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Aversive Dog Training: Pros and Cons

I've been working professionally with dogs for over a decade. I'm a former veterinarian assistant and currently a certified dog trainer.

Please no more aversion-based training!

Please no more aversion-based training!

Stimuli for Dogs

Dogs are exposed to various stimuli on a daily basis which are for the most part perceived as positive, neutral or negative. Positive stimuli are obviously those that are associated with positive emotions, either through an innate predisposition to appreciate such stimuli (dogs don't need to learn to appreciate food!) or through a conditioned experience (clickers, can openers and leashes mean nothing to dogs unless they are associated with treats, food or walks).

Neutral stimuli are those that do not cause any particular response. For example, dogs may care less about the sky, a calendar hung on the wall, or a street sign. Negative stimuli, as positive stimuli, may be associated with negative emotions either through an innate predisposition (a dog does not have to learn to fear loud noises or dangerous predators) or through a conditioned experience (a dog may perceive a fence neutral until it shocks him as many electric dog containment fences do).

Types of Aversives in the Dog World

What are aversives? From a behavioral point of view, they are stimuli or actions the dog tries to avoid. There are many aversive stimuli in the world of dogs and some owners may not be aware of them until they create problems. Aversives may affect all of the dog's senses including taste, touch, vision and hearing. A slippery floor may be considered unpleasant for many dogs because of the unusual feeling caused by unreliable footing. The use of taste deterrents such as bitter apple spray are perceived as unpleasant for many dogs, thus its effectiveness. Many dogs also dislike loud noises, such as those emitted by a vacuum cleaner or the strong rumbles of an approaching thunderstorm.

Following are some aversives commonly used in dog training/dog behavior problems. Note how aversives can range from minor to mild to intense, yet, their level of intensity/effectiveness is ultimately determined by how the dog reacts to them. Note below why it is not worth trying to experiment with these just for the sake of finding out!

Aversive tools:

  • Taste deterrents
  • Scat mats
  • Choke, chain, prong or electronic/ultrasonic/citronella collars
  • Any misuse of leash and collars (even buckle collars can be aversive if misused!)
  • Electric fences

Aversive Actions:

  • Clapping hands, shaking can filled with coins, ultrasonic collars, spraying with water, scolding dog
  • Alpha rolls, ear pinches, collar grabs etc.
  • Pushing dogs to sit, kneeing dogs to the chest to stop them from jumping and any other physical approach meant to either deter and stop the dog from performing an unwanted action (positive punishment) or to encourage the dog to perform a wanted action by withdrawing the aversive stimulus the moment the dog complies (negative reinforcement)
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Pros of Using Aversives

There are not many advantages to using aversives when it comes to training dogs and many come with "side effects." This is why more and more owners and trainers are embracing reward-based training methods where wanted behaviors are rewarded and unwanted behaviors are ignored. According to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, "scientific studies have found that it is possible to effectively train animals using positive reinforcement (the addition of something good) and negative punishment (the removal of something good)."

Aversives Make People Feel Better (in a negative way)
If the person is mad at the dog for soiling the carpet, he may feel better if he punishes the dog. Sadly, many people still find it rewarding to stick their pup's nose in their poop when they soiled hours ago or knee a dog in the chest when it jumps. Obviously, this is not in the dog's best interest. Aversives can easily be misused and abused, especially when the dog owner is mad and frustrated.

Aversives can be Effective
Another pro is that aversives can be effective at times without any major consequences. For instance, bitter apple spray is often very effective in keeping a dog from chewing a piece of furniture regardless if the owner is there or not. A person telling a dog "no" in a firm tone of voice can be effective. A skunk spraying a dog in the face may be aversive enough to encourage the dog stay away from such animal next time. Aversives can be effective and can sometimes even save a dog's life (bitter apple spray can ultimately prevent a dog from chewing and swallowing something that could potentially lead to a dog intestinal obstruction, or an electric fence may prevent a dog going into traffic). However, this does not mean the use of aversives is recommended, there are often many better ways to train!

Cons of Using Aversives

There are many disadvantages when using aversives which makes their use counter-productive in the long run. In order to work well, an aversive must be delivered in a timely manner and must be of the correct level of intensity to prevent a dog from ignoring it. At the same time, it must be moderate enough not to be too intense for sensitive dogs. When it comes to using aversives, one is diving into murky waters, which is why the use of aversion-based training is so frowned upon by reward-based trainers.

Aversives are Subjective
What may be perceived to be aversive by one dog may be perceived as neutral to another. For instance, to a sensitive dog, a firm tone of voice may be aversive enough to stop an unwanted behavior, but to a more stubborn dog or one that has never been trained before, the tone of voice may have no effect. For this reason, one should pay attention to how a particular dog reacts to the mildest form of aversion before even electing to use aversives. Better off, refrain experimenting altogether.

Aversives May be Short-Lived
Aversives may appear to be effective initially, but often dogs start habituating to them if used a lot. This may cause the owner to want to use stronger and stronger aversives to obtain results, which may lead to a spiral often bordering on abuse. For instance, a dog on a choke chain may appear to be responding well to the choke chain in the first few days, but several days later, many dogs get used to the tightening sensation and may pull and pull until they are gasping for air. At this point, the desperate owner may feel compelled to use a shock collar on low settings, and then he may even feel compelled to gradually use the higher settings!

Aversives May Create Negative Associations
One of the biggest problems with the use of aversives is that they can create negative associations. For instance, an electronic containment fence which causes the dog to be shocked for attempting to trespass a boundary may cause the dog to associate the shock with a the stimuli he is looking at, this is called "superstitious behavior." If the dog is attempting to trespass because of a person on a bike, he may start associating the shock with the bike, which may pave the path to significant problems over time.

If the aversive experience is delivered by the owner, the dog may associate the owner with punishment. For instance, if the owner sprays the dog with a squirt bottle every time he digs, the dog may associate the owner with punishment. This may put a dent in the dog and owner relationship, and the dog may also associate the owner with punishment, and engage in the unwanted behavior the moment the owner is away!

Aversives May be Scary
When aversives are used, they may cause fear, anxiety or defensive aggression. This ultimately impairs learning because a fearful dog's cognitive functions tend to stall when under such emotional state. For instance, an alpha roll may teach nothing other than to fear the owner and a dog may react defensively one day!

Aversives May be Inhumane
There is a very thin line between a mild aversive and a stronger one, and it is easy to cross the boundary. Many consider the use of choke collars, electronic collars and prong collars inhumane because there is discomfort and pain involved. Better training methods are available nowadays, and thankfully, more trainers and dog owners are embracing kinder reward-based training methods compared to the old "yank and crank" training methods of decades ago.

My Experience with Aversives

When I first got my dog, I had a "pulling on the leash" problem. This was back when I knew little about training dogs and did not yet think about making it a career. I consulted with a trainer and the first thing he recommended was to slap on a prong collar. I was amazed at the results, this was like power-steering and my dog never walked so nicely on the leash! But, with time, I noticed how his body language was sort of subdued and he had lost a bit of that special "spark" in his eyes. I put the collar away and tried with an easy-walk harness and followed the tips included in the kit. It was amazing! No more need to give leash pops and the use of treats brought back my dog's enthusiasm for going on walks. I ditched the trainer and trained my dogs on my own using only positive methods. I then found a nice group of positive trainers in Italy who introduced me to rewarding world of reward-based methods.

After embracing reward-based training methods, I got hooked! I even worked on getting titles on my dogs because they showed so much enthusiasm for training! Training is now fun and my dogs look forward to it. Even my cats and chicken fell in love with clicker-training! Every time I use the clicker, I must close myself in a room because the dogs and cats are waiting in line eager to start training! Below is my male practicing with me in Rally-o. Note how he does not have to be leashed since he is so eager to do it because it is rewarding on its own!

© Alexadry all rights reserved

For further reading

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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