Recently, I've found myself in a little cluster of discussions about the use of aversive experiences in dog training. When I looked aversive up in the online dictionary that I sometimes use, I found this definition for aversive conditioning.
“Aversive methods of stopping someone from behaving in a particular way involve doing something unpleasant to that person whenever they do something you do not want them to do.”
Some dogs are trained along those lines as well. Something unpleasant is done to the dog when they do something you don't want them to. The people – and dogs – I work with most are dealing with a range of things in the category of “I wish my dog didn't do that . . .” Reactive outbursts at everyday things or aggressive responses fall into that category. As do many of the things done by dogs who have a high prey drive. That's why this is important to write about.
With dogs the aversive methods often involve collars like choke chains or prong collars that are designed to cause pain or discomfort if the dog pulls against them. Water sprays are used by some trainers – either from something like a plant misting bottle, via an electronically controlled spray collar or from a can of compressed air. The spray sometimes has citronella included in it because many dogs don't enjoy citrus scents. I once met a man who carried one of those little yellow, lemon shaped bottles of lemon juice with him and who squirted his dog in the face with it if the dog barked or growled at another dog – something that his dog did frequently.
Other people use collars that they can use to deliver an electric shock directly to their dog's neck if the dog behaves in a way they don't like. There are loads and loads of ways that people find to bring a bit of misery into their dog's lives but those are main ways that spring to mind.
I don't make a secret of the fact that I don't train using those methods. I don't recommend them. I would much prefer it if everybody would stay away from them. Feelings are strong on this subject. The recent discussions I've had personally ended with a couple of people being really quite unpleasant to me after I explained why I would not recommend the use of a water spray to encourage a dog to behave in a friendly way around other dogs. Then yesterday a friend reported having a similar experience.
Years ago when I was first learning about dog training, I used to encounter these sorts of arguments often. I used to see more people using aversive methods as part of their training. Things have changed enormously and I have surrounded myself with people who don't use aversive methods so it is now rare for me to encounter the sorts of arguments that used to be a routine part of my life.
These recent reminders of the past served to make me think again about the reasons I chose to stay away from aversive methods in my training practice.
For me, one of the most important things is that doing something horrible to a dog to make them stop acting in a particular way does nothing often to get what the person actually wants out of it.
I started out learning about dealing with unwanted behaviour in dogs when Calgacus, who was a bullmastiff, started behaving aggressively toward other dogs.
I used to meet people often who advised a whole variety of ways of making him realise that if he barked and lunged at a dog that something awful would happen to him. The people trying to help me and I would then end up in a fairly frustrating conversation along these lines.
I would say: “I don't get how that'll help.”
They would say: “You want him to stop lunging at other dogs don't you? Well this will make him realise that behaviour isn't going to be tolerated.”
I would say: “But he's lunging at other dogs because he doesn't like them. I want him to like other dogs again. How will shouting at him/hitting him/spraying him with water cause him to like other dogs again?”
They would say: “It won't. He'll never like other dogs again. He will just learn to ignore them.”
Then I'd go away. Those people were not trying to fix the same issue as I was so they couldn't help me. I wanted Calgacus to feel happy around other dogs. They wanted him to be quiet and well behaved. The two things are not the same.
So reason number 1 for avoiding aversive methods for me is that I don't see how they would bring positive feelings about something a dog is struggling with.
Next for me is that I want to fully understand what I'm dealing with and that is difficult to do if the dog is taught to hide their responses to avoid something horrible. If I have a dog like Calgacus who is bothered by a dog on the far side of a football pitch, I'd rather they barked and lunged than were quiet about it. The barking and lunging is embarrassing and in a dog of Calgacus' size can also be hard to deal with.
I'd STILL rather that than a quiet dog who will stay quiet right up until the moment they can't cope any longer and who will then suddenly explode when the other dog much closer to them. Possibly close enough to bite. I did start off with an extreme. I had a huge dog who meant to harm other dogs if they were close enough. I had to be careful to know how Calgacus was feeling in any given moment - but I see no reason not to take the same sort of care with dogs who pose less of a risk.
Plus, this allowed me to understand what I was dealing with which let me figure out which dogs were easier to start training with. At first greyhounds were brilliant – they are often so calm and Calgacus felt safer with them. We could wander around close to greyhounds even when fast moving dogs elicited barking and lunging even from a great distance.
Then generally any calm dog – we used to follow people with calm dogs around on walks. Then dogs who would ignore him even if they weren't generally calm – gangs of spaniels helped Calgacus enormously when he reached that point. Until eventually he was good with other dogs generally. I couldn't have made the progression with him without being able to see what was easier and harder for him.
So reason number 2 for avoiding aversive methods for me is about problem solving. To solve a problem, it is necessary to first of all understand it.
Reason number 3 for me surrounds my own general world view. To use aversive methods means looking at your dog for them doing things that you don't like. It needs a constant focus on those things that you don't want to see so that you can head them off. Human brains are set up so that if we focus on something, we will see more and more of that thing. I don't want to go through my life always seeing things that I don't like. Nor do I want to be carrying equipment on my dog walks that I know will bring a little bit of misery into my dog's life. I already have a tendency toward anxiety. I can't think of anything more likely to make that worse than a constant focus on things I don't like and the knowledge that I do things that make life more miserable for the dogs that I love.
The methods I use require decisions to be made about what things I do like and then a focus on looking for them and finding ways to make them happen more often. I look for things I can carry with me that my dogs will love so that I can help the things I like more likely to happen more often. I have no problem carrying food and toys on walks with me. I love to see my dogs having a good time – it fills me with joy.
That's the third reason that I avoid aversive methods. I want more joy in my life.
The final thing for me is an ethical consideration. I see ongoing learning as really important. Finding out new things about the world is one of the great joys of being alive in my opinion. I think it is the case for us and for our dogs. Since learning and change can be stressful at times anyway, in order to keep the joy and the desire to learn alive, it is important that teaching does not involve the teacher using aversive methods.
So that is reason number 4 for avoiding aversive methods for me. I consider it unethical to destroy the joy of learning in another individual. If I want to teach, I need to focus on improving my skills at helping dogs (and people) learn without me adding stress and upset into the situation.
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Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.