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Punishment, puppies, and science: Bringing dog training to heel

Teenager playing fetch with her dog
Enlarge / Teenager playing fetch with her dog

Three years ago, Valli Fraser-Celin adopted a blonde husky mix puppy, whom she named Husk. Fraser-Celin soon started looking for ways to curb Husk’s “totally wild” behavior, she said, like stealing food from the kitchen counter and barking incessantly at strangers. Based on the advice of a YouTube trainer, Fraser-Celin started using an electronic collar, or e-collar, that delivered a small shock when Husk misbehaved, but said she felt “yucky” about it.

Fraser-Celin rethought her approach after hearing about an animal trainer who taught a grizzly bear to cooperate with medical treatment using only positive reinforcement. If that hulking animal could learn with treats and praise, she thought, why were dog trainers using prong and shock collars? “That was the catalyst into my advocacy,” said Fraser-Celin, who studied African wild dogs for her Ph.D. and now works as a remote community liaison for the Winnipeg Humane Society and advocates independently for positive reinforcement training on Instagram. “I really think that there needs to be regulations that are put into place,” she said, “based on the science and the studies that have shown the best type of training for dogs.”

Fraser-Celin is not alone. Many researchers, trainers, and veterinary and training professional organizations are advocating for greater oversight for dog training, which is largely unregulated worldwide—though they sometimes disagree on the best path of action and choose to focus on the research that reinforces their preferred approach. “Right now, it’s the wild, wild West,” said Anamarie Johnson, a psychology Ph.D. student at Arizona State University with a background in animal behavior and dog training. She recently published a study that analyzed the websites of 100 highly-rated dog trainers across the US, which found that most gave no indication whether the trainer had relevant education or certification.

“Anyone can identify as a dog trainer—they can put up a social media page, they can offer services to the public, and there’s no expectations for their education, their continuing education, or their standards of practice,” said Bradley Phifer, the executive director of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, or CCPDT, an organization promoting science-based training standards. People with little or no education in animal behavior may be advising owners on handling aggression, he added. “There’s a big consumer protection piece here, that if you’re not adequately trained, or you don’t have adequate experience in the industry or in the content, then you shouldn’t be advising 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 could be adopted on a state-by-state basis. The legislation would require trainer licensure by a state board, create accountability standards, and require trainers to engage in continued education. Phifer said he’s currently working with legislators 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 schism in the industry over using punishments versus rewards. Under the proposed legislation, certifying bodies would be required to uphold a policy that prioritizes positive reinforcement, though does not entirely rule out punishment—an approach generally backed by research on efficacy and welfare and increasingly popular among training professionals. While researchers and trainers largely agree that punishment-heavy approaches are harmful, they are at odds whether all-out bans on aversive tools are productive, since the approach may work in limited circumstances.

Without clearer rules, the broad gaps in dog training pose “a potentially very large safety risk to the public,” said Johnson, because dog owners are trusting trainers to modify the behavior of animals with “sharp, pointy teeth that live in our house.”

Modern dog training is rooted in the mid-20th-century work of American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who suggested four categories for behavior modification: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Here, positive and negative don’t necessarily mean good or bad. Positive reinforcement adds something a dog likes to reinforce a behavior, such as a treat or a toy for sitting on cue, while positive punishment adds something aversive, like a tug on a leash, to decrease a behavior. Negative reinforcement removes something the dog dislikes, such as stopping a shock collar when a dog obeys a command, while negative punishment removes something desirable, such as facing away from a dog that is jumping for attention.

Many trainers and animal behavior experts say that aversive methods, which include positive punishment and negative reinforcement, are overused. Two major professional organizations that represent trainers—the APDT and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants—now limit the use of tools like e-collars among their members.

In October last year, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, which includes both veterinarians and behaviorists with doctorate-level education in animal behavior, issued a statement: “There is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification,” referencing 21 studies on the effectiveness of reward-based methods and risks of aversive methods. Alexandra Protopopova, an animal welfare researcher at The University of British Columbia, wrote in an email to Undark that the recent research cited by the statement reflected the “undeniable” risks of aversive techniques, adding: “Ultimately, recent research has also shown that aversive methods do not result in better trained dogs; thereby making traditional aversive dog training methods obsolete.”

The research has raised concerns about dog welfare. In one small study, dogs trained with rewards appeared to be more playful and better at learning a novel behavior than dogs whose owners reported using punishment. In another, dogs reportedly trained with aversive tools were, as the researchers put it, more “pessimistic” than dogs that were not, based on their hesitation in approaching a bowl of food. Some evidence also suggests that use of punishment in training can diminish the bond between a dog owner and their canine.

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