The Science Behind Aversive Training Methods

Last week we talked a little bit about why I personally don't use harsh Aversive Training Methods with my dogs. I gave a very personal reason why it's not my go too, but today, I'm going to explain some of the science behind it.

Dog training has come a long way in the past several years, however, despite the advancement of modern dog training there still are countless dog trainers and owners (who listen to the trainers) who rely exclusively on aversive training methods. Almost daily I hear, or read on facebook, how people are suggesting alpha rolls, harsh corrections, and domineering advice to owners who are reaching out for help about their misbehaving pup. It's unfortunate that these methods are still being used today, but it's not very surprising considering that they're still being suggested by television shows along with the belief that these methods are more effective because it's the dog's "language."

Wikipedia actually talks about the word aversive in psychological terms: "Aversives are unpleasant stimuli that induce changes in behavior through punishment; by applying an aversive immediately following a behavior, the likelihood of the behavior offering in the future is reduced. Aversives can vary from being slightly unpleasant or irritating (such as a disliked color) to physically damaging. It is not the level of unpleasantness, but rather the effectiveness the unpleasant event has on changing behavior that defines the aversive."

Ok, so to some of you that might have sounded like a bunch of gobbledygook. Lets apply that definition to dog training and how aversives may be applied. Here are a few examples:

1.) By Negative Reinforcement: by removing an unpleasant stimulus when the desired behavior occurs (Example: a dog is continuously shocked and the delivery of shock is only removed once the dog performs the desired behavior of coming to the dog owner. The result for this however is, with time, the chances for a dog not coming when called should reduce since the dog should be more eager to comply to avoid the shock. For this case the dog is reinforced by removing the shock, but there's also an element of punishment at play since the dog is repeatedly shocked using the continuous shock feature for not coming when called.)

2.) By Positive Punishment: by adding an unpleasant stimulus when the undesired behavior occurs (Example: a dog is taken by surprised with a spray of water the moment he jumps on a person. The result is the behavior of jumping should reduce and stop if the dog hates the water enough. Many people utilize this training method then wonder why their dog dread baths and don't want anything to do with water - it's because they're developed a water phobia!

3.) By Negative Punishment: by removing a pleasant stimulus when the undesired behavior occurs (Example: a dog is punished by removing access to other dogs [a timeout] the moment the dog plays too rough. The results of this is the behavior of playing rough should reduce and stop if the dog is socially motivated.)

As described above, the methods vary quite greatly in intensity. They can go from denying social access through a time out to continuous shocks until the dog will comply to the owners wishes and come when called. The term aversive doesn't necessarily need to be associated exclusively with pain. It could range from mild discomfort to withdrawal from something desired.

So ultimately, the dog is the one to decide what is actually considered aversive as each dog (just like people) is different and has different preferences and dislikes. Utilizing a cookie-cutter approach in your training methods without taking into consideration each individual dog may lead to problems - and big problems at that. For instance, many dog trainers use negative punishment under the form of time-outs when a dog misbehaves but can you imagine how incredibly aversive a time-out could be to a dog suffering from severe separation anxiety?

I know I've thrown a lot at you - but stay with me! This doesn't mean that aversive dog training doesn't work. To the contrary, done correctly with impeccable timing and proper understanding of the methodology behind it, aversive dog training methods can be effective. Do these methods work? Yup, you bet. When the punishment is delivered at the exact right time, and the exact right level of intensity and contingent on the problem behavior it can actually be very effective....however is it worth the risk of potentially emotionally damaging your beloved friend forever? Think of it like chemotherapy for cancer - sure, the aversive gets rid of the bad behaviors but usually it gets rid of all the good behaviors your dog had too.

I'm only scratching the surface about this particular training method - check back again soon for a list of common negative effects that aversive dog training has on our furry friends.


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