This article examines the scientific data on aversive dog training methods, and discusses:
- Potential fallout such as habituation, learned helplessness, pain sensitivity, physical damage, emotional damage, and contact force;
- The stance on punishment in dog training taken by numerous professional organizations;
- Understanding basic behavioral science;
- Alternative, positive reinforcement training protocols for more optimal results.
By Susan Nilson and Niki Tudge
The current scientific data, in addition to the moral and ethical concerns about mental and physical damage to animals subjected to methods using force, fear and/or pain, have moved a number of representing professional organizations to advocate for the use of humane training techniques founded on evidence-based learning theories and avoid training methods or devices which employ coercion and force (Tudge & Nilson, 2016).
Examples include, but are not limited to:
- “Misinformation about pet behavior is rampant…The AAHA guidelines oppose aversive training techniques, such as prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls (forcibly rolling a pet on his or her back), electronic shock collars, entrapment, and physically punishing a pet. The guidelines note that aversive training techniques can harm or even destroy an animal’s trust in his or her owner, negatively impact the pet’s problem-solving ability, and cause increased anxiety in the animal. Aversive techniques are especially a concern if pets are already fearful or aggressive, rendering any aggressive dog more dangerous.“According to the AAHA guidelines, the only acceptable training techniques are non-aversive, positive techniques that rely on the identification of, and reward for, desirable behaviors. Positive reinforcement is the most humane and effective approach.” – American Animal Hospital Association (2019).
- “The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) supports the use of humane training methods for dogs that are based on current scientific knowledge of learning theory. Reward-based methods are highly recommended. Aversive methods are strongly discouraged as they may cause fear, distress, anxiety, pain or physical injury to the dog.” – Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (2015).
- “Aversive, punishment-based techniques may alter behaviour, but the methods fail to address the underlying cause and, in the case of unwanted behaviour, can lead to undue anxiety, fear, distress, pain or injury.” – British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (2019).
- The British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) recommends against the use of electronic shock collars and other aversive methods for the training and containment of animals. Shocks and other aversive stimuli received during training may not only be acutely stressful, painful and frightening for the animals, but may also produce long term adverse effects on behavioural and emotional responses…“The BSAVA strongly recommends the use of positive reinforcement training methods that could replace those using aversive stimuli.” – British Small Animal Veterinary Association (2019).
- “The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has concerns about the use of aversive training devices to control, train or punish dogs. The use of devices such as electronic collars, as a means of punishing or controlling behaviour of companion animals is open to potential abuse and incorrect use of such training aids has the potential to cause welfare and training problems…Electric pulse devices are sometimes used in dog training as a form of punishment to prevent a dog from repeating bad behaviour. Although training a dog is important for their well-being, research shows that electric pulse collars are no more effective than positive reinforcement methods. BVA has consulted with experts and examined the evidence. Research by Schalke, Stichnoth and Jones-Baade (2005) showed that the application of electric stimulus, even at a low level, can cause physiological and behavioral responses associated with stress, pain and fear.In light of the evidence, BVA has concluded that electric pulse collars raise a number of welfare issues, such as the difficulty in accurately judging the level of electric pulse to apply to a dog without causing unnecessary suffering.” – British Veterinary Association (2018).
- “An incorrect training regime can have negative effects on your dog’s welfare. Reward based training which includes the use of things that dogs like or want (e.g. toys, food and praise) is enjoyable for your dog and is widely regarded as the preferred form of training dogs.“Training which includes physical punishment may cause pain, suffering and distress. These techniques can compromise dog welfare, lead to aggressive responses and worsen the problems they aim to address.” – Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (United Kingdom) (2017).
- “The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) does not support the use of electronic behaviour modifying collars (e-collars) that deliver aversive stimuli for the training or containment of dogs. E-collars have the potential to harm both the physical and mental health of dogs. They are an aversive training method that have in some studies been associated with significant negative animal welfare outcomes.Positive reinforcement training methods are an effective and humane alternative to e-collars for dog training…The use of pain to train dogs is no more acceptable or humane when it is administered by remote control, than if it was delivered as a physical blow such as a punch or kick.” – New Zealand Veterinary Association (2018).
- “E-collar training is associated with numerous well documented risks concerning dog health, behavior and welfare. Any existing behaviour problem is likely to deteriorate or an additional problem is likely to emerge, when such a collar is used. This becomes an even greater risk when this aversive tool is used by an unqualified trainer (as training is largely unregulated throughout the EU, it appears that a large number of trainers are unqualified).Additionally, the efficacy of these collars has not been proven to be more effective than other alternatives such as positive training. Hence, European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (ESVCE) encourages education programmes which employ positive reinforcement methods (while avoiding positive punishment and negative reinforcement) thereby promoting positive dog welfare and a humane, ethical and moral approach to dog training at all times.” – European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology (2017).
The Law and Electronic Stimulation Devices
Several countries, including England, Wales, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, the province of Québec in Canada, and the states of New South Wales, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in Australia, have already banned electronic stimulation devices.
Under recent amendments to ACT animal welfare legislation, anyone who places an electric shock device, such as a shock collar, on an animal, will attract a maximum penalty of AU$16,000 [$11,000] and a year’s imprisonment (Brewer, 2019).
In Scotland, “strict guidance” has been published by the Scottish Parliament which provides “advice on training methods and training aids for dogs, with particular focus on the welfare issues that may arise from the use of aversive methods including e-collars. It highlights the potential consequences of the misuse of aversive training aids, including possible legal consequences.” (The Kennel Club, 2018).
In the United States and elsewhere, meanwhile, a significant number of respected and credentialed canine behavior and training professionals are supporting an initiative spearheaded by the Shock-Free Coalition to “build a strong and broad movement committed to eliminating shock devices from the supply and demand chain. This goal will be reached when shock tools and equipment are universally unavailable and not permitted for the training, management and care of pets.” (Shock-Free Coalition, 2018).
The Fallout from Aversive Training Devices
There are significant and common problems resulting from the use of electronic stimulation devices or any other device designed to inflict pain or fear.
As already explained, in the case of an electric shock collar, the shock is applied and then stopped when the dog discontinues his current behavior, which is whatever the person administering the shock deems to be inappropriate.
There is no actual, constructive teaching involved, and the dog is given no opportunity to learn a specific and more appropriate new behavior. If the aversive device is absent at any time, there is no guarantee the dog will do what is expected of him because he has never actually been taught a new behavior within that context.
Any environmental stimulus not paired with a positive stimulus is, at best, neutral and, at worst, frightening and/or painful to the pet.
Pets who learn to exhibit behaviors to escape or avoid fear or pain are, by definition, subjected to an aversive, unpleasant or frightening stimulus, as opposed to a pleasant stimulus that they seek out voluntarily and which can be used as a powerful and effective training aid.
In addition, when punishment is applied to a pet’s behavior and a change in behavior is not seen immediately, trainers/owners may elect to increase the frequency, duration or intensity of the punishment. The punishment may thus be applied more harshly, applied for a longer period of time, or applied more frequently (or any combination of the three).
This results in the pet making more deliberate or desperate attempts to escape or avoid the punishment, so a counterproductive paradigm develops whereby he simply learns to fear the stimulus, the context, and/or the person delivering it.
Alternatively, some pets tend to be more “stoic” and may fail to show any kind of fear response, irrespective of increased levels of anxiety, fear or frustration.
In some cases, pets become habituated to the sense of fear or anxiety and, again, this perpetuates the owner/trainer in using increased levels, duration or frequency of the punishing stimulus.
O’Heare (2005) explains that the stress caused in such situations can have a significant effect on a pet’s well-being due to increasing cortisol levels and heart rate, not to mention the psychological impact.
Just as concerning is the fact that pets who are punished can generalize the anticipation of fear and pain to the presence of the owner/trainer, impacting the level of trust and safety they feel around people.
Further, a pet repeatedly subjected to aversive stimulation may also go into a state of “shutdown,” or a global suppression of behavior.
This is frequently mistaken for a “trained” pet, as the pet remains subdued and offers few or no behaviors. In extreme cases, pets may refuse to perform any behavior at all, known as “learned helplessness.”
In such cases, pets may try to isolate themselves to avoid incurring the aversive stimulation. This is evidently counterproductive to training new, more acceptable behaviors. (O’Heare, 2011).
Contributing External Factors
Masson et al. (2018) note there are many parameters to consider when modulating the intensity of shock delivered and highlight all of the following as concerns: “…the level of pain felt by the dog…shock intensity (Schilder and van der Borg, 2007, Lindsay, 2005), shock duration (Schilder and van der Borg, 2007), electrode size (Lindsay, 2005), beep warning and response time (Schalke et al. 2007), degree of humidity, and the morphology of the dog itself [hair length, moisture level of skin, subcutaneous fat level (Jacques and Myers, 2007)].
“Together, these data render it nearly impossible to determine the appropriate intensity of shock for a particular dog in any given situation (Lindsay, 2005).”
There also appears to be a significant individual difference among dogs in terms of sensitivity to the pain caused by an electric shock. This is unrelated to the thickness of the dog’s coat (Masson et al., 2018). Masson et al. (2018) address reports by individuals who have tested an electric shock collar on themselves and stated that it does not hurt by pointing out that dog skin is “more sensitive to shock” than human skin. Indeed, the canine epidermis is 3-5 cells thick; however, in humans, it is at least 10-15 cells thick.” (Vet West Animal Hospitals, 2019).
Prins, a patrol-dog handler who worked on a program for the Canine Department of the Netherlands National Police Agency which involved training dogs in tracking, explosive and narcotics detection, climbing, rappelling, traveling by helicopter and boat, working with cameras, and to follow radio or laser guidance at long distances, and also teaching new trainers to train dogs in these skills, used methods “heavily weighted toward positive reinforcement” except “where a dog exhibits behavior that puts himself, humans or the operation at risk,” in which case, an electronic collar may be used (qtd. in Yin, 2012).
Yin explains that, under Prins’ teaching model, before his police dog training students use an electronic collar on one of the dogs, “they must wear the collar around their own necks and see what it’s like to be trained this way. They find out what it feels like when a correction is given, and even worse, given at the wrong moment as commonly happens even with the most skilled trainers. ‘Then they understand how difficult it is, and they do not like to use it,’ says Prins. Overall, aversive methods comprise less than 1/1000 of the training.” (Yin, 2012).
In addition to the potential psychological effects of using training devices that cause pain or evoke fear, there is also the issue of possible physical damage to consider. We present here a variety of perspectives offered by veterinarians, canine research scientists, a professional dog trainer, and an engineer:
“The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ just in front of the larynx and trachea, and the mandibular salivary glands are found on the side of the face just below the ears. Thus, they can be easily injured by trauma and sudden pressure forces (like could occur from the slip ring and chain of metal collar, and a metal prong or hard braided leather collar).” – Dr. Jean Dodds (2013).
“The all-important laryngeal nerve is *trivia alert* the longest nerve in the body, and it travels down the left-hand side of the neck near the windpipe. Anything that severely compresses this nerve can damage the way the larynx works. This is why choke collars are not recommended.” – Dr. Pippa Elliott (2017).
“A sudden jerk to the neck as part of inappropriate behavior training is another too common reason for laryngeal paralysis. It’s the fear-based, old school and ‘you must be dominant over your dog’ training, where neck pops with the leash, or prong or choke collars are used. When the trachea cartilage is popped repeatedly during this type of ‘training,’ the dog can wind up with tracheal damage. This type of handling puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the larynx because the collar sits right on top of it.” – Dr. Karen Becker (2017).
“I see many dogs who have been previously corrected with shock collars. Each and every one of these patients has become behaviorally worse than they were prior to the shock collars (more fearful, more aggressive). The emotional damage caused by shock collars is often beyond repair and requires a lifetime of treatment. The wounds I see are beyond skin-deep, they are soul deep.” – Dr. Lynn Honeckman (2018) (qtd. in Shock-Free Coalition).
Shock collars carry a risk of physical damage to the skin of the neck (Polsky, 1994): “To ensure that the metal pins are in close contact with the skin of the neck, an e-collar must be fitted tightly. Aside from being uncomfortable, the points where the metal pins make contact with the skin can become irritated, and this can result in the development of pressure necrosis or wounds.
“Antibarking collars and electronic fence collars must be worn for long periods, so these risks are especially high in these contexts. Furthermore, there is a risk of device malfunction, which can lead to damage caused by electricity.” – Masson et al. (2018).
“Blogs written by well-respected trainers such as Grisha Stewart describe and provide photographic evidence of ‘burns’ on a dog’s neck, the result of a shock collar. Don Hanson, past president of the APDT and also a respected trainer, writes of personally witnessing burns on a dog’s neck. There are letters from veterinarians claiming to have treated burns created by shock collars.” – Jan Casey (2012).
“Assume a typical big dog: 80 pounds, 20-inch neck size. The dog can pull with more than his own weight because his weight is low and forward compared to the distance between his front and back feet, and he won’t lift his front feet by pulling until he’s pulling a lot more than he weighs. 80-pound dog: 120 pounds of pulling force is easily possible. Much more if he gets a running start before he gets to the end of his leash.
“Newton taught us that every action (force) has an equal and opposite reaction. So take the 1.5-inch web collar. The bottom of the collar supplies all the force to the dog’s neck. If he pulls with his own weight, the contact force is around 5⅓ pounds per square inch. (80 pounds/(10 inches of collar x 1.5 inches wide).
“Now consider a choke collar made of 0.25-inch nylon cord. A chain choke would be similar as the links make a nearly continuous contact band. Even if it does not slide tight, in the same configuration as the web collar the contact force will be 32 pounds per square inch – 6 times as much, before one even considers the drawstring effect.
“This is far more likely to cause injury to the larynx or restriction of blood flow in the neck. A prong collar has a pair of prongs approximately every inch. The prongs are made of wire, approximately 0.09 inches in diameter. Still ignoring the drawstring effect – each prong contacts the neck with an area of only about 0.007 square inches.
“20 prongs, 80 pounds, generate about 579 psi at each prong tip, assuming they are blunt and not pointy. If the prongs are located atop the larynx it is hard to imagine injury (at least bruising) NOT occurring.
“This pressure will easily collapse any blood vessel that suffers the fate of being beneath a prong. So: contact force is over 6 times greater for a simple choke, and over 100 times greater for prongs FOR THE SAME PULL.” – Jim Casey (2015) (qtd. in Garrod).
According to Ha and Campion (2019), training with reinforcement and training with punishment use two different neural pathways. They reference a study by Wächter, Lungu, Liu, Willingham and Ashe (2009), in which the researchers were able to “correlate the neural substrates of reward and punishment with qualitatively different behavior outcomes suggesting that these modulators might indeed operate through different motivational systems.”
State Ha and Campion (2019): “Animals can learn through both positive and negative learning, which operate on different brain pathways and use unique dopamine receptors…the DR1 receptors are generally viewed as ‘positive’ receptors, while the DR2 receptors are ‘negative’ receptors.
“Across multiple species, studies have shown that individuals will prefer to stimulate their DR1 receptors over their DR2. While punishment, which stimulates the DR2 receptors, might appear to have an immediate result, stimulating the DR1 receptors is more effective for learning in the longer term. Combining positive and negative with one another neurologically and psychologically confuses the learning process.”
Behavioral Science and Positive Reinforcement Training Protocols
It is important for those who live and work with dogs to have an understanding of basic behavioral science such as this as it makes “all the difference between effective and ineffective interactions…including training.” (Ha & Campion, 2019).
Bearing this in mind, here are just a few examples of positive reinforcement training protocols that may be used in place of aversive methods:
- Rather than waiting for a dog to make a mistake so you can punish him, reinforce behavior you like to help the dog learn and so both parties feel more positive about the relationship.
- Rather than using a choke chain or prong collar which rely on punishing undesirable behavior, use targeting and a harness to train and reinforce good behavior while, at the same time, ensuring less trauma to the dog’s neck.
- Rather than positively punishing a dog for jumping on visitors at the door, train him to “go to mat,” “sit,” or “four on the floor” and reinforce nonjumping behavior. (Note: in technical terms, when adding an aversive to weaken or decrease a behavior, it is known as positive punishment.)
- Rather than using an electric fence or punishing a dog for crossing boundaries, e.g. on your property, teach him about boundaries and reinforce him for staying within the boundary.
- Rather than positively punishing a growl, learn to read a dog’s body language and evaluate the situation to better understand what he is trying to say.
- Rather than positively punishing a dog for stealing something such as a shoe or something from the trash, teach him to exchange or swap and reinforce the exchange.
- Rather than positively punishing a dog for being on the furniture (if you do not want him there – this is a personal preference), target or lure him down and reinforce him for being on his bed next to you.
- Rather than positively punishing a dog for what you consider poor behavior, reconsider your expectations of him and whether they are realistic. Consider what alternative behaviors you can train instead. If you are not sure, seek more information from an appropriate source.
- Rather than positively punishing a dog for not returning to you when called (i.e., in his eyes, giving up his freedom), teach him that it is valuable and worthwhile to come back to you and that it may not mean his freedom is restricted at all.
- Rather than put all the responsibility for the dog’s behavior on the dog, take it upon yourself to teach him alternative behaviors that can be reinforced and benefit the mutual relationship.
Foubert (2016) notes that: “Even a simple exercise of teaching a dog to sit on cue requires the trainer to have skills in timing and reinforcement in order for effective and lasting learning to occur. Timing is a mechanical skill that requires practice. A dog’s behavior will respond to reinforcement that is given within a limited timeframe. The reinforcer is required to inform the dog exactly what behavior the trainer liked. Reinforcement that comes too early or too late will not result in a dog learning the desired behavior.”
Suppressing Ritualized Aggressive Behaviors
Because the use of aversives in training can suppress behaviors, it is contraindicated in pets given that the suppression removes any natural communication system of fear or pain. This makes any aggression more difficult to monitor, predict, or anticipate.
Without ritualized aggressive behaviors, people and other pets risk receiving no warning before the pet subjected to punishment feels forced to resort to biting.
Pets who experience repeated aversive stimulation may also be respondently conditioned to associate the fear and/or pain with certain contextual cues in their environment, which can promote redirected aggression toward the stimulus associated with fear and or pain.
British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (2019). Position Statement on Animal Training
British Small Animal Veterinary Association. (2019). Position Statement on Aversive Training Methods
British Veterinary Association. (2018). Aversive training devices for dogs
Casey, J. (2012, March). Can Shock Collars Burn? BARKS from the Guild (1) 21-22
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. (2017). Code of practice for the welfare of dogs
Dodds, W.J. (2013). Q&A with Dr. Dodds: Can Collars Really Damage the Thyroid?
Elliott, P. (2017). How Choke Collars Can Cause Real Damage to Your Dog
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