All too frequently, I receive a call from a dog owner who explains that,” out of the blue” his dog has started a new behavior that looks aggressive. Often, this behavior results from fear or stress, but growls, barks, bared teeth, and lunges all carry the same concerns for an owner. How does such behavior arise in a dog who until now seemed friendly and happy?

Let’s first take a look at dogs’ learning style. Since we and our dogs don’t share a verbal language, dogs learn through association.  Humans in their pre-language months learn this way also. Simply put, learning by association means that the dog takes in the environmental set-up when he is learning a new behavior or experiencing a specific event.

Aversive training is based on “correcting” (punishing) a mistake to eliminate the behavior. Here is a simple scenario:
An owner/trainer is walking with the dog, doing ‘heeling’ work. The dog – who is probably wearing a choke-chain, slip lead, or electronic collar – is walking along quite well. A woman and small child walk toward them. The dog sees them and, because he is friendly, he moves a bit forward from heel position. The owner/trainer immediately gives a correction (a collar pop or shock) to let the dog know he strayed from position.

In this scenario, the dog is focused on the woman and child and is also enjoying a walk. The association he makes when the owner/trainer gives the painful correction is twofold: (1) that walking is sometimes less than fun, and (2) a woman and child in the vicinity means something bad will happen. That’s associative learning.  Couple aversive training with associative learning, and the dog now learns that something in his environment that he found pleasant is now stressful and to be feared. That’s how dogs develop reactive behaviors out of the blue. The owner/trainer thought with the human mind, but the dog learned with a canine mind: through association.

A study in Germany measured the cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in dogs trained with an electronic collar. They received a shock for a mistake while in a room. When they first re-entered the room 1 month later, the dog’s cortisol levels shot up to 300% of normal when going into that room again. A single shock and 1 month later, the association was still powerful!!

In contrast, positive-reinforcement training creates motivation for the dog to offer the behavior that the trainer wants. The dog and the trainer are both enjoying the learning experience and the dog is actually taking part in the process.

Aversive training seems to work fast; the problem is that you often train an association quite different from the one you intended!   Training with positive reinforcement can seem slow by comparison. When you use aversive training, however, fallout continues to bring new and unwelcome behaviors that you will then need to address – a process that can take a very long time and that may not work at all with aversive methods. Because aversive training methods work through fear, they train the dog to fear something. Not only are you likely to teach him to fear the wrong things, but also you are by definition increasing his overall fearfulness and stress. Fear and stress lead to growls, barks, bared teeth, and lunges. That’s fallout, and the risk it too great to make aversive methods worthwhile.

–Rita Martinez, CPDT-KA


E-mail: info@clickincanines.com