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.
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 NOT USE PUNISHMENT & FLOODING?
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).
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 DOMINANCE THEORY
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.
SHOULDN’T OWNERS HAVE CONTROL?
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.
THE CHOICE IS SIMPLE
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.
References and Suggested Reading
1. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Herron ME, Shofer FS, Reisner IR. Appl Anim Behav Sci 117:47-54, 2009.
2. Understanding dog aggression.http://www.cesarsway.com/tips/problembehaviors/understanding-aggression (accessed August 16, 2011).
3. Training dogs with the help of the shock collar: Short and long term behavioural effects. Schilder MBH, van der Borg JAM. Appl Anim Behav Sci 85:319-334, 2004.
4. Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars on dogs in everyday life situations. Schalke E, Stichnoth J, Ott S, Jones-Baade R. Appl Anim Behav Sci 105:369-380, 2007.
5. Association of the consideration of euthanasia or rehoming with behavioral outcome among dogs presenting to a behavior referral service for aggression [abstract]. Siracusa C, Seward A, Reisner IR. Presented at American College of Veterinary Behaviorists/American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Scientific Symposium, St. Louis, MO, July 15, 2011.
6. The Dog Whisperer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_Whisperer (accessed August 17, 2011).
7. Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Hiby EF, Rooney NJ, Bradshaw JWS. Anim Welfare 13:63-69, 2004.
8. A pack of lies. Derr M. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/31/opinion/31derr.html (accessed August 17, 2011).
9. Canine aggression to owners: A new look at an old problem. Luescher UA, Reisner IR. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 38:1107-1130, 2008.
10. Alpha status, dominance and division of labor in wolf packs. Mech LD. Can J Zool 77:1196-1203, 1999.
11. Analysis of popular dog training techniques. Neilson JC. Proceedings of the Western Veterinary Conference, 2008. http://www.vin.com/Members/
Proceedings/Proceedings.plx?CID=wvc2008&PID=pr19445&O=VIN (accessed August 17, 2011).
12. A comparison of cases referred to behaviorists in three different countries. Denenberg S, Landsberg GM, Horwitz DR, Seskel K. In Mills DS (ed): Current Issues and Research in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine. Papers Presented at the Fifth International Veterinary Behavior Meeting–West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2005, pp 56-62.
13. A community approach to dog bite prevention. American Veterinary Medical Association Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions. JAVMA
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