Content continues after advertisement

Dog Whisperer or Old Yeller?

Ilana R. Reisner, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVB, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


September 2011
Peer Reviewed

Sign in to Print/View PDF

Dog Whisperer or Old Yeller?

The term whisperer conjures an image of connection with the object of the whisperer’s attention and, most of all, of benevolence, so it is disappointing that the term today has become associated with the use of physical and psychological force in dog training.

As veterinarians, we are faced with a dilemma when it comes to changing the behavior of our patients. Owners might seek advice directly from us but may be more likely to obtain information from other sources.1 The variety of training techniques and recommendations available on the Internet, on television, in books, and by word of mouth are not always based in science.2 In contrast, appropriate training methods not only consider issues of welfare and ethical handling but also make use of the science of learning.

It is difficult to know what training methods have been used by pet owners unless we specifically ask them. Herron and coworkers utilized a survey to log both aversive and nonaversive training methods used in dogs.1 Most of the interventions had been recommended by a local trainer, by “self,” or from a television program, again indicating that pet owners often seek information about training from nonveterinary sources. In this study, dogs that had been presented for aggression to familiar people (a category of misbehaving dogs that might be subjected to “corrections” with some frequency) were significantly more likely to respond aggressively to confrontational methods such as the “alpha roll” or “dominance down.” Shock collars, which are widely available and commonly used, have been linked to stress and pain and have long-term consequences, even in situations that do not involve shock.3,4

Because inappropriate training methods may increase the risk for biting, anxiety, and other behavior problems, thereby increasing the potential for relinquishment or euthanasia of pets,5 there are compelling reasons to address the issue of training methods with veterinary clients.

At least one widely available resource emphasizes changing dog behavior through a combination of punishment and flooding.6 While either might be useful in specific, carefully applied settings, punishment and flooding are not recommended for pet owners as a first intervention for behavior problems.1

In learning terms, punishment is any stimulus change that reduces the probability of occurrence of the behavior preceding it. For purposes of this column, punishment refers to positive punishment, that is, when an aversive stimulus is applied to the animal, in contrast to negative punishment, which refers to the removal of a desirable stimulus.

From a popular viewpoint (see A Clockwork Orange), flooding is a conditioning technique that forces the exposure of individuals to a source of fear or arousal without allowing escape from the stimulus. While flooding can be a useful tool in select circumstances and when applied by trained professionals, it is promulgated to pet owners as the answer to everyday fears when a more graduated program of desensitization and counterconditioning might suffice—and would almost certainly be more humane.

A Clockwork Orange

If you have seen the movie or read the book, A Clockwork Orange, you are familiar with its “popular” interpretation of flooding—forced exposure to stimuli that cause a response of fear or arousal. This fictional Ludovico technique involved treating the patient with an emetic and then exposing the patient to previously pleasurable stimuli in a manner that created aversion to those stimuli. The effectiveness of this approach is questionable.


Why is it inadvisable for clients to use punishment or flooding? First, punishment must be sufficiently aversive to be effective. Pain, for example, is universally aversive, while saying “No” is almost never so. Second, it must be applied every time the behavior arises and, finally, it must occur during or immediately after the behavior occurs.

The two latter conditions are difficult for dog owners to apply consistently, but the first condition involves the highest risk for both the dog and the trainer. Furthermore, punishment-based training has been associated with an increased incidence of problem behaviors.7

The other technique in question, flooding, may place the dog (and owner) in a situation of high risk because the stimulus being forced on the dog is often frightening. Although flooding may be used effectively in some situations, it requires the elicitation of fear (with the objective of extinguishing it).


Clinician's Brief

Why Approach Clients About Their Pet’s Behavior?

  • As veterinarians, we have a professional responsibility to promote standards of humane care, including behavior modification and training.
  • Confrontational training is associated with increased anxiety, aggression, and deterioration of the family–pet relationship.7 When intervention fails or results in worsening of the problem, euthanasia or relinquishment may be the next course of action.5
  • The dog’s handler or other family members, including children, may be at risk for injury if aversive training methods are continued.
  • Inappropriate or incomplete advice about behavior modification may ultimately lead to dog-bite liability for owners or even the person providing advice to them.13

The concept of canine dominance is given some credence by the popular media and, unfortunately, frustrated (but well-meaning) dog owners are easily convinced of its truth.8,9 It is now clear, however, that much of “dominance theory” is based on incorrect conclusions drawn from the behavior of captive wolves living in unnatural conditions and groups.10

Similarly, aversive training methods are often rooted in the assumption that, given free reign, dogs will naturally try to dominate their human owners unless they assert their own dominance to control each dog’s behavior.2,11 In fact, many common behavior problems in dogs—aggression, fearfulness, destructiveness, inappropriate elimination, excessive vocalization, and inappropriate attention-seeking—are associated not with dominance but with anxiety.12 Observing and videotaping these dogs or asking owners some simple questions will frequently reveal conflict signals (eg, yawning, lip-licking) and anxious or ambivalent posturing. Aggressive dogs or those whose behavior might appear confident often show fear during thunderstorms, confinement, or in other contexts, supporting the diagnosis of an underlying generalized anxiety.

One of the more important concepts veterinarians can teach clients is that short-term inhibition of behavior does not indicate that the underlying motivation has changed. Owners who simply understand that undesirable behavior may stem from a state of “worry” are less likely to respond with punishment or rough handling. Moreover, responding harshly to a dog’s inappropriate behavior can increase its fear and reactivity and associate that fear with the owner, further increasing the dog’s reactivity in the future.

Clinician's Brief

It is possible, perhaps easier, to have a well-trained and well-behaved companion dog without asserting “dominance.” People who live with dogs need and want to have some control over their behavior and activity—some degree of control is what makes our shared lives work. There is a difference, however, between controlling an animal’s behavior through training (with some accommodation for its needs) and controlling it through confrontational handling. Controlling behavior through training is more effective because the interactions between owner and dog do not elicit fear. Furthermore, owners themselves are likely to find it easier and more gratifying to use humane training methods; they often express relief when reassured that harsh training is not recommended.

As animal professionals, we have an obligation to “first do no harm.” We have an opportunity to correct the misinformation about training methods and to support the client’s bond with the dog. Taking the time to discuss training methods can enrich the veterinarian–client–pet relationship of trust and safety, leading to a greater chance of training success and keeping the dog for life.

Readers, What do you think? We welcome your feedback. Email [email protected] with your comments and opinions.


For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

All Clinician's Brief content is reviewed for accuracy at the time of publication. Previously published content may not reflect recent developments in research and practice.

Material from Clinician's Brief may not be reproduced, distributed, or used in whole or in part without prior permission of Educational Concepts, LLC. For questions or inquiries please contact us.


Clinician's Brief:
The Podcast
Listen as host Alyssa Watson, DVM, talks with the authors of your favorite Clinician’s Brief articles. Dig deeper and explore the conversations behind the content here.
Clinician's Brief provides relevant diagnostic and treatment information for small animal practitioners. It has been ranked the #1 most essential publication by small animal veterinarians for 9 years.*

*2007-2017 PERQ and Essential Media Studies

© Educational Concepts, L.L.C. dba Brief Media ™ All Rights Reserved. Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy | Acceptable Use Policy