I write quite a lot about ‘positive-only’ training methods. Clicker training for example. These are methods which avoid the use of aversives completely. And people sometimes ask me if I ever ‘correct’ my own dogs.
The answer is yes. I do. Though not as much as I used to. And not whilst I am clicker training. I’ll explain a bit more below.
So why do people use aversives in dog training? Is it because they are incompetent, or cruel, or both? Perhaps we should first define an aversive…
What is an aversive
An aversive is something the dog does not like. An aversive could be a loud noise. A puff of air. A hefty smack. A verbal rebuke. And so on. An aversive is not necessarily painful.
An aversive must be unpleasant enough to deter the dog from its undesirable behaviour, or it is not really an aversive for that dog. The trainer’s choice of aversive will vary (or should do) depending on the temperament of the dog. And my personal belief is that aversives should be largely avoided with small puppies.
If you watch dog training shows on the television, there are a number that use aversives on the ‘bad dogs’ that have been selected for a dramatic ‘cure’. Lead jerks, rattle bottles, spray collars and even electric collars have all featured on well known TV shows in recent months. You may also be aware that there is a fair amount of opposition to the use of such methods.
Why do trainers use aversives
Many trainers use aversives because that is how they learnt to train dogs. The methods that they use are successful, and they simply have not learned to use positive-only techniques. Others are sceptical about the effectiveness of positive-only methods, or find them difficult to master.
Why do some trainers object to aversives
At one time, not so many years ago, dogs were not particularly well treated. Training methods were often harsh and aggressive. For the most part we have thankfully moved on since then. The pendulum has now rather swung the other way and there are a fair number of trainers that train entirely without the use of aversives. Some are vociferous in their opposition to the use of aversives in animal training, believing that it is immoral and unacceptable to ‘upset’ animals during training.
Disadvantages of using aversives
One problem with aversives is that they can potentially be taken too far. In theory, it is a fairly fine line between upsetting a dog just sufficiently to prevent him repeating a behaviour, and upsetting him so much that he becomes fearful of offering any new behaviours at all.
In practice, an experienced trainer can keep on the right side of this line without too much difficulty, and the vast majority of dogs recover from any ill-effects within seconds of being corrected.
Another problem with the use of aversives is that they disrupt the calm atmosphere which is so beneficial to dog training. No matter how relaxed and calm you may be when your dog misbehaves, if you have to physically correct him, you are likely to feel less calm afterwards, and your dog is likely to be more excitable as a result.
In discussions on aversives you will often find them all ‘lumped together’ by those that avoid them in training. I think many people find this confusing because there is such a vast difference in their eyes between a gruff verbal rebuke, and a thrashing.
I therefore use the term ‘corrections’ to distinguish aversives that most people would consider moderate and reasonable forms of punishment, including verbal rebukes, physically re-positioning a dog, etc.
Most trainers that use some aversives in this way, myself included do not believe that their use is harmful to the dog in any way.
Advantages in using aversives
Aversives provide the dog with information. They let him know when he has made a mistake. There are some aspects of advanced dog training where the provision of this extra information through the use of aversives can significantly shorten the training process. This is normally in situations where it is very difficult to prevent the dog from rewarding himself for bad behaviour.
Teaching hunting dogs to drop into a sit position the moment they see a live animal ‘flushed’ from cover is one example. This is a crucial behaviour in a working gundog, essential for control and safety.
Even at a more basic level, using aversives thoughtfully and appropriately, can speed up the training process.
You will sometimes hear those that completely oppose the use of aversives state that aversives do not work. This is unhelpful and misleading, and because it is not true, it tends to put off those traditional trainers that might otherwise be interested in learning more about positive-only training.
Training without aversives
Even if a dog trainer continues to use aversives in the future, learning positive-only techniques is highly likely to reduce their frequency and severity and to improve their skill and timing permanently
Learning how to train without the use of aversives is one of the most enjoyable and mind expanding activities a dog trainer can engage in. If you have never tried it, I highly recommend that you have a go. You could start by clicker training a simple skill such as teaching a dog to stand on a coloured square or to touch a target. This just gives you a feel for you the process works, and won’t interfere with any of your dog’s established behaviours.
If you decide to give it a go, I would love to hear how you get on!