Woman training dog

–By Steve Dale, CABC

Aversive Training Methods that Causes Pain, Stress, or Fear Have Got to Go

With the launch a few decades back of the no-kill movement, there is more emphasis on saving the lives of shelter animals than ever before–a trend accelerated with the adoption frenzy at the height of the pandemic. Animal shelters are under intense pressure to keep their live-release rates up, meaning that they must either transport or find homes for over 90% of the animals who come through their door. Obviously, we all support the collective attempt to keep healthy, adoptable dogs from being euthanized due to lack of space or resources. But what about dogs who have exhibited aggressive tendencies? How can we help them?

As part of their life saving efforts, shelters are now hiring dog trainers to work with aggressive dogs–but at what cost?

A wide range of shelters now hire dog trainers to expediently rehabilitate aggressive dogs with the targeted goal of making them ready for adoption. Currently, trainers work hard to rehabilitate as many dogs as soon as possible. Presumably rehabbed dogs are then adopted to families, and the trainer then turns their attention to the next dog in need. This all sounds great on paper; however, the way trainers accomplish this goal is rarely considered relevant. In truth, the methodology trainers use is fundamental in creating well- adjusted canine family members. Aversive methods that cause pain or fear need to stop because they do nothing more than perpetuate a cycle of abuse– harming the very dogs they claim to help.

Shelter trainers benefit by expediency: the more dogs they work with, the more money they make. Unfortunately, many dog trainers apply aversive methods that intimidate animals into submission. A popular example is Cesar (“Dog Whisperer”) Millan, who terrifies dogs into compliance with seemingly compelling results. Millan and others perpetuate the myth that we must “show our dogs who is boss,” and trainers thus market aversive techniques like “bonking”–a term that describes throwing a rolled up towel hard at a dog (often on their head)–to unsuspecting pet parents as a legitimate way of getting results. Because fear temporarily suppresses unwanted behavior, these downright frightening tactics seem to work on the surface. In reality, they exemplify a trend of duping the public into harming their pets, while trainers inappropriately promise near instant results by whatever means necessary.

But treating aggression–which is almost always fear-based–with even more aggressive training and tools, like electronic collars or bonking, is outdated and inhumane. The popularity of aversive methods motivated the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) to craft a Humane Dog Training Position Statement. AVSAB had also previously written a Dominance Position Statement to debunk the misguided notion that we need to dominate animals to get them to behave.

On my National radio show, Steve Dale’s Pet World, Dr. Steve Edwards, incoming AVSAB President, reaffirmed that the notion of dominating a dog “makes no sense”. More importantly, he explained that trainers who use aversive methods actually increase his business and those of colleagues by making fearful dogs all the more fearful and distrusting, leading to more bites.

There are two dark sides to aversive training: a) already fearful dogs become more fearful and b) they can then become ticking time bombs to the families (especially those with children) who adopt them…

Many organizations and even nations recognize the dangers of aversive training and have banned shock collars or electronic (e-collars) altogether. In the midst of the pandemic, Petco stopped all sales of e-collars in their stores. Their CEO, Ron Coughlin, made a compelling statement to the media on October 2020 about their influential #StoptheShock campaign: “We say goodbye to remote controls that cause pain, and hello to expert trainers who mentor pets and pet parents with positivity, patience and compassion”. You can read more about #StoptheShock here.

Animal trainer, Darris Cooper, reiterated to me that nowadays, we know better than to train animals using punishments of any kind. Instead, experts agree that positive reinforcement and the approaches supported by the Fear Free movement, initiated by Dr. Marty Becker, are the most effective ways to re-adjust canine attitudes and support their confidence.

Numerous studies demonstrate the advantages of positive reinforcement. This one out of the University of Porto, in Portugal is a good case in point. Science has repeatedly shown that dogs learn better–with more beneficial, long-term results–when positive reinforcement training is used. Perhaps the starkest example of this was a study with veterinary behaviorist Dr.Theresa DePorter, based in Bloomfield Hills, MI, who worked with a local dog trainer who used aversive training methods in his puppy classes. After one year, an astounding 38 percent of the puppy class grads were re-homed, surrendered, or euthanized for behavioral issues. After two years, over half (60 percent) of dogs were re-homed, surrendered or euthanized.

DePorter then convinced that same trainer to offer positive reinforcement classes, and instructed him on how to do so. The five weekly in-hospital puppy socialization classes were for pups ages seven to 12 weeks. This wasn’t a typical tiny study of a pawful of dogs; she followed 519 puppies for a year. And one year later, 94 percent of dogs remained in homes, compared to aversive training which over a third of puppies re-homed, surrendered, or euthanized a year later.

These findings are especially pertinent for shelter dogs, who have often been through past trauma.

Even worse, when pet parents witness the inevitable regression of their adopted pups–who may have even bitten them or one of their family members–the shelter where the dog was adopted directs the distraught and desperate family back to the very person who force-trained the dog in the first place. So the cycle continues.

Sadly, the focus of some shelters–even large municipal facilities–is more about numbers than truly doing whatever they can do for individual animals. The reality is that some dogs can be best rehabbed only when brain chemistry is adjusted with the use of appropriate pharmaceuticals so it’s possible to learn–therefore giving positive reinforcement behavior modification half a chance. However, the sad reality–even if not politically correct–is that aversive techniques will not save them all, especially if public safety is paramount.

If we really want to save our dogs we need to save them. You don’t save a drowning person who isn’t able to swim by rescuing him from the ocean only to throw him into a lake.

Dogs deserve the best of what we know. Arguably, homeless dogs –who have been through so much as it is–deserve it even more. Aside from the questionable efficacy of aversive and punishment-based training and tools like e-collars, they are downright cruel and have no place in modern dog training. During a time when we are learning more and more about how dogs think and feel, it is imperative we provide solutions that meet the needs of all dogs. Billie Groom–an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for dogs–is helping diminish the perceived need for aversive methods by providing a non-aversive method that resonates with rescued dogs over six months of age. We no longer need to tolerate aversive methods or tools, the mistreatment of animals, or behavioral euthanasia, when we know there are better options.

Published On: November 30, 2021|Categories: Dog Behavior, Dogs, Steve Dale on Pet Behavior|