HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF: THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE
Members of older generations often lament the waywardness of today’s youth. They say things like ‘I had to cut my own switch as a child’ or ‘My father would have tanned my hide!’ The belief persists that a child raised without physical consequences to undesirable behavior somehow leaves children unable to function within standards of society. People claim, ‘I was spanked and I turned out just fine!’ Did you though?
The their 2016 meta-analysis, Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, ‘found no evidence that spanking is associated with improved child behavior and rather found spanking to be associated with increased risk of 13 detrimental outcomes.’ As a child I was paddled with yard sticks and paint stirrers, and routinely verbally threatened by my great grandmother for infractions such as failing to fall asleep during nap time. The sight of a yard stick still invokes extreme stress for me. Her violence was always justified as ‘that’s just how they did things back then.’
As a novice trainer I learned under the guidance of a compulsion trainer. I remember being frustrated when the dog failed to comply (often because they were shut down from stress), sweating and heavy breathing from the shear exertion of using force to gain compliance, and downright confused as to how to communicate what I wanted to the dog. It wasn’t fun and it didn’t leave me feeling good about how I was engaging with an animal who often had no other advocate present.
Have you ever found yourself short of patience, quick to anger, or snapping out of frustration? What about anxiety, depression, or panic attacks? These could, of course, correlate to other stressful experiences besides spanking or childhood discipline but that’s the point. ANY experience that left you reeling in the moment from a surge of adrenaline and cortisol could very well have left you primed for stress, anxiety, arousal, and reactivity down the road. We often repeat this ‘cycle of violence,’ treating our children as we were once treated.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF AVERSIVES IN DOG TRAINING
In our FREE online course Dog Training 101, aversives are defined as anything your dog finds unpleasant or wants to avoid. Studies have shown associations between aversive training methods and behavior include aggression towards people and other dogs, anxiety, and excitability. In addition, dogs trained using aversive methods have higher elevations in cortisol compared to dogs trained using reward-based methods meaning that they experience more persistent states of stress throughout their day and life in general.
These training methods have a damaging effect on both animal welfare and the human-canine bond and no evidence supports aversive methods as more effective than reward-based methods in any context. Based on current scientific evidence, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems.
Through the suppression of behavior, aversives give the illusion of a quick fix. This naturally appeals to people because appears it takes less time, commitment, or money to solve the problem. Seeing a patrol vehicle or getting speeding ticket may slow you down for a short time but if you’re prone to a lead foot, inevitably you’ll be speeding along as you have in the past. Your behavior was momentarily but ultimately this effect was short lived. It did not decrease the tendency to speed long term.
Additionally, your response was specifically associated with the officer meaning that when the officer is not present you continue to practice the behavior. In dogs, and similarly in children, using aversives to suppress behavior results in surface level outcomes. These behaviors lurking under the surface persist and intensify over time. The dog may disguise their discomfort on the outside for fear of punishment but remain internally conflicted. At worst you and your dog may eventually find yourselves at the end of a frayed rope. This is when bites often occur. At best your dog is chronically stressed.
In a study published in 2020, Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro and researchers sought to answer the question of whether dog training methods mattered. They found that ‘companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare during training sessions than dogs trained with reward-based methods.’ Dogs trained with aversive methods or tools frequently display stress-related behaviors during training, including tense body, lower body posture, lip licking, tail lowering, lifting front leg, panting, yawning, and yelping.
TAKING AN INTROSPECTIVE LOOK
Think of a situation where you attempted to remedy your dog’s behavior that backfired or proved unsuccessful. How does your dog respond to you now in similar situations? If they avoid you or behave aggressively in response that means they have developed a fear that they will lose out on something or anticipate pain. These feelings are associated with you!
Video tape 2 short sessions (<1 minute) with your dog: one where your dog is on leash and one off leash. Give your dog a cue such as a ‘Sit’ or ‘Down’ that you have taught them in the past and then wait for them to respond.
When you replay the video what signals did you observe from your dog in response to your request? How did your dog’s behavior differ between the two videos? Share the results of your experiment in the comments below!
LONG TERM SOLUTIONS: POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT DOG TRAINING
Reward-based training methods have been shown to be more effective than aversive methods. Studies have shown higher obedience in dogs trained with reward based methods. Not only is Positive Reinforcement effective but our own experience shows it feels good to be kind and patient with our animals! Additionally, well implemented management strategies generally result in an immediate reduction of stress and struggle in your home.
Real behavior change takes time but only to the extent that all new habits require time to become permanently imprinted. You didn’t master that lead foot over night and it takes true motivation to change habits. Your dog will only change their behavior if you change yours first. You must want to achieve permanent change and not simply be seeking the ‘quick fix.’ You and your animal must adopt new habits as part of your identity before change can be considered permanent.
During your training program your coach will suggestions about how and when to use rewards as reinforcement. Often this includes the use of food due of it role as a ‘Primary Reinforcer’ or something that it intrinsically motivating to dogs. Food is not the only, nor always the most effective, way to reward your dog for desirable behavior. Remember that ‘reinforcement’ simply means to increase or maintain and ‘positive’ means the addition of something rewarding.
What are some other ways you can give your dogs things they want in exchange for desirable behavior that aren’t food related?
In order to reinforce any behavior your dog has to perceive some benefit for performing that action. Either that benefit is the avoidance of pain or stress (which implies that you are the source of pain or stress) or it’s the desire to achieve something pleasurable.
Aversive training makes it harder for your dog to learn new tasks. Using aversives in training also implies that undesirable behavior must be expressed first meaning that it is still getting practiced. Therefore, your dog is receiving benefit from that behavior regardless of whether you attempt to ‘correct’ it during or after the fact. Positive Reinforcement means we are focusing on encouraging more desirable behaviors. Just because you turned out fine, doesn’t exclude the possibility that there is a better way. If there is a better way and all it takes is to learn it, what’s stopping you?
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Tell us below, what hesitations or questions do you have about the role of food in your dog’s training program?