Preparing Our Dogs to be Comfortable at the Vet’s Office: the Academy’s Husbandry Project

Preparing Our Dogs to be Comfortable at the Vet’s Office: the Academy’s Husbandry Project

We used to accept it as a given that dogs just didn’t like going to the vet, and that there wasn’t much to be done about it. However, things are really changing in today’s more patient-centric veterinary care models. No longer is it considered acceptable to frighten or traumatize dogs in order to do routine veterinary care. From vaccinations to ear exams, the old way of cornering and manhandling wide-eyed and trembling dogs has been replaced with the idea of co-operative care with dogs who are comfortable enough to participate willingly. Vets and their staff are learning how to approach, move, and treat dogs without causing alarm, and are becoming much more aware of the use of anxiety-reducing medications to help those dogs who are suffering despite a careful approach. The physical and emotional health of animals is at the forefront of modern veterinary care, especially with the growing Fear Free movement and certification.

The Academy for Dog Trainers resoundingly supports this movement in the veterinary community. The Academy’s program and graduates in good standing adhere to a strict code of conduct that clearly outlines our position against the use of techniques and practices that hurt or scare dogs. We are thankful and relieved that veterinarians are leading the charge to make dogs comfortable with vet visits, from the very moment the dog enters through their office door.

However, the Academy acknowledges that for many dogs, and for many veterinary situations, changes within the clinic cannot be the whole answer. To reduce or eliminate fear of veterinary care, many dogs first need carefully-crafted, incremental training outside of the veterinary office, and then within the veterinary office but with no scary procedures happening, before they can be comfortable with real-life vet care. And that’s where the Academy’s ongoing Husbandry Project steps up to the plate.

The Academy has been working with our students and graduates for several years now on the Husbandry Project, which is our own contribution to the modern veterinary approach of pain-free and fear-free veterinary care. The Husbandry Project’s goals are to create, test, refine, and publish training plans to help all dogs feel comfortable and happy at the vet’s office, and with the common veterinary procedures carried out on conscious dogs. These training plans will be accompanied by all the information a dog owner needs to carry out the training: step-by-step instructional videos, troubleshooting information, work plans, and so on.

Why training plans?

Training plans are simply a series of steps needed to get a dog from untrained to trained. The steps need to be something which most dogs can achieve, and the end product of the plan, the so-called “terminal behaviour”, must be clearly laid out. For the Academy’s Husbandry Project, our terminal behaviours include “dog will do a stay in lateral recumbency for a range-of-motion test on the exam table”. Training without a plan (for example, picking up a clicker and just starting to free-shape, or trying to get a dog to do anything without first strategizing how you’ll elicit the behaviour and then fade any prompts) can be fun to do at home when there are no stakes. But it’s inefficient when we need results. And to prevent or treat fearfulness at the veterinary office, we do indeed need results.

What are we going to train?

The Academy chose to tackle a number of specific behaviours and veterinary procedures in consultation with a steering committee of veterinarians. These veterinarians are either in our program currently or are graduates. They identified both common fear-inducing triggers for dogs at the vet’s office, and common procedures needed. With this information in hand, and with decades working with fearful dogs of all shapes and sizes, the Academy’s director Jean Donaldson drafted around 20 separate plans. These plans range from a sit-stay for a jugular blood draw to a plan to get fearful dogs comfortable on the exam table to a plan to have a dog stay standing relatively still for a vaccination or ear exam. These plans include two main types: Pavlovian (or classical) conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable with veterinary implements, staff, and offices, and operant conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable holding the positions they’ll need to hold for various procedures.

Classical conditioning plans

Classical or Pavlovian conditioning changes a dog’s underlying emotional state. A well-drafted plan carried out by a knowledgeable trainer or well-coached dog owner is a powerful tool in the prevention of fears, but also to change an already-fearful dog’s emotional response to an item or situation. The Husbandry Project’s classical conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs enjoy muzzles, tooth-brushing, veterinary implements, and also the vet waiting room and exam room, and veterinary staff.

Operant conditioning plans

Since manhandling dogs and forcing them to endure vaccinations, manipulations, or exams is no longer an acceptable standard of veterinary care, dogs must be taught to assume a variety of positions on cue. The Husbandry Project operant conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs are trained to assume relevant positions such as standing still or lying on their sides (lateral recumbency) and to remain in these positions for the usual types of veterinary procedures. Since all training will be done using positive reinforcement, the dogs will also learn to enjoy assuming these positions. 

Why data collection?

Although Academy staff have created thousands of successful training plans, drafting a training plan and simply offering it up for public use is inappropriate and can sometimes even have dangerous consequences. Untested plans can go wrong in a few different ways. Training plans that are too vague or too hard can cause dog owners to give up and return to old (possibly fear-inducing) habits. And this is to say nothing of the owners who throw their hands up in despair if the plan doesn’t work, and end up going to trainers comfortable with aversives to get things done. Dog owners, and dogs, deserve well-vetted training protocols and plans which allow for the majority of dogs to move through their training with the minimum of fuss. “Every dog is an individual” is a great marketing message but is simply not true when it comes to training. Most dogs will progress through well-vetted training plans in a similar way. In fact, a firm adherence to the ‘every dog is an individual’ credo seems to lead technically unskilled trainers towards aversive stimuli for dogs who would do just fine with a proficient R+ trainer and good plan.

For these reasons, the Academy has committed to not only drafting plans, but to drafting plans and having a good number of dogs and trainers work through them to work out the kinks, before offering them to the public. We’ve gathered a crew of our students and grads who have agreed to help us out, and sent the plans around. They’re all training every plan and taking careful notes: where are the plans inefficient? Where are they too pushy? We’re compiling the data and will use them to create a set of revised plans. These plans will be much closer to print-ready, but the Academy will do one final round of plan testing to be sure (read on below for how you can help us) before releasing them to the public.

We completed Phase One in 2017, which included all the classical conditioning plans and the baseline positions such as stand and lateral recumbency. Phase Two will be finished in the summer of 2018, and includes veterinary procedures such as range-of-motion tests and “vaccinations”.

Although the dogs in training aren’t technically “vet ready” until the end of Phase 2, they’re all living creatures who need regular vet care, so many of our tester dogs have already been to the vet. We have heard reports of many successful veterinary visits (including for dogs who were previously profoundly fearful), which is an indication of more good things to come. Please read on for some examples, below.

Interested in helping out?

If you’re interested in helping out with our next round of testing, we would love to have you. You must commit to train about 15 things with your dog. Depending on your dog, this might mean around 15 minutes at a time, a few times a week, for a few months. You must also be able to do some training at a veterinary office. This will require getting permission, although we will help with that by providing a letter template. Please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to be put on the notification list.

Successful veterinary visits

Although we are just partway through our project, many of our participants have had to jump the gun a bit, and take their partly-trained dogs in for veterinary care. We are delighted with the results and would like to share a few of them, to tempt any dog owners into participating in our next round of plan vetting.

Luke and Tovah

Luke is standing on a scale and putting his nose into Tovah’s outstretched hand.

Luke is standing on a scale and putting his nose into Tovah’s outstretched hand.

Academy graduate Tovah Riester (Facebook) and her dog Luke have been hard at work training the Academy’s plans, including a stand stay on the scale. Tovah said “My Luke was taught the stationing on the vet’s scale and has used it three times since then! He had dental surgery so lots of visits back to back and they weigh him every time”. Scales can be quite scary for some dogs.

The most important thing we have made use of from our participation in this project is the positive conditioned emotional response Luke has to his vet office. [A recent]  tooth extraction was very painful for him. His recovery time took much longer than other surgeries he's had at other vet clinics. However, the next visit to the vet, Luke was clearly very happy to be back there despite the painful visit.

Christian, Bree, and Safi

Caption: Bree and Safi on the exam table, ready for treatment (and treats)

Academy graduate Christian Williams (website) is training her two Border Collies to enjoy vet care.

Bree and Safi live in South East London with older brother Rusty and little big sister Pod. I adopted Rusty, Bree and Safi as a family through Valgrays Border Collie Rescue in 2012.

As a very sociable dog, Bree (Blue Merle) has always enjoyed vet visits. Shy and sound sensitive Safi (Black and White) used to spend most of the time at the surgery trying to get out the door.

Road testing the Academy’s Husbandry Project Training Plans has boosted Safi’s confidence and turned vet visits from “get me outta here” to “let’s have fun –this is where the venison sausage treats flow!”. How did we get from scary place to good place? We practiced at home and built lifting onto a table into the most fabulous thing. We developed olfactory CER’s to the “smell of the Veterinary Surgery” and we visited the surgery for practice visits. Last visit, instead of pulling on her lead to get back to the car, Safi sniffed excitedly all around the waiting room, she had never done this before. Then she whizzed right into the exam room and danced around on her hind legs – peeping at the top of the exam table. “Wow, you’re keen Saf” I thought as I lifted her up. And up she went & those tasty sausage treats appeared as if by magic.

Does this stuff work? It does! Two weeks ago, Safi had a minor eye infection, off to the vets we went. We had some fun in the waiting room doing our stationing game. Then into the exam room and yes, you’ve guessed it – straight up on that exam table.

Eva and Bjorn

Bjorn holds a lateral recumbency position while having hot and cold compresses applied.

Eva Kifri worked through the Husbandry Project plans with her agility champ Malamutes, which came in handy when one of her dogs needed hot and cold compresses after a surgery. "Having just completed recovery from that surgery, Bjorn then lacerated his ear and required further treatment...and one day after returning to regular activity, he broke a toe and spent four weeks in a cast. The flounder position [lateral recumbency] helped him to get through his treatments; giving him a lot of control over the pace."

Having been trained into a useful position is a huge step forward in reduced stress and difficulty with an exam/treatment, even for a  dog who is reasonably relaxed/non fearful and good about body handling. It's not just a nice bonus. It’s also not particularly difficult to do in advance—cooperative care really should be part of basic pet training/knowledge… The reduction in stress to the dog –in having the  treatments and exam procedures be familiar and active things that they do cannot really be overstated.

Melanie and Wyatt

Trainer Melanie Cerone (website, Facebook) was working through the husbandry plans with her dog Wyatt when he developed some hot spots that needed veterinary care.

Wyatt had developed some “hot spots” on his hind quarters near his tail from incessant chewing, possibly due to allergies. I took him to the vet on Friday and the vet and vet tech needed to comb through the hair on his back-end and tail to see the sore spots. I used the muzzle station [the Husbandry Project’s stand-stay] throughout the exam and he did beautifully! He held the station for the entire exam with me reinforcing every five seconds or so since this was the first time we had used the station for a real exam. Both the vet and the tech were impressed and commented on how well he did throughout the exam. 

Then, we decided to clip some hair around one of the largest sores where I needed to apply an antibiotic spray daily. Wyatt’s never been clipped and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The vet initially suggested that the tech take Wyatt to another room and have a second tech assist her with the clipping, but then she said that Wyatt did so well during the exam the tech could just shave the spot in the exam room with me there (and no second tech). The tech got the electric clippers and just turned them on while I had Wyatt station. He did not react to the sound of the clippers and stationed beautifully. She then clipped the spot while he continued to station. I have to say I was pretty blown away, and so was the tech. 

It was about as stress-free a vet visit as we’ve ever had. The vet and the tech commented repeatedly how grateful they were to have such an “easy” patient.

Megan and Atrus

Megan and Atrus practiced the stationing behaviours in the Husbandry Project plans before they were needed.

Trainer Megan O’Hara (website, Facebook) was part way through the training plans when her dog Atrus needed to visit the vet for full glands. Megan reported that “Atrus was able to hold a chin station the whole time. It was a proud momma moment, for sure.”

 

Cover photo Credit:vadimguzhva via istock.

 

 

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Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

As a veterinarian and dog trainer, I often get asked, “How can I stop my dog from snarling at me when he's eating? It is so disrespectful. No matter how much I yell at him or take his food away when he does it, he still seems to forget that I'm the one who feeds him.” Luckily, disrespect isn't part of the equation, even though it really looks and feels like it is. I can usually make a quick diagnosis: Resource Guarding. Thankfully, it's a problem that is usually straightforward to address.

What is it?

Resource guarding is when dogs exhibit behaviors designed to prevent other animals (dogs, humans, cats, etc.) from obtaining something that is in their possession. They've got a thing they want to keep (the resource), so they do stuff (guarding) to make sure the other animals in the area don't try to take it. Dogs most commonly will guard food, treats, toys, and locations. Sometimes they will also guard certain humans. Guarding is usually directed at other dogs (dog-dog), or humans (dog-human).

What does it look like?

Some guarding is quite obvious: growling, snarling, snapping, biting, lunging/chasing, or even taking an item away to hide. Some is more subtle: tense muscles/freezing, “hard eye” (staring), or eating food or treats faster than normal.

Why do dogs do it?

Because they evolved to want stuff!

It's very important to understand that resource guarding can be a very normal behavior for dogs. The warnings that dogs give—growls, snarls, stares, freezing—are the dog trying to communicate politely, in dog language, that they would like you to back off. If you or the other dog listen to his request and back off, this is likely where the situation will end. It's perfectly reasonable for a dog to say, “I'd rather keep this delicious snack to myself, thank you.”

 

If I had a $1000 bill in my hand, you would not fault me one bit for pulling it away from you as you reached towards it. I might even say, “Sorry, you can't have that!” as I put it back in my pocket. Of course I want to keep my money. I need to pay my mortgage and feed my kids! A dog freezing, staring, growling, eating faster, or even snarling, is doing the same thing. He's saying, “Hey, that's mine! Please don't take it!”

 

What should we do about it?

As with many behavior problems, there are three main ways to go on this one: acceptance, management, and training. In this case, the training would consist of desensitization and counter-conditioning.

            Acceptance—or doing nothing—is appropriate when the guarding is mild, does not inconvenience or scare anyone, and NEVER involves injuries. For example, dog-dog guarding in which the dogs are “talking” but never injuring each other can usually be left alone. It's like Animal Planet in your living room—just sit back and enjoy watching two animals talk in the language of their species!

            Management alone is appropriate when there is minimal risk to humans or animals, and when the type of guarding allows for changing the environment to accommodate the guarder. For example, a dog who growls and practically inhales his food when other dogs are nearby can easily just be fed in another room with the door closed. He will most likely appreciate being able to eat in peace! A dog who growls at the owner when he approaches while the dog is working on a dental chewy can be put in his crate at chewy time and left alone until he is done. Management may also be used in more serious cases either while training is taking place, or if training is not feasible. 

            Training is appropriate when the guarding is more severe, results in injuries, or if it is inconvenient enough to the owner to make the time investment worthwhile. Training can also be done preventatively if the owner wishes (this is highly recommended for puppies!). Rather than focusing directly on changing the behavior (growling, biting, etc.), this training focuses on changing the dog's emotional reaction to having his “stuff” taken from him. Instead of, “Oh crap! Here they come to take my food!” we want, “Oh boy! Here they come to take my food! Yayayayayay!!”

What should we NOT do?

Unfortunately it's all too easy to make resource guarding worse. Punishing the warnings dogs give us, taking items away repeatedly with no reward, smacking or “alpha-rolling” dogs for guarding all actually make the guarding more serious. Dogs that are punished for guarding may stop giving the warning signs, but they still don't want you to take their stuff. And if pushed too far, they are more likely to bite.

 

You see that I have $1000, and you ask me for it. I say ,“No way, that's mine!” You grab it out of my hand and leave. Next payday, you ask for my money again. I yell at you, “NO! IT'S MINE AND YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!” You get right up in my face and yell, “DON'T YOU DARE YELL AT ME!” and then take my money and leave. Two weeks later, you walk up to me when I have my paycheck in my pocket. I don't even wait for you to say anything, I just deliver a knock-out punch right to your nose. Whoops.

 The second scenario is even worse. You take my money, then smack me or yell at me for protesting politely. I tend to be a pretty timid person, so the next 5 times you take my money, I'm silent. You think, “oh good, she learned to respect me,” but inside I'm getting more and more upset. The final time you take my money, I blow up, break your nose, and give you a concussion. Dogs can easily do the same thing when punished for objecting to their things being taken. They learn that they aren't allowed to TELL you they are upset, but it doesn't change the fact that they ARE upset, and they may eventually be pushed too far and end up biting you or someone else with no warning. 

 

How does this desensitization and counter-conditioning stuff work?

Desensitization and counter-conditioning is all about starting where the dog is comfortable (a toy or object he really couldn't care less about), and gradually teaching him to LOVE having his stuff taken by giving him even better stuff than whatever it was we took away. As he learns to love having his stuff taken, we very slowly increase the difficulty towards the stuff he really doesn't want to give up.


Remember my $1000? What if, instead of you taking my whole $1000, you started out just taking a dollar, and then handing me $2 in return. The next time you see me, you take $5, and immediately hand me $10. You gradually take more and more, but each time you give me back twice as much. As I figure out the pattern, I start getting pretty happy when I see you approach. I might even try to get you to take my money.

That's what we want with dogs. We want them to want us to take their stuff. And we get there by paying them handsomely for giving their stuff to us. It may take a while, especially if there's a history of you taking my money with no reward. But if we work on it carefully and slowly enough, we can get there.

 

Hire a qualified trainer!

When working on sensitive issues like resource guarding, the devil is in the details. I highly recommend working with a qualified trainer for this problem. You'll make progress much faster, and you'll be less likely to get stuck or start going in the wrong direction. When hiring a trainer, be sure to ask about their methods and training education. You want someone who will train without pain, fear, or force, and ideally someone with a lot of high-quality education and experience. There is an excellent blog on finding a good trainer here, and you can search for an Academy for Dog Trainers graduate in your area here.

 

Cover photo credit: Jeannie Hutchins Photography

Second photo: iStock Credit Tepepa79

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The Annual Academy Awards

The Annual Academy Awards

Each year, the Academy hosts our own version of The Academy Awards. These awards serve as an outlet for fun, and to help us counteract the hard work of fighting the war on aversives and to celebrate the contributions of Academy members to the force-free community and the industry.

In the past, we've celebrated smiles, like Valentino's below. We've celebrated interspecies and conspecific friendships, we've celebrated great tricks and pictures of dogs snoozing in funny positions, and we've celebrated meaningful contributions from our members and beyond, like hard-hitting, popular blogs and fantastic campaigns designed to educate and improve welfare for dogs.

                               

We are fortunate to have among our members writers like Zazie Todd of Companion Animal Psychology and Lisa Skavienski of Your Pit Bull and You, both of whom have won in the Best Blog category and whose contributions to the field are immeasurable. There's no shortage of ideas within the Academy, and projects such as Harness the Love have been honored for their contribution to the larger community.

                                

The Academy is a strong proponent for science-based literacy, and we presented Eileen Anderson with a special award that we call The Academy Applauds for her contributions to the field through her blog and her book. Bob Bailey was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2016 for his body of work, which has changed and expanded the definitions of "Think, Plan, Do" for so many of us. 

Dog training can be an isolating endeavor and within the Academy, we have members all over the world, from Singapore to rural America, from Hong Kong to Sydney. Living in the digital era has allowed us all to connect in ways that we simply were not able to in the past. Since its inception in 2011, the Academy has helped build friendships between dog trainers who would likely never have had the chance to meet, otherwise. Fostering these relationships and helping students grow are the cornerstone of our ethos.

The Academy has created a culture of collaboration, mutual respect and personal and professional growth. Bonds have been created, minds engaged and careers started. We are proud of our students and their commitment to force-free training and the Academy Awards is a way for all of us to show off some more of our personalities and get to know each other....and everyone's dogs a little bit better! 

This year's winners included Tracy Krulik and I Speak Dog for Idea of the Year, Casey McGee of Upward Hound for Best Blog for her piece entitled "Tell Me What You Want" and we presented the Kim Monteith and Emilia Gordon with The Academy Applauds award for their incredible work at the BC SPCA.

We're incredibly proud of our students and their commitment to learning and raising the standard in the dog training industry. We're also proud of their spirit of competition and fun, because no one gets into dogs to add more drudgery to their lives!

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On-Leash Etiquette, Management and Reactivity

On-Leash Etiquette, Management and Reactivity

It can be helpful to understand and appreciate the inherently frustrating situation we put our dogs in a lot of time. Dogs are highly social animals and when we put them on a leash they are set up for frustration by the sight of people and dogs they cannot access. If this happens repeatedly, the frustration becomes associated with these stimuli: barking and aggressive displays can result, eventually even out of the original context. Here are some management techniques to help mitigate these situations:

  • Keep on-leash interactions short & sweet - keep the leash loose - tight leashes amp dogs up. Let your dogs sniff each other for 3 seconds max, then happy talk and go on your way.
  • Avoid mixing on-leash and off-leash dogs - this is a volatile combination - and not by fault of any of the dogs concerned.
  • Change your gear to a no pull harness or if you have an exceptionally strong puller/lunger a head harness. This is the equipment of choice for this problem because you have control of the head and the jaws.
  • Maintain social skills with regular off-leash access to own species (provided your dog is not aggressive off leash), even if your dog is not a big player. Dogs can get rusty and hyper-motivated over time.
  • If your dog goes off - do a Turn & Go - Don’t just stand there!

What is a Turn & Go?

If you have a dog who is reactive on leash, whether it be to strangers, other dogs, cars, skateboarders, joggers, etc, knowing how to do an emergency turn & go is essential. This simple maneuver will help you manage your dogs reactivity by avoiding your dogs triggers, and having a habitual and effective way of quickly redirecting them if you have any incidents.

When out with your dog, constantly be scanning your environment, looking out for your dogs triggers. Get to know your particular dogs stress signals and early signs that they are starting
to get upset.

 If your dog starts to reacts do a Turn & Go:

  • Immediately just turn and walk in the opposite direction from the trigger.
  • Keep moving and Happy talk your dog until they calm down.
  • Don’t ask the dog anything, don’t try to bargain. 

 Why are Dogs Leash Reactive?

Frustration - Most dogs who react on-leash at the sight of other dogs (or strangers, joggers, skateboarders etc) are doing so out of frustration. They are motivated to investigate or chase something and are being thwarted by the leash. This is very similar to when you are running late for an appointment and get stuck in traffic, you are motivated to go somewhere and being thwarted by traffic is very frustrating. For many people this can lead to physical outbursts and over time can develop into genuine “Road Rage.”

Fear - Some dogs who react on-leash are doing so because they are genuinely afraid or uncomfortable around the trigger. They do not want to get closer to it, rather they want it to get farther away. What’s more, they know they are on-leash and therefore “trapped,” meaning they are unable to exercise a “flight” response and so for resort to “fight.”

How can you tell which is which?

Off-leash history - How are the dogs when they are off leash around the trigger of their reactivity? If they are pro-social, playful and relaxed then you are dealing with frustration. If they are asocial, uninterested or aggressive then you are dealing with fear.

 
What can we do about it?

Frustration - Positively Reinforce an Incompatible Behaviour

As soon as the dog notices the trigger, ask them to do a pre-trained incompatible behavior like sit or “watch” and reward with really yummy food treats until the trigger is out of view.

Fear - Change the Underlying Emotional Response to the trigger

As soon as the dog notices the trigger, happy talk (praise them) and give them really yummy food treats until the trigger goes out of view. Do not worry about asking for a behaviour.

In both cases always work at a “Safe” distance

IF the dog starts to react on leash they are over threshold and unable to learn. Do a “Turn and Go” to get them back to a distance they feel safe or less frustrated.

Avoid yelling or physical corrections to punish the reactive behaviour as this can lead to an association between the trigger and the punishment (rather than the behaviour) and make the reactivity worse.

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The Double Advantage of Reward-Based Training

The Double Advantage of Reward-Based Training

The science of dog training shows risks to canine welfare from aversive methods, and positive benefits from using rewards.

 Although an increasing number of dog trainers are force-free, there are currently no regulations on dog training  and still some on-going debate amongst trainers and dog owners about what is the best method to train a dog. But the science, which already pointed to risks in using aversive methods, has continued to develop.

Many dog trainers are concerned the use of punishment in dog training may have unwanted effects. They point to the position statement of the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior which warns of “potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increasing fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.”

These potential unwanted effects are put into sharp focus by a review by Gal Ziv PhD published earlier this year. The review covered 17 research papers, from large-scale questionnaires to observational studies, experiments, and veterinary case studies. It compared reward-based methods (positive reinforcement and negative punishment) to aversive methods (positive punishment and negative reinforcement). For example, use of a shock collar, hitting the dog, pinning the dog, using a choke or prong collar, bark collars, and sharp tugs on the leash (“leash corrections”) are all aversive techniques.

We’ll look at the results of this review and then consider potential reasons, as well as other important changes in how we think about animal welfare.

 Aversive methods are not more effective

Some people still hold to the view that aversive techniques are more effective. Not so, according to this review.

Some people say shock collars are better for teaching a dog to come when called (recall). Again, not so.

In a study that directly tested this, using a controlled experiment and with trainers suggested by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association, a shock collar was no more effective than using rewards (we’ll get to the welfare issues in a moment).

In fact 3 studies suggested reward-based methods to train dogs might work better.

Another study found dogs with a history of being trained more often with rewards learned a new task more quickly. Dogs with a history of being trained more often with aversive methods were less playful with their owner and interacted less with the researcher. The scientists explained it like this:

“a past history of rewards-based training increases a dog-owner partnership’s success in future training; possibly by increasing the dog’s motivation and aptitude to learn, because it learns to anticipate rewards.” 

 Aversive techniques have risks

The review showed an increase in fear and aggression associated with the use of aversive techniques. For example one study asked owners about the dog’s direct response to particular methods. Among the responses, 31% of owners reported an aggressive response when they did an “alpha roll”, 43% said their dog was aggressive when they hit or kicked it, 38% when they forced the dog to let go of something in its mouth, 20% said using a spray bottle got an aggressive response, and 15% who yelled “No!”.

Other studies also found an increased risk of fear and aggression in dogs that received punishment, or that were punished more often. An increase in other behaviour problems, such as attention-seeking, was also found in some research.

Aggression is obviously of concern because of the risk to people, who might receive a bite. Fear is also a concern because unfortunately it can take a lot of work and a long time to resolve it (if at all).

Signs of stress, such as lip licking and a lower body posture, were another risk. Over the long-term, chronic stress can be bad for a dog’s physical health, just like chronic stress is bad for humans too.

The studies of electronic collars (including the one mentioned above) found their use carries risks for animal welfare even when the trainer is experienced. Signs of stress included more time being tense, a low tail, lowered body posture, yawning, less interaction with the environment, and sometimes vocalizations. Unfortunately when scientists looked at electronic-collar-trained dogs outside of the training environment, some of these effects persisted beyond the training session.

 Why do we find these results?

There are a number of reasons why aversive techniques might have negative effects.

In causing stress, there is a risk the dog’s ability to learn will be affected. It is possible the dog will associate the stress with the owner (or trainer), rather than with the behaviour they were doing. It’s also possible the dog is not sure what to associate the stressful event with. This could lead to generalized anxiety and/or to the dog being fearful of the owner.

One study found that dogs taught with negative reinforcement (including tugging on the leash until the dog walks to heel) look less at their owner. This could impact learning because the owner does not have the dog’s attention. (We know from other research that in successful dog training sessions, the dog looks at the trainer a lot.

Another issue is that aversive dog training methods focus on teaching what not to do; they do not teach the dog what you would actually like them to do instead. This could be one reason why dogs trained with rewards are more likely to be considered obedient.

The use of rewards also directly addresses the dog’s motivation in a way that is likely to make the dog want to learn, and to enjoy future training sessions.

But that’s not the only thing…

 Positive Welfare

In the past, animal welfare guidelines were all about preventing harm, and this approach has made a huge difference to how we care for animals. More recently, and as we’ve learned more about animals and how they feel about and interact with their world, we now understand that good welfare includes positive experiences too:

“…the overall objective is to provide opportunities for animals to ‘thrive’, not simply ‘survive’” (Mellor, 2016).

Reward-based training is enjoyable for dogs. They like the rewards, which are usually tasty bits of food they don’t normally get in their diet (but could also be play or petting or other rewards when appropriate). Dogs also enjoy the process of earning those rewards.

Training with rewards is one way to provide positive experiences that will make your dog happy, and that in itself is good for animal welfare. When people train with aversive methods instead, dogs are missing out on these opportunities.

 Reward-Based Training: Fewer Risks, Good for Welfare

Although there are some issues with the scientific literature (e.g. most studies are correlational and do not prove causation, and difficulties with interpreting cortisol results), Ziv’s literature review concludes by saying it’s time for a new program of research into reward-based methods.

In fact, researchers are already looking at things like whether dogs prefer food as a reward, the timing and sequence of events (like rewards) in dog training and the quality of information in popular dog training books. These are exciting times for canine science, and force-free dog trainers can look forward to reaping the benefits of this research.

And we can take heart that reward-based methods are better for animal welfare in two ways: they avoid the risks of stress, fear, and aggression that are associated with aversive methods; and they give the dog positive experiences that contribute to good welfare.

It’s the double advantage of using rewards to train dogs.

 If you’d like to know more about the scientific research on dog training, I maintain a list of articles and places where you can read about them on my blog, Companion Animal Psychology. 

 

 

 

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