Today I Was Called a Snowflake

A new study led by biologist Ana Catarina Viera de Castro of the Universidae do Porto in Portugal reveals that shouting at dogs and using punitive methods to train them does short and long term damage, while using reward based methods yields better results both for learning and emotional health.

The study recruited 42 dogs from three schools that use reward based training methods such as food, toys and play, and 50 dogs from four schools that use punitive methods such as yelling, leash jerking and physical manipulation.  Each dog was recorded during the first 15 minutes of three training sessions, and saliva samples were taken to measure their stress levels. In order to establish baseline levels of cortisol concentration, three samples were taken from each dog while they were at home in a calm state, and three samples were then taken from each dog after training. The researchers also examined each dog’s behavior during training to look for stress signals, such as yawning, lip-licking and vocalizations.

Dogs in the aversive training classes showed elevated stress behaviors such as yawning and lip licking and spent more time panting during the training session. Their saliva showed significantly increased levels of cortisol compared to when they were relaxing at home. The dogs trained using positive reinforcement methods had more normal levels of cortisol concentration and displayed fewer stress behaviors.

In the next stage of the study, researchers set out to evaluate the longer term effects of this stress. A month after the initial training data was taken, 79 dogs were taught to associate a bowl on one side of a room with a sausage treat. The bowl on that side of the room always held a piece of sausage but if it was located on the other side, it never had a treat inside. All bowls were rubbed with sausage to ensure they had the odor of that particular food in them.

The researchers then placed the bowls in different locations around the room to see how quickly the dogs would approach them in search of the treat. If the dogs approached the bowls more quickly the researchers determined that the dogs were anticipating something good, but if they approached slowly the dogs were being more pessimistic about the bowl's contents. The dogs that had been trained aversively approached the bowls more slowly than the dogs from the reward-based training group, who learned the bowl location task much faster.

These findings suggest that reward-based training may be more effective, although the researchers state that this might be because the positively reinforced dogs already understand food-based training methods. The punitively trained group might learn more quickly if an aversive method was applied.

De Castro writes however that “Our results show that companion dogs trained using aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare as compared to companion dogs trained using reward-based methods, at both the short and the long-term level.”  Dogs that were trained in schools using aversive methods displayed more stress related behaviors and body postures during training, were more ‘pessimistic’ when performing a cognitive bias task and had higher levels of cortisol in their saliva when the training had finished. This led the research team to conclude that, “Critically, our study points to the fact that the welfare of companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods appears to be at risk.”

I thought this was an interesting study so I shared it on my facebook page. I got some excellent comments from people who shared their experiences of using aversive techniques compared to positive methods. Once these folks made the switch to positive, humane methods they never went back and lamented the time it took them to change.  They commented how hard is it for people that “use punishment based training to learn, grow and change their ways.” These folks either believe that what they are doing is right or deny the truth and attack anyone who threatens their core beliefs or integrity.  

I applaud anyone who has the courage to change and appreciate how much soul searching it takes. When I first started training I learned with a mentor who followed pack theory. He taught me that I had to eat before my dog to show my dog that I was the leader. He taught me how to use noise aversion to interrupt behavior and that you had to make sure your dog did not see themselves as the leaders of the household. I was never that comfortable with these ideas and always wondered if dogs were cognitively advanced enough to attempt a family coup, but I never questioned him. It was only when I was exposed to other ideas on a larger scale that my discomfort was validated and my techniques changed as a result.  

I always know that when I post articles on my social media pages extolling the virtues of positive training, people from the other side will come out swinging. This post was no different. Someone told me to shut up and that I was the worst trainer they had ever seen. Another commented that positive trainers like me were ‘snowflakes’ and our methods were laughable.

If you don’t know already I should explain that are generally three camps in the dog training world. Trainers in the traditional camp often use positive punishment and negative reinforcement and some use equipment such as shock, choke, and prong collars to teach obedience and stop unwanted behaviors. They believe that dominance in dogs is a character trait and that behaviors such as pulling on the lead, going through an open door first, resource guarding etc, is a dog’s attempt to dominate the family and achieve the status of “top dog” in the household. They often call themselves pack leaders and encourage their clients to keep their dogs submissive to them so these dogs don’t try and take over as leader of the pack. Traditional trainers focus more on punishing behavior that they don’t want by using suppressive techniques such as poking, kicking, hitting, shouting, yanking, and restraint, rather than finding out why the dog has behaved in a certain way and working with the dog to change that response.

Then there is the balanced training camp. These trainers use positive reinforcement in the form of food, praise, play and toys to reward and reinforce behaviors they like, but will also use positive punishment to stop what they perceive to be negative behavior.

I pitch my tent in the last camp, which we call the positive training camp. The main tenet of positive dog training is to teach dogs what we want, reward what we like, and redirect what we don’t without using punitive techniques or equipment that intimidate dogs or cause pain. We manage behaviors ahead of time and evaluate teaching plans so that we can bridge the gap between what behaviors dogs want to do and what behaviors we want to see more of.

Now let me be clear that everyone uses punishment whether they say they do or not. Positive trainers still use negative punishment and sometimes negative reinforcement. We don’t use physical positive punishment but we do say no, and instead of scaring dogs into complying, we guide them to make different choices. It’s an incredibly powerful and effective way to teach.

Studies like De Castro’s continue to shine a light on the virtues of positive training and provide more scientific evidence that positive, humane methods are more effective and less stressful for dogs both in the short and long term. Dogs that have been dominated into complying with forceful training methods tend to be more insecure and emotionally disconnected, while dogs that have been taught with a more humane methodology are more resilient and less likely to fear being wrong when presented with a cognitive challenge.  

So if someone wants to call me a ‘snowflake’ for embracing and speaking out on the humane treatment of dogs in training, then let it snow! I’ll put on my hat and gloves and take my dogs out to play.  Then we will come back inside, put our feet and paws up in front of the fire and revel in a life where trust will never be broken between us in the name of training.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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