Punishment, puppies and science: dog training to heel

Zoom / Teenage girl playing with her dog

Three years ago, Valley Fraser-Celine adopted a blond husky mixed puppy, which she named Husk. Fraser-Celine soon began looking for ways to curb her “totally wild” obsessive behaviour, such as stealing food from the kitchen table and constantly barking at strangers. On the advice of a YouTube coach, Fraser-Celin began using an e-collar, or e-collar, which caused a small shock when Hasek misbehaved, but said she felt “happy” about it.

Fraser-Celine rethought her approach after hearing about an animal trainer who had taught a grizzly bear to cooperate with medical therapy using only positive reinforcement. If this huge animal can learn through rewards and praise, I thought, why would dog trainers use slit and shock collars? “This has been the motivating factor in my advocates,” said Fraser-Celine, who has studied African wild dogs for her Ph.D. “He now works as a remote community liaison for the Winnipeg Humane Society and independently advocates for positive reinforcement training on Instagram.” She said, “I really think That there have to be regulations that are put in place, based on science and studies that have shown the best type of training for dogs.”

Fraser-Celine is not alone. Many researchers, trainers, veterinary organizations and professional training advocate more oversight of dog training, which is largely unregulated around the world – although they sometimes disagree about the best course of action and choose to focus on research that underpins their preferred approach. “Right now, it’s the Wild West,” said Annamarie Johnson, who has a PhD in psychology. Student at Arizona State University with a background in animal behavior and dog training. I recently published a study that analyzed the websites of 100 highly-rated dog trainers across the United States and found that most of them provided no indication as to whether the trainer had a relevant education or certification.

Bradley Pfeffer, executive director of the Council for the Accreditation of Professional Dog Trainers, or CCPDT, an organization that promotes science-based training standards. He added that people with little or no education in animal behavior may advise owners about dealing with aggression. “A big part about consumer protection here is that if you’re not adequately trained, or you don’t have enough industry or content experience, you shouldn’t advise people on how to prevent dog bites.”

Some experts and organizations are pushing for greater regulation of the industry. Under an umbrella organization known as the Alliance for Professionalism in Dog Training, two major certification bodies — the CCPDT and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, or APDT — have jointly proposed model legislation that they hope to adopt on a state-by-state basis. The legislation would require coach certification by the state assembly, set standards for accountability, and require coaches to engage in continuing education. Pfeffer said he is currently working with lawmakers in New Jersey, where regulations for dog trainers were first proposed in 2019, and that the joint effort is also making progress in California and Illinois.

But the push for regulation has exposed a division in the industry over the use of sanctions versus rewards. Under the proposed legislation, certification bodies would be required to uphold a policy that prioritizes positive reinforcement, although it does not completely exclude punishment – an approach generally supported by research on effectiveness and well-being and growing in popularity among training professionals. While researchers and trainers largely agree that severe punishment approaches are harmful, they are at odds on whether a blanket ban on abominable tools is fruitful, as such an approach may work in limited circumstances.

Without clearer rules, Johnson said, wide gaps in dog training pose “a very high risk to public safety,” because dog owners trust trainers to modify the behavior of animals “with sharp, pointed teeth that live in our home.”

Modern dog training is rooted in the mid-20th century work of American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who proposed four categories of behavior modification: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Here, positive and negative do not necessarily mean good or bad. Positive reinforcement adds something the dog likes to reinforce the behavior, such as a treat or a toy to sit on on a cue, while positive punishment adds something that the dog dislikes, such as pulling on a leash, to reduce the behavior. Negative reinforcement removes something the dog does not like, such as turning off the shock collar when the dog obeys a command, while negative punishment removes something desirable, such as facing away from a dog that is jumping to get attention.

Many animal trainers and behavior experts say that aversive techniques, which include positive punishment and negative reinforcement, are overused. Two major professional organizations representing trainers – the APDT and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants – are now limiting the use of tools such as electronic collars among their members.

In October last year, the American Veterinary Association for Animal Behavior, which includes behaviorists and veterinarians with doctoral-level education in animal behavior, issued a statement: “There is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification,” referring to 21 studies. On the effectiveness of reward-based methods and the risks of aversive methods. Alexandra Protopopova, an animal welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia, wrote in an email to Undark that the latest research cited by the statement reflects the “undeniable” dangers of repulsive methods, adding: “Finally, recent research has also shown that The methods do not lead to better trained dogs; which renders traditional loathing dog training methods obsolete.”

The research raised concerns about dog welfare. In one small study, dogs trained in rewards seemed more playful and better at learning a new behavior than dogs whose owners reported using punishment. In another case, dogs trained with aversive tools were reported, the researchers said, to be more “pessimistic” than dogs who were not, based on their reluctance to approach a bowl of food. Some evidence also suggests that the use of punishment in training can reduce the bond between a dog owner and their dogs.

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