Dogs Aren't the Only Ones Who Suffer From Aversive Training
Before adopting our puppy I tried to be as prepared as possible and reached out to several trainers in my area. While waiting to hear back, a family friend came through with a recommendation.
Joe* was a well-known local trainer with decades of experience and who had, according to our friend, done “wonders” for her rescue dog. I trusted her opinion and I didn’t hesitate to reach out to him.
Joe was responsive and personable. We quickly made an appointment and I was excited to start working with our puppy.
Our first session started pretty routinely with Joe discussing ways to channel and manage our puppy’s energy. When the subject of puppy nipping came up we asked for some additional tips since my partner and I had already had a few shredded pairs of pants, and my sweatshirt sleeves were dotted in tiny puppy teeth holes.
This is when Joe walked over to our puppy who was sitting on the floor and began to play with him and pet him heavily. Once puppy teeth inevitably touched the trainer’s skin, Joe reached into my puppy’s mouth and quickly did something that made him yip. It was so quick I barely had time to figure out what happened.
He then proceeded to initiate play again with his hands, but my puppy’s response went from happy and playful to quiet and solemn. He lowered his head and slinked away from the trainer.
“See, no more nipping!”, exclaimed Joe.
As the session went on, Joe expanded on his training philosophy. No toys available on demand, no feeding before we eat, no affection or attention for free. According to Joe, our puppy was very confident and at risk of becoming “dominant”. We needed to change this…and quickly.
As I tried to process what was happening, it all seemed overwhelming and counter to the life we had envisioned with our dog. But we listened. After all, he was the expert and we really needed help.
Then the following unfolded: I got a call from our vet and stepped out of the room. During the three minutes I was gone, Joe grabbed our puppy’s leash and quickly and efficiently administered a harsh leash correction. Our puppy cried out in pain. Joe then looked directly at my partner and asked, “Can you handle this?”
The challenge and implications of his question were clear: this is what it takes to train your dog. And if the prospect of causing your dog pain gives you pause, or if having a complete stranger hurt your dog in front of you makes you uncomfortable, then you may not have what it takes to do it.
Many years have passed since that day, but the shame, guilt, and regret my partner and I feel about what transpired during our puppy’s first training session have never left us. What is more, its impact reverberated for beyond the hour Joe spent in our home.
I share this because I know I’m not the only one. I know I’m not the only one who has been made into an unwitting bystander to my dog’s abuse and convinced that this abuse was called dog training.
Over the years I’ve witnessed dogs pinned to the ground in the middle of the street. I’ve seen fists shoved inside their mouths to stop them from barking. I’ve seen leash corrections that lift dogs off the ground and leash corrections for nothing other than looking at someone or sniffing. I’ve seen crate doors slammed into puppies’ faces for failing to sit. I’ve seen dogs sprayed in the face with water while passing by me.
I’ve seen a lot of harsh and painful things done to dogs because someone at some point called it training.
I know it might be easy to judge and exclaim “I would never do THAT to my dog!”, but the truth is most people don’t want or intend to hurt their dogs. People simply want help.
So we put our trust and the welfare of our dogs in the hands of people claiming expertise. We’re handed a tool or a collar and told that this is how you get a well-behaved dog. We’re made to yank, and pop, and zap, and choke all the while being convinced that it doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t harm.
And if we see results quickly, after all, pain and the avoidance of pain are powerful motivators (and punishment is reinforcing to the punisher), we will inevitably continue to yank, and pop, and zap, and choke all the while believing that this is the only way to live with our dogs.
What we may not know and what we’re not told is that behavioral compliance by means of physical and psychological coercion comes at a price.
There is a growing body of evidence showing that aversive training methods and pain-based tools like prong, choke, and shock collars carry long term behavioral risks and negatively impact the emotional and physical wellbeing of dogs. Studies show that training with punitive techniques and tools affects learning, increases the risk behavior problems, aggression, fear, stress, and behavioral shutdown.
When we use fear avoidance to teach our dogs we are creating a world in which behavior becomes risky, exploration becomes dangerous, and people become unpredictable. When we consistently punish behaviors, we inadvertently make all behavior unsafe. When we consistently employ corrections, we inadvertently make ourselves unsafe.
In his book, Coercion and Its Fallout, Murray Sidman, a renowned behavioral scientist, summarizes it simply: “people who use punishment become conditioned punishers themselves…anyone who uses shock becomes shock.”
Sidman adds, “positive reinforcement leaves us free to indulge our curiosity, to try new options. Negative reinforcement instills a narrow behavioral repertoire, leaving us fearful of novelty, afraid to explore.”
How we train our dogs informs the very foundation of our relationship with them. When this foundation is built on fear and coercion, our relationship will reflect that. Any living being who is made to do things as a way to avoid something unpleasant will never feel safe enough to be their true self.
Aversive training harms dogs, but it also harms their people. It can rob us of seeing our dogs’ full potential and experiencing the rewards of a relationship built on cooperation and kindness. It makes us complicit in doing things to our dogs we may come to deeply regret.
I know because I’ve been there. It took me time to unlearn what I had been taught living with a dog was all about. Even after finding positive reinforcement training, it took me time to teach myself not to lean on coercion, as tempting of a crutch as it may be. It took me time to recognize what I had been missing and who my dog was truly capable of being. It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always quick, but it was so very worth it.
*Name has been changed.