By Joan Hunter Mayer
Pet parents, what’s your training style? Do you give a treat when your dog sits on cue? Yell when your dog jumps up on guests? Reward some behaviors and punish others? As you search for practical dog training solutions to everyday challenges, you’ll likely come across advice that falls into one of three broad categories: 1. force-free, 2. aversive or 3. ‘balanced’ (a combination of rewards and corrections). So, let’s dive in, explore each approach in a little more detail and discover why training styles matter to you and your dog.
In Part One of this two-part series, we’re going to take a closer look at these three philosophies and how they relate to hot button issues such as the use of training collars, the science of learning theory, and the use of food in training.
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Popular Dog Training Styles: The Nitty-Gritty
A force-free, fear-free, humane approach to dog training involves training without the use of force, fear, pain, coercion or intimidation. The aim is to teach you and your pup real-life skills while keeping you both safe, having fun and enhancing the canine-human bond. Techniques in this category are based on a love-of-dog training approach.
Positive reinforcement is a common force-free option. Technically, reinforcement is the process by which a consequence increases the strength of the behavior it follows. Emphasis on the word process – positive reinforcement doesn’t mean cookies. It could be anything your dog finds motivating. Since behaviors that are reinforced are repeated, dogs learn what we would like them to do, leading them to offer behaviors we find preferable (such as sitting calmly rather than jumping up for attention).
Aversive approach – Correction-based training utilizes what is called positive punishment, adding a noxious stimulus, to “fix” unwanted behaviors. Training collars such as choke, prong, shock and others add something aversive following a behavior to decrease the frequency of that behavior. Punishment is the process by which a consequence decreases the strength of the behavior it follows. Things can get a little confusing with this term. But, as long as we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of behavior terminology, we should note there is positive punishment – adding something aversive and negative punishment – taking something away. (For instance, a “time out” in sports is considered punishment. The player loses time playing in the game.)
‘Balanced’ dog trainers utilize both positive reinforcement and positive punishment, rewarding some behaviors and using aversive stimuli to “correct” others.
The Use of Training Collars
Force-free means pet parents and trainers avoid using equipment that pinches, chokes, shocks, scares, annoys or startles dogs. If you are struggling with unwanted behaviors, instead of punishment, a more thoughtful approach is offered. Let’s say Fido relentlessly pulls on the leash during walks. It’s helpful to think about why your dog might be pulling or lunging. Does he have adequate opportunities to engage in normal species appropriate behaviors such as sniffing and socializing? Perhaps he is frustrated, frightened, anxious, experiencing overarousal or releasing pent-up energy. Maybe he is not getting enough mental and physical exercise between walks. When you can identify and address what your pup is having a hard time with, you can work as a team towards making walks more enjoyable for you both.
Aversive – Training collars use pain and positive punishment to decrease behaviors. To clarify, a touch, a buzz or a vibration alone would not change behavior. By definition, an aversive stimulus can only change behavior by causing fear, pain or stress. Punitive methods tell dogs what you don’t want them to do; training collars do not teach dogs what you want them to do instead.
‘Balanced’ – Please note that it is impossible to be force-free and use corrective collars. Philosophically and physically, they are opposite and incompatible.
When it comes to the use of training collars, pet parents should be aware of the risks, including that correction-based training can result in increased fear, behavior problems and a wounded human-dog bond.
What Does the Science Say?
Force-free dog training is rooted in the scientific methods of animal learning and proven to be effective, without causing harm. Pet parents are asked to understand how dogs learn, how they communicate, and what are considered normal, species-specific behaviors. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Humane Dog Training states, “Based on current scientific evidence, AVSAB recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems.
Aversive – “Aversive training methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to animal welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and causing direct injury,” according to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists’ Position Statement on Humane, Effective and Evidence Based Training.
‘Balanced’ – Since corrections are included in this approach, all the same risks cited above for aversive methods apply here.
Based on the science of learning theory and the leading veterinary behavior scholars, taking a more humane approach to dog training is safer and more effective for learning than using aversive training methods and tools.
The Use of Food- and Other Rewards- in Training
Force-free training can involve using anything your dog wants. For instance, positive reinforcement training focuses on using rewards to reinforce desired behavior. Treats, petting, praise, and interactive games can help to strengthen your bond, providing opportunities for enjoyment and connection while you’re training together. Rewards can motivate your dog to stay interested, curious and engaged with you. Once you and Fido know how to get the most out of reward-based training, it’s pretty easy to employ.
Aversive methods place the emphasis on punishing behaviors you don’t want.
‘Balanced’ – Food rewards are commonly used here in addition to corrections… which can be downright confusing! Dogs might not trust the training process because it’s unpredictable and perhaps even sometimes scary and/or painful.
Returning to the science, we see that training with positive reinforcement (the addition of rewards) is safe and effective, whereas correction-based training (the addition of something aversive) can be dangerous; plus, it doesn’t tell your dog what you do want. Combining the two in an attempt to be somehow ‘balanced’ simply adds unnecessary stress and risk.
In Part Two of this article (to be posted next Saturday), we’ll talk about how dog training styles compare when it comes to time commitment, unintended consequences, treating dogs as individuals, and what’s in it for you, as a pet parent and/or animal advocate.
Until then, as you and your pup navigate life’s challenges together, please keep in mind that dog training is an unregulated industry. And while there’s no shortage of opinions on the topic from television, social media, friends, family, strangers, self-proclaimed ‘experts’ (the list goes on…and on), we hope this closer look inspires you to be inquisitive, and to think critically and compassionately when deciding how to help our canine companions thrive as furry friends and family members.
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!