Last night when taking our dogs for a walk, we passed another couple walking their two dogs. Casually chatting, the dog owner with his older Beagle said, “Cooper gets this way when he wants to dominate me.”
This guy would do anything for Cooper. If his dog looks at him cross–eyed, he’s on his way to his veterinarian—and he is by all accounts as kind and gentle as pet parents can be.
In this instance, I was able to easily convince him that our dogs don’t wake up in the morning scheming to dominate us. But many people feel this way.
A big part of the problem is dog trainers who continue to train dogs using assertive and aversive methods, and clients assume these trainers are correct when, decidedly, they are not. Unknowingly, sometimes veterinarians even recommend these trainers—giving them additional, albeit unfortunate, legitimacy.
Common sense—it seems—would dictate positive reinforcement works best. Would you rather work with someone who praises you when you are right, or merely admonishes when you are wrong?
Some say that simple statement doesn’t apply because our dogs are like wolves who require us to demonstrate we’re the pack leaders. However, our dogs are not wolves. Sure, they’re related to wolves, and evolved from a wolf species, but actually dogs evolved with us.
So, if common sense doesn’t win the day, how about science?
For me, the most compelling study I’ve seen is when veterinary behaviorist Dr. Theresa DePorter, based in Bloomfield Hills, MI, investigated a local dog trainer who used aversive training methods in his puppy classes. After one year, 38 percent of the puppy class grads were rehomed, surrendered or euthanized. It gets worse. After two years, 60 percent of the dogs were rehomed, surrendered or euthanized.
DePorter then convinced that same trainer to offer positive reinforcement classes, and instructed him on how to conduct the classes. The five weekly, in–hospital puppy socialization classes were for pups ages seven to twelve weeks. This wasn’t a typical tiny study of a handful of dogs; she followed 519 puppies for a year. And one year later, 94 percent of dogs in the positive reinforcement class remained in homes, compared to aversive training, which over a third of puppies were re-homed, surrendered or euthanized a year later.
Still not convinced? While only a few studies have analyzed training, a 2008 survey on the methods used on 303 Belgian military working dogs (MWD), handlers revealed the use of harsh training methods was not as effective as positive reinforcement—and may even present a welfare issue.
Pulling on the leash and hanging dogs by their collars were the most commonly used aversive stimuli. The team’s performance was influenced by the training method and by the dogs’ concentration: (1) low–performance dogs received more aversive stimuli than high–performance dogs; (2) a dog’s distraction influenced the performance; distracted dogs performed less well.
What’s more, positive reinforcement seemed to positively impact the relationship and bond with the handler, which for MWD and their handlers, can mean the difference between life and death.
In his blog for Psychology Today, Dr. Marc Beckoff nails it when he writes, “Research has shown many dog owners do not reach out to professionals for advice on dog training methodology. Even if they do reach out to dog trainers, the profession is unregulated, and many trainers are still using and promoting outdated methods. In addition, cultural factors such as family history or celebrity trainers influence how owners interact with their dogs. The evidence on negative welfare and behavioral consequences of training dogs using aversive tools and methods is relatively recent, and it may take time for the general public to become aware of the risks.”
Very few truly educated dog trainers support the notion of aversive training. Still, as Beckoff says, since the profession is unregulated, how does the public know?
No wonder some cities in the U.S. are now looking at following what many nations have done, and that is to ban the use of shock or e–collars, prong and choke collars.
There’s lots of other documentation of studies that support my contention that positive reinforcement is not only a more effective way to teach our pets, but it’s also what they deserve. After all, our dogs are supposed to be our best friends.
It’s imperative veterinary professionals support puppy classes for all the reasons that socialization and early training are exceedingly important. But first, it’s important to audit a trainer’s class so it’s fully understood who you are recommending.
One way to have absolute control is to offer puppy classes in your clinic, taught by a professional trainer and/or a veterinary nurse. Also, clients (and the puppies themselves) will become bonded to the practice. And, you can impart messages that most trainers do, beginning with, “Anytime you note a change in your dog’s behavior—the problem may be medical. First, contact your veterinarian.” +