Thursday, April 23, 2015

Should dog training be 100% positive?

This dog is clearly enjoying being trained.

There's been an interesting discussion recently on a mailing list for animal behavior consultants and hangers-on like myself. (The group is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, IAABC.) These highly-skilled behavior consultants are knowledgeable in how to deal with behavior problems in dogs and other species, rather than focusing on basic obedience or competition skills like agility.

As you may already know, the modern dog training world can be described as split into two factions: those who advocate methods using dominance theory and/or force, such as alpha rolls or leash popping, and those who advocate methods using learning theory and specifically operant conditioning, such as clicker training.The behavior consultants on this list all fall solidly into the latter category, and all agree that the basis of training should not be founded on punishment-based techniques. They are hashing out the question: Is it ever appropriate to use aversives in training a dog?

Because the two factions split mainly on the use of punishment, it can be easy to fall into black-and-white thinking and assume that any aversive is unacceptable, and equate all aversives with pain and fear. But does “aversive” necessarily mean “painful”?

An aversive is something unpleasant. Give an animal something pleasant (a treat) and it will be more likely to repeat whatever behavior it most recently offered (sitting down). Give an animal something unpleasant (a tug on a prong collar) and it will be less likely to repeat whatever behavior it most recently offered (lunging at a passing dog). Both techniques work in getting the desired behavior. Techniques using an aversive stimulus may have side effects, however — in this example, a dog who lunges at passing dogs out of fear may learn to associate pain from the prong collar with other dogs. While he may stop lunging, he is likely to develop other unwanted behaviors, like biting when the other dog approaches close enough.

Pain and fear are absolutely aversives, and I think everyone in this discussion is agreed that pain and fear should be avoided — that some aversives are just too aversive to use. Many trainers in the discussion declare that they would never use a shock collar; some say they might, but only under extreme circumstances, after many other approaches have been tried and failed. Where do you draw the line at “too aversive,” though? That’s a very interesting question, and different trainers have different answers. But can you be a trainer who works in the positive training camp, and still sometimes uses aversives? For sure.

And here’s the thing: it’s the dog who determines what’s aversive. So some tools that we think of as very mild, like a head halter, can end up being quite aversive for some dogs. A head halter — that’s nothing like a prong collar or a shock collar or a choke chain, and it doesn’t hurt the dog at all. But it is (according to many dogs, including one of mine) incredibly annoying to have on your nose. Is it aversive? Yes. Is it inhumane? That’s an awfully strong word for such an innocuous device. But if you use a head halter on your dog, you are not engaging in 100% positive training. You are using a (mild) aversive. Not one that probably involves pain or fear, but an aversive all the same.

And it turns out it’s pretty difficult to train successfully using no aversives at all! Even telling a dog “that wasn’t the right choice” by using a marker like “oops!” during your training can be a mild aversive. Is it okay to train with mild aversives? Everyone has to answer that question for themself, but from my perspective, of course it is. Life has its ups and downs and everyone is going to encounter mild obstacles from time to time, even a pampered dog. The question is how big an aversive you want to throw at your dog, where exactly you draw the line between acceptable and not. That line will be drawn differently for every owner and every trainer.

So when you’re choosing a new trainer for your dog, remember that some will advertise that they use 100% positive methods, but they may not have quite thought through the implications of all of their methods. Others may state that they’re not 100% positive, but that they still use mostly positive methods — and that’s okay. As your dog’s owner and advocate, it’s up to you to talk to your potential new trainer about their methods, discover what kinds of aversives they do use, and decide what’s acceptable for your dog. Just work through the language your trainer uses to make sure that the kinds of aversives they use are at a level that’s acceptable to you, and of course make sure that they use scientifically-based learning theory (look for words like “positive reinforcement” and avoid words like “alpha” and “dominant”). As a dog loving community, we can agree that the use of aversives should be minimized, while still accepting that from time to time it’s okay to use mild ones.


  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful and balanced view of the use of aversive methods in training. I believe training should always be as far as possible to the positive reinforcement side of the scale, but sometimes corrections are necessary. For me that means something as simple as snapping my fingers when Haley sniffs the trash can, but nevertheless, it's still technically an aversive training technique.

  2. Right! It's called balance. There is no ONE way or the OTHER. It's a balance that keeps life moving forward. :)