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Dog Training: Cookies vs. Corrections

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Whether you’ve just acquired a new dog, have been a longtime dog parent, or are growing your family with a furry addition, you might find yourself seeking practical dog training solutions to everyday challenges. And if you ask around, you’ll receive many opinions. Sadly, dog training is a completely unregulated industry. That means when making decisions about pet training and management, we have to rely on our own critical thinking skills and instincts.

As you consider your many training options, there’s one more voice to add to the mix – your inquisitive canine’s. Think about it, if given the opportunity to choose, would your dog choose a more humane, positive reinforcement approach, a punitive, correction-based option, or some hybrid of both?  Before you answer, here’s a little more information about each method:

A Humane, Force-Free and Fear-Free approach, as you might guess, involves training without the use of force, fear, pain or intimidation. A humane approach can involve using anything the dog wants. For instance, positive reinforcement is the addition of something immediately following a behavior which increases the future strength of that behavior; something is added with the intention of increasing behaviors we want. In other words, positive reinforcement based training focuses on using rewards to reinforce desired behavior. 

Advantages of Force-Free Training:

  • Rooted in the scientific methods of animal learning and proven to be effective, without causing harm.
  • Appropriate for all breeds, all ages (in fact, all species). 
  • Strengthens the human-canine bond. 
  • Aims to help build and maintain loving, joyful and mutually respectful relationships between pets and their families.
  • When learning is fun – for teacher and student – training isn’t a chore; it’s enriching!
  • Starting out with a humane approach from the beginning, helps save resources – especially the emotional ones. 
  • Can prevent having to undo damage done by aversive methods.
  • Easy to employ once you and your dog know how to get the most out of reward-based training.
  • Focuses on prevention. Teaches pet parents to be “problem solvers” as well as “problem preventers,” avoiding some frustrating situations for people and their pets.  
  • Sets your dog up for success. 
  • Teaches dogs what you want them to do in the future. (As opposed to waiting for them to ‘mess up’ and then punishing or correcting them.)
  • Dogs learn to trust the process (and those teaching them), build confidence in themselves, gain independence and become comfortable making mutually beneficial choices all on their own.
  • Offers a nurturing way for dog guardians to limit inappropriate behaviors — without dogs wearing uncomfortable devices.
  • Never asks pet parents to harm, injure or annoy their dogs.
  • Provides for the overall physical and mental well-being of pets. 

Disadvantages of Force-Free Training:

  • Requires pet guardians to take time to teach dogs what they want. Dogs understand safe and dangerous, not right and wrong. (It is unfair to assume that dogs can understand this concept; it holds them to impossible standards.)
  • Relies on dog parents to manage their dogs’ environments and plan ahead. 
  • You can’t wait to teach a behavior at the time you need that behavior. (You wouldn’t teach a fire drill during a fire, right?) Be prepared by having dress rehearsals and practice, practice, practice.
  • Focuses on understanding canine behavior and communication – actually an advantage if you love this stuff as much as we do; a disadvantage if that’s not your jam.
  • Encourages training with your dog – you gotta show up for your dog at some point in some way if you choose this path.

Punishment-Based or Correction-BasedTraining, as the name implies, aims to “fix” unwanted behaviors utilizing verbal and physical corrections, including the use of aversive training collars such as choke, prong and shock collars. The use of these tools involves a more punitive approach to dog training and management, which also has pros and cons.

Advantages of Correction-Based Training:

  • Easy for pet parents to find ‘experts’ who guarantee quick results. 
  • Easy for pet parents to find corrective collars that are sold to provide ‘feedback’ to dogs about their behavior.
  • Often promises a quick fix to any problem.
  • Sometimes these tools change unwanted behaviors.

Disadvantages of Correction-Based Training:

  • By definition, an aversive stimulus can only change behavior by causing fear, pain or stress (harm). 
  • There is no “right” way to harm your dog.
  • Over time, dogs can become conditioned to the aversive stimulus and pet guardians will have to increase the intensity of the punishment in order to attempt to change behavior. Ask yourself, “How far are you willing to go?”
  • Risk of potential harmful effects – physical and emotional.
  • Increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors* risking:
    • injury to your dog 
    • injury to yourself
    • injury to other animals 
    • injury to other people 
  • Decreased learning due to stress/distress.
  • Places emphasis on the behaviors you don’t want.
  • Doesn’t teach the dog any skills (what you do want). 
  • Aversive methods can backfire, resulting in retaliation and an unraveled bond. 
  • Can give guardians a false sense of security. For instance, electronic fencing systems that utilize training collars may fail to keep pets on the property and/or fail to keep predators off the property, resulting in tragic consequences.
  • Results in learned helplessness. Dogs fearing harsh corrections might be so afraid to do anything that they decide to do nothing at all, appearing “lazy” and “aloof” (when they are actually traumatized and shut down).

*“Aversive training methods can be dangerous to people as well as animals and pose a threat to animal welfare by inhibiting learning, increasing behaviors related to fear and distress, and causing direct injury,” according to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists’ Position Statement  on Humane, Effective and Evidence Based Training. 

‘Balanced’ dog trainers utilize both positive reinforcement and aversive tools, rewarding some behaviors and using physical punishment and training collars to “correct” others. 

Advantages of ‘Balanced’ Training:

  • Can appeal to devoted pet guardians who aren’t sure which methods are best.

Disadvantages of ‘Balanced’ Training:

  • Can lead to dogs becoming afraid of training sessions.
  • Has all the same disadvantages of correction-based training (due the use of training collars).
  • Lacks the advantages of force-free training (because it isn’t force-free).
  • It’s downright confusing for pet dogs! A human analogy would be your significant other coming home with flowers to give you, then slapping you across the face if you did something they didn’t like. How would that affect your relationship? Your bond? Your trust?

At the beginning of this post we asked you to consider, “If your inquisitive canine could choose a training method, would it be cookies (rewards) or corrections or both?” But the sad truth is that dogs don’t get to choose. And, as previously mentioned, there is no oversight in the dog training industry. So, it’s up to you. Our dogs can’t talk. They trust us to speak up for them and make the most scientifically and ethically informed decisions we can when it comes to their care. We encourage you to use your critical thinking skills – with a side order of compassion – when choosing a training approach and remember to base your final decision on the best interest of your canine companion.

Want to become part of the pawsitive cultural shift in dog training? Let’s work together to make the world a friendlier place for inquisitive canines. 

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