Why Aversives Don't Really Work

Webster's online dictionary describes the word aversive to mean: tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus behavior modification by aversive stimulation. So simplified, in the dog training world this is the theory that in order for my dog to do what I want I have to punish them for doing what I don't want. An aversive could be considered anything that the dog doesn't like whether its a painful leash pop or a hug where you squeezed too hard and the dog like it's personal space. Sounds simple right? Oh, but it's so much more complicated than that....and I know this because I've lived it.

Let's back up a bit and give you some history on me. In my early twenty's I was diagnosed with a type of learning disability - more specifically called Pattern Discrimination Disorder and 24-hour Memory or "Mental Cross - Patterning" Disorder. In the big picture what this means is that I have extreme difficulty recognizing patterns and forming details into a concept which means that I get lost easily in areas that I've never been before, I get extremely confused with concepts that I am unfamiliar with, and I don't recognize patterns when they are simply identified by others. That covers the Pattern Discrimination Disorder part; with the Mental Cross Patterning Disorder I have difficulty with the left and right side of my brain communicating efficiently so that I can decode words and numbers into a concept into my brain. When we read, the left side of the brain decodes the words while the right side of the brain puts these words together into a complete thought or mental picture to help us comprehend what we just read. Well, I don't do that very well. Because of this disability my short-term memory/recall is limited and inconsistent. So if I want to retain anything I have to spend twice as much time as the normal person reading, comprehending, and absorbing any information that I want to keep in my brain for later. I also have a difficult time transferring anything from short term memory to long term memory. Till this day I find it incredibly difficult to organize my thoughts or explain concepts to anyone without practicing beforehand or spending some time in advance thinking about the direction I'm going to take. If I don't do this I sound like a blathering idiot.

As you can imagine, because of this I consistently failed at math in school (and not for a lack of trying) and I "bloomed" slower than everyone else with my social confidence and self esteem as everything was incredibly overwhelming as I matured. However, I thrived in anything that was word based only, such as English classes (although I did struggle with things like grammer rules, and spelling.) I was highly sensitive and creative and my parents and professors had no idea anything was wrong as clearly I was excelling with certain things. Everyone, including myself, just believed I wasn't applying myself to certain areas, so, I just kept plodding along without any help or understanding of how my brain actually worked. Somehow I subconsciously figured out that the only way I was able to barely make it by in school was to cram before a test and store all the information I needed in my short term memory because there was no way it was making it to long term memory for later. I would get higher marks with homework assignments but would tank on tests; especially those finals that were cumulative from the entire semester. By that time all that information was gone.

In college, I finally reached out to professionals who were able to give me a diagnosis - and I was relieved as hell. For years I had been called lazy and I had learned to alter my behavior so I never put myself in any type of position where I didn't excel. Looking back now I realize that's where my anxiety began - I knew there would be situations where I wouldn't understand while everyone else did and for fear of looking like an idiot I would just avoid at all costs. I deflected, I avoided and I fretted and that was my daily life. I knew that I wouldn't understand and yet I was incredibly frustrated because I didn't understand why I didn't understand. Does that make sense?

I still remember sitting in the professors office on the day of my diagnosis. She was the kindest woman. When I arrived I remembered she asked me what career I wanted for my future. I replied that I really enjoyed dog training and seemed to have a natural knack for it. After finding out what my official diagnosis was, I remember she chuckled and said, "I can totally understand now why you are drawn to dog training - your brain works just like a dog's. You get them more than most."

That still sits with me till this day because it's absolutely true. I lack the ability to conceptualize simple patterns and because of this any type of consistent pattern that does cross my path sticks in my brain. Simply put, I learn by association, and so do dogs.

Fast forward to present time. A serious, 4 year relationship, has recently ended. It's, of course, complicated and there were several contributing factors (and I'm not saying that it wasn't partly my fault that it didn't work out either.) It was a long time coming, however, for a long time I tried to fix it. I thought that if I could just do what he wanted then it would all be better. I didn't understand why he wasn't happy. I couldn't figure out a way to communicate with him so that I wasn't making it worse. I asked what he wanted, and he would tell me and I would try my hardest to do just that. Then everything would be fine for a bit until the next fight happened and it seemed that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do all along. Just like back in school, I tried to avoid anything that was a potential trigger and I altered my behavior until I became this person that I didn't even recognize anymore. I deflected, I avoided, I was frustrated and incredibly unhappy. My main motivation was to just not rock the boat because, just like any creature on this planet, a main motivator for survival is fear of something unpleasant.

You may ask what does this have to do with dog training? Think about it. Dogs don't know or understand our language. They communicate with us by observing our behavior and recognizing patterns that seem to work in their favor. Believe me, your dog spends most of it's time just watching you and figuring out what to do based off of your reactions. Dogs are primal creatures, and one of their biggest motivators for change of behavior is fear. From what I've seen in the past ten years of my professional dog training career, the main reason a dog disobeys is because they either don't understand or don't know how to do the proper behavior that they know we want.

Oh sure, aversives work in the short term - I never said that they didn't change a dog's behavior because they most certainly do. Aversives change a dog's behavior because it introduces fear into the picture and the dog doesn't want to be punished. But lets be honest, do you want your dog to obey because they're afraid of you, or because they genuinely want to do what you want out of love and respect?

I can honestly say now that I know what it feels like, and it will always motivate my training methods for any and all dogs that come across my path. I understand what it feels like to be giving it all you have and you feel like you're being punished for your efforts. Trust me, in the long run that is not going to give you a mentally healthy, or happy dog. My advice to those of you out there having difficulty getting the behavior that you want from your dog is to consult with a force-free, science based behaviorist/trainer and put yourself in your dog's shoes. Are they trying to complete the task? Are they confused? Did you actually teach them what the command meant? If you use aversives then you may end up with a deflective, depressed, frustrated, and unhappy dog. Take it from a woman who's lived the human version of that - it's not worth it.

Check back next week for more about how to work with your dog effectively without the use of aversive training methods. Feel free to comment below or email me at erica@t1dogs.com with additional questions or blog topics you'd like for me to address.

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