geographic often featuring intensely aversive dog training methods has a big disclaimer: "do not try this at home." In the next paragraphs, we will be looking at more effects of aversive dog training.
Dog wearing shock collar
What are Aversive Dog Training Techniques?
What is aversive dog training? First one must define what the word "aversive" entails. According to Webster dictionary, aversive means "tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus <behavior modification by aversive stimulation>" There are different ways aversive, punishment methods can be applied, here's a quick rundown.
- By negative reinforcement, by removing an unpleasant stimulus the moment the dog performs the desired behavior (Example: dog ear is pinched and the pinching is stopped only once the dog performs the desired behavior of picking up a dumbbell)
- By positive punishment, by adding punishment the moment the dog performs an undesired behavior. (Example: dog is sprayed with a water bottle the moment he tries to surf the counters-dog hates water)
- By negative punishment, by removing a pleasant stimulus the moment the dog performs the undesired behavior (dog is punished by removing access to other dogs --timeout- the moment the dog performs the undesired behavior.)
One can therefore say that the only training technique that doesn't involve aversion is positive reinforcement training, where we add something to reinforce desired behaviors. You may notice how the aversive methods above vary quite greatly in intensity. We go from an ear pinch which is quite painful, to getting sprayed with water to being denied social access through a time-out. The term aversive doesn't need to be associated with pain. Any form of discomfort such as exposure to an unpleasant situation, withdrawal from something desired (imagine how you may feel if your bank account was drained) can be perceived as aversive.
I have caught many positive dog trainers make statements about aversive, punishment-based techniques not working. Even though I am a positive, force-free trainer myself, I want to make this clear: when punishment is provided at the right level of intensity, at the right time and it's contingent on the problem behavior, it can be very effective in suppressing unwanted dog behaviors... BUT..
Is it worth it? Most likely not, especially when using intense aversives. Yes, the vet got the German shepherd puppy to stop barking as he was alpha rolled to the floor, but the barking must have been replaced by more fear and possibly other symptoms such as shaking, panting, increased respiratory rate and rapid heart beat. Next time, the dog may decide to bite rather than bark as his warning system is suppressed and the dog is cornered.
I imagine the German shepherd's reaction must have felt equivalent to a person with a phobia of spiders who is screaming because one is crawling on the arm and the person is slapped by the therapist to stop the screaming instead of teaching the phobic person better coping skills. Sure, the screaming is out of the equation now, but has the fear gone away? No, and possibly, it's now even worse than before! Trying to suppress outward manifestations of an inward emotional turmoil will not only not stop the fear, but likely, even exacerbate it.
Performance lowers when a dog is in distress
13 Negative Effects of Aversive Dog Training Methods
It's important to be aware of the potential negative effects of aversive methods which can even have a long-term impact on the dog's life. Here are some negative effects associated with the use of intrusive aversives:
- Utilizing aversive training methods can be risky, especially when applying negative reinforcement and positive punishment. A dog whose ear is being pinched may (rightfully so!) decide not to take it one day, and may bite the handler. If the vet performed the alpha roll instead of on a puppy,on a mature, 80 pound, 3-year old German shepherd he could have been severely injured.
- When a person applies punishment, he or she may receive reinforcement by doing so. A person may feel better if he or she punishes the dog by pinching a dog's paw to stop him from jumping, especially if it works. This form of reinforcement causes the person to want to engage more and more in punishment-based methods, possibly more and more severe, which can initiate a vicious cycle that's abuse or very close to it.
- The application of intense aversives can generate emotional behaviors in dogs such as fear and anxiety. It would not be surprising if the German shepherd pup would have developed an intense fear or dislike of being at the vet's office or being touched by a stranger. This occurs because through conditioning, dogs tend to form associations with unpleasant events.
- When a dog forms associations with an unpleasant stimulus or event, the fear and anxiety can generalize to other similar stimuli or events. For instance, a dog may be fearful of a broom because a person used it to scare off the dog, and next thing, the dog becomes fearful of people walking with canes or people mopping the floor.
- Once fear and anxiety put roots, these emotions can be difficult to overcome and change. A dog (or any living creature) has an innate instinct to self-preservation, so avoiding stimuli that are perceived as frightening comes naturally.
- The propensity for dogs to develop defensive behaviors as seen in aversive training methods activates a physiological state that may interfere with a dog's ability to cognitively function.
- Defensive behaviors that result from the use of aversives are reinforcing. If the dog whose paws are pinched when he jumps decides to bite before his paws are pinched, and the person backs away, this biting behavior is reinforcing because it made the person trying to pinch his paws back away. So the dog will likely try to bite again next time. All of this would have not started if only the owners embraced non-aversive methods.
- The stress that comes with aversive methods can generate other problems such as escape behaviors, displacement behaviors and even self-mutilation. Paw licking, pacing and repeated scratching for no apparent reasons, can stem from stress derived from the use of aversives.
- Punishment occurs after an undesired behavior and its goal is to cancel out the reinforcement a problem behavior has kept the behavior alive. So if a dog who gained reinforcement from visiting the trash was punished by the owner clapping the hands and stomping feet loudly, and the dog no longer visits the trash can, this means the negative effect of the loud owner's commotion, supersedes the reinforcement derived from finding some left over foods. But... if the activity is more reinforcing than the punishment, it may prevail, which is why dogs may still pull on the leash despite being choked by a collar holding them back.
- If punishment is not provided consistently, the dog is allowed to rehearse the undesired behavior and reinforcement that fueled the problem behavior may cause the behavior to resurface.
- When a behavior is suppressed, this often creates a void where other problem behaviors fill it. For example, if a dog is kept in the yard all day long and he chews a garden house, activating a sensor that runs the water on the moment the dog approaches the hose may yes, suppress the hose-chewing behavior, but then the dog may decide to dig up flower bulbs instead.
- A negative effect of punishment is that when it's applied by a person, the dog associates punishment with the person's presence. Therefore, the dog might not raid the trash can when the person is away. If the dog is allowed to raid the thrash can sometimes yes and sometimes no, things become troublesome because the behavior is put on a variable schedule, the schedule that triggers addiction, just as it happens with people playing slots at Vegas.
- Finally, the use of aversive methods may cause a dog to become inhibited and refrain from offering behaviors as seen in suppressed dogs who are punished for picking objects with their mouth who have a hard time being trained to fetch anything.
It's not true that certain dog breeds need a heavy hand!
Alternative to Aversive Methods
So if one is not going to use aversive methods, what is left? Knowledge that there are plenty of alternative methods out there is often enough to educate people that there are better ways. More and more trainers, behavior consultants and veterinary behaviorists are working on educating about the negative effects of aversives and positive effects of using kinder methods.
If you are looking for a dog trainer committed to using force-free training and behavior modification look for professionals who are members of the Pet Professional Guild or Truly Dog Friendly. It's important to note that dog trainers who embrace positive methods are not permissive, cookie trainers as some may think. Positive trainers use consequences for undesired behaviors, only that the consequences chosen are not aversive or minimally aversive. Many trainers today abide to the LIMA school of thought, which entails using the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive methods. After all, no dog trainer should hurt dogs in the name of training and no dog owners should allow that! So what methods can be used that are not aversive or minimally aversive? Here are a few examples.
- Management prevents rehearsal of problem behaviors
- Prompting aids the dog to perform desired behaviors
- Antecedent arrangements help dogs make good choices
- Positive reinforcement increases the chances of repeating wanted behaviors
- Differential reinforcement reinforces desired behavior and extinguishes undesirable ones.
- Desensitization with counterconditioning help change a dog's emotional response
- Negative punishment removes something the dog desires to stop unwanted behaviors.
- Extinction, extinguishes problem behaviors because they no longer gain reinforcement
As seen, there are plenty of better options that do not involve, pain, fear and intimidation. Why train dogs using aversives, if there are many things you can try first? You may be surprised how you may attain results without the need to use shock, pain and intimidation. Happy training!
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