In October 2020, Petco announced had stopped selling shock collars online and in all of its stores. The major retailer conducted a survey that found that after witnessing what happened to his dog when an electric shock was applied to her neck, many pet owners did not want to do it again. In fact, 59 percent said they’d rather electrocute themselves than his dog. This is one of several signs indicating the public’s growing disdain for using punishment to train dogs. Instead, people are embracing positive dog training methods, due in large part to the growing scientific consensus.
For example, American Animal Hospital Association Guidelines for Canine and Feline Behavior Management oppose aversive training techniques, including spike or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha turns, dominance drops, electric shock collars, lunge whips, starvation or withholding of food, entrapment and beatings. The guidelines state that such techniques “have been associated with detrimental effects on the human-animal bond, problem-solving abilities, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and accelerates the progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals.”
University of Pennsylvania Penn Vet Working Dog Center, which collects data on the breeding and training of working dogs, has found great success using positive training techniques, such as offering rewards for desired behavior, with a 94% graduation rate. The dogs then work with first responders and law enforcement as detection dogs to find narcotics, explosives, missing persons, or human remains. Several dogs are also currently being trained to detect ovarian cancer and COVID-19.
The founder of the center Cindy Otto, PhDa 9/11 search and rescue dog vet and handler, says the key is to start positive training when puppies are 8 weeks old and let them “pick” their job, meaning they specialize in what they do. they enjoy more.
“Not only do they choose their own job, but they also choose their own paycheck,” she says. “Some dogs are not motivated by tugging at a toy, some are not motivated by a ball, and some are not motivated by food. We try to figure out what is most rewarding for that dog.”
Coaches calibrate the reward to the training exercise. If a dog is learning to climb a ladder, a tug toy may be too exciting to keep attention on paw placement. Therefore, a motivating, but less stimulating reward such as praise is required. However, in a situation where a dog already knows a skill and is trying it out for the first time in a noisy environment, an extremely motivating reward is safe to use.
While some researchers like Otto have never conducted studies using punishment because positive training is preferable, there are studies of coercive techniques in dogs that were already using them for legal reasons. In the UK, for example, the researchers observed Domestic dogs that received electronic shocks for disturbing or attacking nearby livestock. The observers were not part of this technique nor did they approve of it, but they could observe. In terms of results, both shocked and positively reinforced dogs drove cattle away to the same extent. But the dogs trained with the electronic collar experienced much more stress. The study ultimately concluded that the use of electric collars “presents a risk to the welfare of dogs.”
Stress, fear and anxiety can trigger reactive behaviors in dogs, such as growling, lunging and biting, according to Lisa Radosta, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with the Florida Veterinary Behavior Service and a correspondent for the digital media group Top Vets Talk Pets. So punishing fearful animals seems contradictory to him. “If she had a little girl who was scared, do you think she would put a metal collar around her neck and every time she was scared, she would hurt her? Probably not,” he jokes. “What should she do? She would try to find ways to motivate her. She would try to find consequences that are positive, that she can strive for.”
In addition to using positive training methods, such as offering a treat when a dog chooses to “sit,” he strongly recommends reducing fear. by “socializing” or exposing puppies to a variety of peoplepets, environments and situations, especially before 16 weeks, so they feel safe.
Experts Say Enrichment Helps Too grooming dogs for success, and this can involve walks, games of fetch, puzzle feeders, nose work to sniff out hidden treats, and other activities to stimulate the pet’s body and mind. “Sleeping all day gives them energy to bark a lot,” says Radosta. “So rule number 1 of enrichment: watch your dog, find out what your dog likes, take that thing, and then blow it up into a thousand different things you can do with your dog.”
Sarah Dunleavy, MAEd, NCCresident in counseling Virginia Tech Thomas E. Cook Counseling Center, brings his therapy dog Wagner to interact with clients in group and individual sessions. The black Lab trained at the nonprofit Service Dogs of Virginia, where he was only rewarded for correct behavior and never punished for incorrect behavior, a practice Dunleavy has continued.
Since Wagner is a mental health agency facility dog, he could annoy or annoy clients if he barks. So when a new therapy dog came through the door of Dunleavy’s office and her dog barked a warning, she didn’t yell or hit him. Instead, she used a happy tone of voice and nuzzled Wagner as she moved closer to calm down. Wagner understood that the dog was not a threat, he was safe with Dunleavy, and he did not bark again.
Dunleavy noted that if he punished Wagner in front of a client who had suffered abuse or other trauma, it could be a trigger for them. So positive methods benefit both Wagner and the people around him. The pup even learned to carry a box of tissues to a crying customer and lay his head in his lap. “He’s a happy dog,” she says. “When you have a well-cared-for dog, they give back to his environment through their joy of life.”
Wallis Brozman, specialist in extension programs for Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs for people with disabilities, is a three-time graduate of the program. So you understand on both a professional and personal level how effective positive training is in strengthening the bond on both sides of the leash.
“Having positive associations with performing tasks to assist a person with a disability is important for service dogs,” she says. Her service dog, Renata, loves her job and her caretaker so much that she often brings Brozman her cell phone, not because anyone asks, but because the pup likes to find it and receive praise.
Giving dogs the freedom to taste
Like Renata, dogs that are positively trained often start offering behaviors if they get a reward. That creativity is crucial when working with pets with disabilities, according to Valeri Farmer-Dougan, PhDteacher and director of Illinois State University Canine Behavior and Cognition Laboratory. He frequently works with deaf and deafblind dogs.
“With the punishment techniques, yes, you will get faster results and the dogs will pay attention to you, because they are afraid of you. But I think it really stifles new behaviors. It stifles your creativity. Dogs are afraid to try something new because they are afraid of being punished,” she explains. “We need dogs that have a good bond with us, that want to work with us. And particularly for deafblind dogs that already have limits, we need them to be willing to try.”
Ultimately, the way we train our dogs depends on the relationship we want to have with them. Clive Wynne, PhDbehavioral scientist and founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University and author of The dog is love: why and how your dog loves youHe says that while there are countless reasons to choose positive training, the biggest one is that dogs really love us and we want to strengthen that bond.
“I think our dogs love us and I think we have a strong, emotional, loving relationship with them. And I think it’s just a betrayal to bring pain into that relationship,” she says. “It undermines the bond of love and trust that is the key joy of having a dog in your life.”
Positive Training in Action
Numerous proven strategies can help your dog overcome trauma, live a social life, and take on the world. the non-profit organization best friends animal society successfully rehabilitated 22 dogs seized from former NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s infamous dogfighting ring in 2007. Using positive training methods customized to each “Vicktory Dog’s” needs, trainers encouraged traumatized pups learn to trust humans again. Most were adopted, though some lived out their lives at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.
Marissa Sunny, CPDT-KA, behavior specialist with Best Friends Animal Society, says personalizing training is the key to working with any dog. Building blocks may include:
Say your dog’s name in a happy voice often, rather than when you’re scolding him.
Know your dog’s signs of stress, such as “whale eye,” lip licking, yawning, panting, and crouching.
Use a clicker (an inexpensive tool available online and at pet stores) to pinpoint the exact moment your dog does something right. After marking that behavior with a clicking sound, reward it with a treat, praise, or toy.
Take breaks whenever a dog seems stressed or tired.
When you practice the “Come” signal with an off-leash dog, make the gathering as happy as possible so they want to run back to you. “If you build that relationship with your dog, there will be a lot more respect and love,” Sunny says. “They will want to listen to you and you will have this give and take of communication, more like parents with their children.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind, in 2021.