The True Killer - Ill-informed “Professionals” Lacking Critical Thinking Skills and Scientific Reasoning.

By: Maria DeLeon of SmartHund Dog Training

Recently, a blog post came out claiming that “pure positive” trainers responsible for the death of dogs internationally because they do not use consequence (punishment)  in training. The post is riddled with incorrect terminology including the misnomer “pure positive” that the blog is centered around. It is also non-factual, opinion-based, with unsubstantiated claims. Unsurprisingly, it is receiving praise from equally uninformed “dog trainers”.  The author is a dog trainer that holds no true academic education in animal behavior unlike the leading supporters and advocates of force-free training. The provocative claim that positive trainers are killing dogs with their training methods has no supporting data. Furthermore, the claim is solely supported by two anecdotal stories; one of which the dog was not euthanized which means half of his sample data is not in support of his claim and the other story is hearsay from online forum of a dog he never met. These are people that are ruining and killing our dogs with their uniformed biases and sensationalist claims that do not represent the true findings of research.

If we look at scientific studies we see that the literature strongly leads to the opposite conclusion;  positive reinforcement based training is the most efficient form of training that leads to lasting results, keeps dog out of shelters, and is more humane and effective than punishment for training. It is effective for training simple pet obedience to severely advanced behavior problems and everything in between.

A popular study from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that implementing many of the methods “balanced” trainers teach and encourage cause the dogs to react aggressively. Confrontational methods such as leash jerking, alpha rolling, growling at, and staring down produced up to 40% of the dogs reacting aggressively while non-confrontational methods topped out at 6%, clicker training being at 0%.  (Herron, 2009)

Remember, veterinary behaviorists work solely with the most aggressive, fearful, and severely behaviorally abnormal dogs.  The methods they use are congruent with force-free methods and they continue to vehemently speak out against punishment in training while “balanced” trainers support their usage of abuse as necessary for extreme cases. If vet behaviorists are doing better then balanced trainers, with much harder cases,  and using force-free methods then what is the remaining reason for the unnecessary punishment?

In fact, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior officially released a position statement against the use of punishment in animal trainer. Here is an important excerpt: Punishment can suppress aggressive and fearful behavior when used effectively, but it may not change the underlying cause of the behavior. For instance, if the animal behaves aggressively due to fear, then the use of force to stop the fearful reactions will make the animal more fearful while at the same time suppressing or masking the outward signs of fear; (e.g., a threat display/growling). As a result, if the animal faces a situation where it is extremely fearful, it may suddenly act with heightened aggression and with fewer warning signs. In other words, it may now attack more aggressively or with no warning, making it much more dangerous.”  Link to the full position statement
National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy found that behavioral problems, including aggression toward people or nonhuman animals, were the most frequently given reasons for canine relinquishment. (M.D, 2000) However, the chart above is from a study that found dogs trained by positive reinforcement methods only were least aggressive, least fearful, easiest to manage and control, and engaged in less demanding behaviors like excessive barking. (Blackwell, 2008). Thus force-free training keeps many dogs in their homes as happy and easy to manage members of the family while “balanced” training (positive reinforcement and punishment), which leads to a higher rate of reported behavior problems, is leading dogs to be relinquished to shelters and euthanized as most notably by this study. According to the results the “balanced” trained dogs were not only the most aggressive of the entire sample population but the biggest range in aggression occurs between “balanced” trained dogs and positive-only dogs.

A popular tool with “balanced” trainers are electric shock collars which force-free trainers do not use and do consider quite barbaric and inhumane. This study conducted by Department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals followed the training of military dogs to view the longterm effects of shock collars in training  Not surprisingly the shock collar trained dogs showed increased signs of stress such as lowering of body posture, high pitched yelps, barks and squeals, avoidance, redirection aggression, and tongue flicking not just during training sessions but, rather, all the time. The researchers observed these behaviors in dogs that were just walking around the facility!  The study concluded that the s-dog group (shocked-dogs) “evidently have learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announces reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context. This suggests that the welfare of these shocked dogs is at stake, at least in the presence of their owner.” (Schilder, 2004) What does the presence of a force-free trained dog associate their trainer with? Food rewards, toys, play, verbal praise and many more good, motivating things!

Lastly, the blog post seems to have zero comprehension of how positive-reinforcement or free-free training is actually executed since the blog posts suggests that all positive trainers do is ignore “bad” (unwanted) behavior which will make it worse. I do believe Emily Larlham said it better than I could, though.

“Some people have the wrong idea regarding training dogs without physical or psychological intimidation. The most important key to any training is preventing and INTERRUPTING undesirable behaviour. A lot of punishment trainers and also even some "positive" trainers believe "positive" trainers IGNORE undesirable or dangerous behaviours in their dogs. I do believe training by ignoring and only reinforcing the good, can be dangerous and unreliable, that is why I wrote my Progressive Reinforcement Training Manifesto, to make a distinction between the two ideas. Using Progressive Reinforcement, the goal is to never allow undesirable behaviour to be reinforced, this means you can build dogs social skills in large groups rather than seeing what the dog might do naturally. This is based on the type of training used to keep large groups of caged animals in modern zoos (where the environment can be stressful) from acting aggressively towards each other. Progressive Reinforcement Training is based on the latest scientific data based on how the most advanced modern day zoos aquariums and the military use to train the most reliable and safe behaviours. Progressive Reinforcement Training is not permissive training, the main goal is creating a dog that has the safest social skills around other dogs and people in the stressful environments that we and our dogs have to live in. Every day I hope to educate more people about this type of training!”
Herron, M. H. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(1-2), 47-54.

Schilder, M. (2004). 2003. Training dogs with help of the shockcollar: short and longterm behavioural effects, 85(3-5), 319-334.

M.D, S. (2000). Behavioral reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats to 12 shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3(2), 93-106.

Blackwell, Emily J. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research - September 2008 (Vol. 3, Issue 5, Pages 207-217, DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008)