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3 More Reasons Why It’s Better to Use (Only) Reward-Based Methods to Train Dogs

The side-effects of aversive dog training methods that most people don’t know about–but should.

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By Zazie Todd PhD

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By now, the idea that aversive training methods have risks for dogs is quite well known. Most of the research, especially in the early days, focused on the increased risks of fear, anxiety, stress, and aggression. Researchers also found a correlation between the use of aversive methods and a less well-behaved dog. 

It’s worth noting that back in 2004, Hiby et al were already arguing that reward-based methods work better and have fewer risks to dogs’ welfare:

“Because reward-based methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviours, we suggest that their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible alternative to punishment for the average dog-owner.”

Many studies have used questionnaires completed by dog guardians, but as time has gone on, an increasingly wide range of research methods have been used to investigate the effects of dog training methods. 

And there are 3 findings from these studies that many people still don’t know about. They add even more weight to the need to stick to reward-based dog training methods only.



Aversive training methods are bad for the human-animal bond

It’s easy to see how aversive methods might affect the human-animal bond. If your dog associates the aversive stimulus with you, instead of with their own behaviour, then they may become fearful and distrusting of you. 

This would be compounded if the timing of the aversive stimulus is not good, which is especially likely if the person doing the training is an ordinary person without qualifications and expertise. We know that when it comes to using rewards in training, people aren’t as fast at delivering them as would be ideal. I don’t know of any similar research on aversive methods (and it wouldn’t be ethical to do it), but there’s no reason to think people’s timing at delivering leash jerks etc. would be any better. 

With rewards, imperfect timing is not likely to cause any significant issues, and certainly won’t affect the dog’s welfare. With aversive methods, however, it’s likely to be different.

Scientific investigation of the effect on the human-animal bond can be done with tests of attachment. There’s a test called the Strange situation, originally developed to be used with human infants, that is increasingly used in research with dogs and even cats. A good attachment involves the person being a secure base from which the infant or dog can explore, and a safe haven for them to return to if something is stressful.

Research shows that dogs trained with aversive methods are less likely to have a secure (i.e. good) attachment to their guardian. Here’s how Vieira de Castro et al (2019) explain their findings: 

“Together with our results, this suggests it is not the reward-based training in itself that generates a secure attachment, but rather the aversive-based training that may be related to the absence of a secure-base effect.”

Dogs trained with aversive methods are pessimistic

Another line of research has shown that dogs trained with aversive methods are more pessimistic, whereas those trained with reward-based methods are more optimistic.

Put simply, this research involves training dogs that a bowl in one location will always contain food, and a bowl in another location never does. The idea is that if a bowl is then put in an ambiguous location—somewhere in between the two trained locations—an optimistic dog, thinking there will be food inside, will move faster to get there.

Whereas if the dog is pessimistic about the likelihood, they will move more slowly.

Of course, dogs have amazing noses, so it’s important to note that the empty bowls are given the scent of food.

Studies have shown that the use of aversive training methods is linked to pessimism in dogs. This is important because this test—called a cognitive bias test—tells us about the dog’s welfare.

Vieira de Castro et al (2020) explain that,

“Critically, our study points to the fact that the welfare of companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods is at risk, especially if these are used in high proportions.”

 

"If you already knew that aversive dog training methods risk fear, anxiety, stress, and aggression, you can now add pessimism, a worse relationship between the dog and human, and potentially less effectiveness to the list of unwanted effects."

Aversive dog training methods might not be as effective

Remember that quote from Hiby et al at the start of the piece? They found that people who used aversive methods said their dogs were less obedient than people who had trained their dog with rewards. 

Because that was a correlational study, more research was needed. And it still is—but by now there are more studies that also suggest aversive methods might not work as well as reward-based methods. 

One of those looked at the use of rewards or shock collars to train dogs to come when called in the presence of livestock—exactly the kind of situation that shock collar trainers mention when trying to justify the use of these collars. In this study, it’s important to note that the shock collars were used by trainers who were experienced at using them, and in line with the recommendations of the Electronic Collar Manufacturer’s Association.

The results showed that reward-based methods are more effective. 

The authors of the study, China et al (2020) write that: 

“This suggests that the reward-based training was the most effective approach not only for recall which was the target behavior in training, but also for other commands, even though the reward-based trainers did not spend as much of their time training on sit command as the other two training groups.”

What might be the reason for this? Some scientists have suggested motivation—simply that rewards are better at motivating dogs. 

Another reason might be that reward-based trainers are better at training and have more clear contingencies for the dogs. 

This doesn’t mean that shock trainers would be off the hook if they had better timing. Since we know reward-based methods work, there is no reason to use aversive methods given the risks.

3 extra reasons to use only reward-based training methods

So there you have it. If you already knew that aversive dog training methods risk fear, anxiety, stress, and aggression, you can now add pessimism, a worse relationship between the dog and human, and potentially less effectiveness to the list of unwanted effects.

This research gives us a better understanding of why it’s so important to stick to using reward-based methods. 

If you liked this post, check out my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, which Modern Dog magazine calls “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life”

Useful links:

References

China, L., Mills, D.S. & Cooper, J.J. (2020) Efficacy of dog training with and without remote electronic collars vs. a focus on positive reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508.

Hiby, E.F., N.J. Rooney and J.W.S. Bradshaw (2004) Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare, 13, 63-69.

Vieira de Castro, A. C., Fuchs, D., Morello, G. M., Pastur, S., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. Plos one, 15(12), e0225023.

Vieira de Castro, A. C., Barrett, J., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2019). Carrots versus sticks: The relationship between training methods and dog-owner attachment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2019.104831 

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