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Best Practices For Behavior Training Dogs

dog training photo

by Vivian Zottola, MSc, Human Dog Relationship Therapist, & founder of BostonK9Concierge LLC

When teaching any non verbal individual, whether a human child or non human animal (pet dog), there really is no place or need to use force or pain. Kind training is supported by the veterinary community in peer reviewed scientific literature, American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), as well as medical and psychiatric community. AVSAB, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recently published an updated position statement stating the same.

We know from a litany of evidence (human and animal literature) when applying teaching engagements free of fear and intimidation practices with dogs and or humans there is improved compliance, less distress, improved learning and reduction in long term conflicts. Understanding an animals feelings or internal emotional state is difficult to measure since they cannot speak. However they do communicate their likes and dislikes by advancing toward something they like or avoiding something they fear and through vocalization. There are a host of non verbal communicative cues our dogs provide us letting us know how they feel. Over and over we see in dogs (just like with humans) evidence of reward based teaching engagements lowering stress hormones for learners where as the opposite is true when there is use of pain and punishment or the threat of such (Blackwell et al, 2008, Hiby et al., 2004).

When rehabilitating dogs who have suffered fear, anxiety or stress (FAS) due to either missing the young socialization /critical period or due to poor training methods, my preferred method is to only teach guardians training skills free of fear, pain and intimidation. When rehabilitating dogs with moderate to severe cases of stress and anxiety, medication is often necessary as a temporarily adjunct along with behavior modification training because of the need to quiet the mind and underlying distress allowing the individual to learn. Regardless if behavior medication is used to help improve behavior, we know reward based training is not only humane but longer lasting.

Studies have been conducted to evaluate the use of collars that illicit pain including prong and shock collars (electronic or e collars) by trained professionals and untrained owners. Such studies are designed so that scientists may collect saliva and urine samples from the dogs to determine their subjective emotions from the experience. Both dogs trained using e-collars and a matched sample of those not
using e collars were tested and when comparing both, research scientists were able to check for physiological signs of stress at various points in data collection. In a study evaluating cortisol leaves (stress hormone) of e-collar-trained dogs, salivary cortisol increased significantly when they were wearing an electronic collar, compared to dogs trained only using reward based methods R+ “suggesting a negative association with anticipation of stimulus application.” (Companion Animal
Welfare Council, 2012) In this particular study it showed electronic collar-trained dogs also had a significant increase in tense behavior, compared to other dogs. There are many more studies showing the same conclusions. The issue with using pain and punishment as a method of teaching an individual is that we end up instilling more distress and confusion. For dogs who are shy, they will be observed to shut down where as a more self assured dog will become aggressive. Pain is effective and works fast. Remember when you first burned your hand on the stove? However use of pain does not teach the dog anything but avoidance and fear.

Psychologically when aversive collars are used the learner makes a negative association with a host of environmental stimulus and more often than not either generalizes the negative association or develops phobias. Phobia is different than fear in that it is the anticipation of a threat toward the stimulus (Overall, 2013). Dogs trained using pain or averse methods (electronic collar, prong collar, popping the leash etc) even when thought to be trained correctly using low pain threshold, not only learn that being trained is a stressful experience and receiving shocks is painful, they also learn the presence of their owner or the cues their owner/guardian commands predicts the reception of a shock even outside of training context. This means the learner is constantly feeling distressed, the anticipation that something painful will happen (Schilder and Van Dee Borg, 2004). I’m certain we can all agree no individual should be in a chronic state of uncertainty and distress as this is not a way to live life.

We lag behind in the U.S. when it comes to animal welfare and use of aversive equipment as their use are banned in many countries including Canada, the U.K., and Australia. Certainly world wide we are free to acquire pet companions and live with them as we like and, in this country we are also free to choose whatever teaching method we think is in our, and our pets best interest regardless of what science currently says. And while it is not my place to judge anyone who decides one way or another, it is my place to tug at public consciousness and ethical considerations. We must consider the dogs perspective and welfare. We must consider current peer reviewed literature so that we may make a better choice for the pet companion. And isn’t this the rub? What is in the dogs best interest? Are we capable of separating our own interests? Considering our pet companion dogs (cats, rabbits, horses) are a different species than we, with unique sensory perceptions used to experience the world does not negate their ability to experience similar emotions. We know from the pioneering work being done by Dr.Gregory Berns and colleagues at Emory University and at other universities on mapping dogs and other animals brains using fMRI, they do experience similar emotions.

While pet companions such as dogs, may experience life very differently, we cannot argue their ability to cognitively learn and their ability to feel the same emotions as we including love, joy, fear, pain, jealousy and anger. We also cannot deny the science proving positive reinforcement and kindness allows for improved welfare for our pets as it does for non verbal human children. I choose to use teaching methods free of fear, force and intimidation not only because it works longer term and, maintains mutual trust but more so because doing so helps me be a better human being.

About the Author

vivian zottolaVivian Zottola, MSc is an Applied Anthrozoologist, canine behavior specialist, force free advanced animal trainer and animal advocate specializing in the prevention and resolution of behavior challenges between humans and pet dogs. She is certified through the credentialing organization as certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer. She is also a CSAT, certified separation anxiety trainer. Vivian has coauthored 3 peer reviewed studies published in various scientific journals with colleagues at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, Inc ( where she volunteers as a subject matter expert. She has worked with hundreds of dogs (and their people) to successfully improve behavior problems and runs a private behavior training practice in the Boston, MA area where she lives with her husband, 3 dogs and cat.

Click here to book a training consultation with Vivian.