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.
PUNISHMENT & FLOODING
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.