Which method should you use when training with your dog and why is it important?
AVERSIVE VERSUS REWARDING TRAINING METHODS
A dog’s learning can be divided into 4 different categories: Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.
The categories are defined as follows:
Positive reinforcement – we add something to increase a behaviour (we guide the dog to a wanted behaviour, like walking next to us, and they are given treats/praise for following us and for staying where we want them to walk)
Negative reinforcement – we remove something to increase a behaviour (We keep a prong collar tight until the dog walks next to us, and then we slowly remove the pressure)
Positive punishment – we add something to decrease a behaviour (The dog is shocked with a shock collar to stop him/her from barking)
Negative punishment – we remove something to decrease a behaviour (If your dog is pulling, you stop and keep him/her from moving forward. You do not move forward until (s)he comes back and the strain on the leash stops)
Positive reinforcement and negative punishment are seen as positive training methods, whereas negative reinforcement and positive punishment are seen as what is called aversive methods. Aversive methods can be defined as doing something that your dog does not like in order to stop or alter a behaviour. Aversive tools, such as an e-collar, offer a punishment in response to the dog’s behaviour.
Research has found that for the dog to learn, the punishment has to be strong enough to stop the dog from doing the behaviour again, also meaning that the punishment has to be highly unpleasant and unavoidable. If it is not strong enough it will not have any effect on the dog, meaning that the behaviour the person is trying to change will stay the same. It also has to be timed to the second in order for the dog to make the association between what the dog did wrong and the punishment. Thus making using aversive methods extremely hard as you always have to be punishing in the very second in order for it to have a learning effect.
The argument that shock collars and other aversive training tools does not bring pain or discomfort to dogs is therefore faulty as we have just learned that in order for the aversive tool to actually change a behaviour they have to provide such high discomfort that the dog will refrain from doing the behaviour again. That means that if you do not bring pain or discomfort the tool simply does not work.
REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD NOT USE AVERSIVE TRAINING METHODS
Science has compared the use of positive punishment versus positive reinforcement and they found that positive punishment was not more effective than positive reinforcement. If positive reinforcement is just as effective as punishment, then why not do that instead. By using positive reinforcement in your training you also avoid the greater risk of your dog making an incorrect association between the punishment and why they are being punished as positive reinforcement can be delayed and still teach a dog what they did right.
In other words, you can be a little delayed finding the treat in your pocket but the dog will still make the association and learn, unlike aversive methods where if you are just a little late (seconds) you might risk punishing the wrong behaviour and your dog will potentially learn something wrong or worse create a fear.
You are out on a walk and your dog starts to bark at another dog. You use an aversive method such as janking the leash or yelling at your dog to make him/her stop. Your dog is most likely reacting to the other dog because (s)he is afraid. In fact the majority of reactivity in dogs stems from an unresolved fear they have developed.
It therefor does not make sense to add a punishment, as that will simply give them the association that if I bark or react, something uncomfortable, perhaps even painful will happen and that is definitely something to be afraid of. Their fear has not only been enhanced, it has also been confirmed. This in your dog’s mind can be translated to – seeing a dog means something scary will happen, therefor I must react to make the scary thing go away as fast as possible.
This leads us to the next point as to why you should not use aversive tools when training your dog. Aversive training methods does not deal with the underlying problem (yes, there always is one). This can get the problem behaviour to escalate as the dog is left alone with dealing with his/her underlying emotions. In fact, research has shown that dogs that were trained with aversive training methods where more likely to show aggression later on in their life (Read more about a dog’s emotions here).
Aversive training also does not show the dog what to do instead of reacting. You have to think, that a dog reacting is not thinking about his/her behaviour, they are reacting because of that underlying emotion – stress, fear, insecurity etc. It is your job as their owner or as a professional dog trainer to show them how to handle their emotions and give them alternatives to cope with the situation they find scary or uncomfortable (You can read more about reactivity in dogs here).
Instead of reacting by lunching and barking, you can come sit here next to me and get a treat.
By using positive reinforcement you not only teach your dog alternative behaviours, your bond automatically becomes stronger as your dog now starts to trust you more (Read more about the human-dog bond here). Aversive methods do the complete opposite making the trust between you slowly disappear and increases your dog’s stress levels, until your dog eventually shuts down.
Scientifically speaking it is therefor only right to use positive reinforcement as your training method.
Fernandes, J. G. et al. 2017. Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 196, 1-12
Want to get updates about what is going on in the dog behaviour world? Sign up for our monthly newsletter “The Paw Print” here!