By Kristina O’Keefe, Guest Blogger
We are alive during a time where we want the absolute best for our animals. We get them the highest quality food, we spoil them with treats and toys, and our pets truly are an integral part of our families. Our dogs are great at understanding how we communicate. They adapt to our body language, tone of voice, and pick up on verbal cues. To be a responsible pet owner and the best dog parent you can be, learning to understand what your dog is communicating to you is equally as important as providing them with food, water, and shelter.
When it comes to trainers there are many different practices, and it can be hard to know where to start. The media is saturated with “animal whisperers,” and people often turn to dominance theory training to yield results in a shorter amount of time, even though these methods have been proven ineffective by veterinary behaviorists. As pet owners who are only trying to do right by their pets, sometimes we may even unknowingly choose training methods that aren’t the best for our dogs.
According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, owners should reinforce positive behavior, remove the reinforcer for negative behavior, and address the underlying emotional issues and environmental conditions that are causing the undesirable behavior. Negative reinforcers should only be used in combination with positive reinforcement when needed. Training that uses negative reinforcement or positive punishment can become detrimental when harsh corrections are used and can cause physical or mental harm to the dog.
E-collars and prong collars are an example of positive punishment, meaning that both tools add a stimulus to the situation to get an undesirable behavior to stop. In the case of e-collars, the vibration on the collar is uncomfortable to the dog and occurs when they perform a specific behavior. In order to avoid the vibration, the dog will eventually stop doing whatever caused it to occur. The issue with this method of training is that it yields fast results, but the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed. Though the behavior the human is seeing improves, this method of training is detrimental to the dog’s mental health as the fear or aggression that caused the behavior is being suppressed. A suppressed dog is not a happy dog. Over time, suppressed dogs can end up developing worsening behavioral issues.
Positive reinforcement training introduces distraction and praise and can be made more effective by including some negative reinforcement techniques. An example of negative punishment, or taking something away, can be seen in a kennel environment when a dog is barking for attention. To get the dog to stop this behavior, those working with the dog can simply ignore the dog and turn their back to the kennel. Once the dog stops barking and is calm, you can praise him or her and then reward them with lots of affection and treats. In this example, the dog learned that being calm caused his or her humans to pay attention to them, not the barking.
Working in a shelter environment we see the dogs after they have been overcorrected using negative reinforcement methods. We fight to repattern these dogs and give them a second chance, and to show them that humans can be kind and that they don’t have to be afraid of harsh consequences. When we are repatterning dogs who have been trained using negative reinforcement, the biggest thing we can do for them is show them that they do have autonomy; that they can make decisions and offer behaviors without being punished or overcorrected. Some dogs have been broken by harsh and aversive training methods, and some of those dogs we can’t save.
If you are having behavioral issues with your dog, or if you are just looking to improve your own and your dog’s quality of life together, please seek out the help of a positive reinforcement trainer or veterinary behaviorist for guidance. Avoid the use of harsh corrections, prong collars, and e-collars. You and your dog will be happier for it!
Kristina graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science in 2015 and later earned a Certificate of Journalism. She oversees the North Attleboro Animal Shelter as the Town’s Animal Control Officer and blogs at kristinascritters.com to promote the status of animals in society.