Traditional dog training techniques have mainly used negative reinforcement (punishment) as a means of instilling the desired behavior, although positive reinforcement (rewards) is becoming more popular. The use of punishment is thought to cause suffering and/or have negative welfare implications, possibly leading to pet relinquishment or abandonment. Although previous studies of formal dog training have yielded conflicting results, the authors hypothesized that specific training methods would be associated with performance and/or problematic behaviors. This study surveyed 364 dog owners in the United Kingdom about specific informal training methods in relation to obedience and problematic behaviors. A well-balanced mix of respondents answered closed- and open-ended questions about demographics and training methods; rated outcomes for 7 common tasks (e.g., toilet training, chewing, stealing); and answered questions regarding 16 problematic behaviors (e.g., barking, aggression, fear, excitement, inappropriate mounting, eating non-foodstuffs). Replies were grouped and analyzed statistically with owner methods falling into 4 training categories: punishment-based, reward-based, mixed punishment and reward, and miscellaneous (e.g., body manipulation, encouragement, offering alternatives).

Some obedience tasks showed high correlation to specific training methods, but punishment was never the most effective method. The study found that obedience was highest with reward-based training; the number of problematic behaviors was highest with punishment-based training; overexcitement was lowest with reward-based training; separation anxiety was highest in dogs trained using punishment or a combination of reward and punishment; eating non-foodstuffs was lowest in dogs trained using miscellaneous methods. The data in this study suggest that reward-based training methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and lower levels of problematic behaviors, thereby better promoting pet welfare.

COMMENTARY: When owners were surveyed on training methods for 7 tasks, 66% used vocal punishment, 12% physical punishment, 60% praise (special reward), 51% food reward, and 11% play. The number of behavior problems correlated with the number of tasks for which the training included punishment.

Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Hiby EF, Rooney NJ, Bradshaw JWS. ANIM WELFARE 13:63-69, 2004.