Many dog owners attempt behavior modification techniques before consulting with a veterinarian.These techniques are suggested by a variety of sources, and many of them entail confrontational,“positive punishment” (ie, punishment involving an aversive stimulus). In this study, owners of dogs with behavioral referral appointments were given a survey along with their usual preappointment questionnaire.

The survey listed 30 interventions owners may have previously attempted, and owners were asked whether they had attempted the technique; the source that recommended the technique; and whether the method used had a positive, negative, or no effect on the dog’s behavior. Techniques were later classified as aversive: direct confrontation, aversive: indirect confrontation, reward training, or neutral. On evaluating the 140 completed surveys, the authors found that confrontational or aversive behavioral interventions elicited the highest frequency of aggression in dogs; some techniques elicited aggressive responses from at least one quarter of the dogs. In addition, dogs aggressive to familiar people were more likely to respond aggressively to the confrontational techniques “alpha roll” and yelling “no.” Conversely, reward-based training elicited aggression in few of the dogs, regardless of presenting problem. Owners most frequently cited“self” or “trainers” as the source of training recommendation. The authors concluded that confrontational or aversive behavioral interventions were associated with aggressive responses in many cases and owners of dogs aggressive to family members were at particular risk for injury.The authors recommend that primary veterinarians advise owners of risks associated with aversive training methods and provide guidance for safe management of behavior problems.

COMMENTARY: This is a particularly timely and pertinent study because it addresses the potential unintended consequences of aversive training techniques,which are being used and promoted by some trainers and media figures such as Cesar Millan (“The DogWhisperer”).This study documents that the use of interactive punishment/aversive techniques is much more likely to elicit an aggressive response than the use of positive training techniques. It also demonstrates that positive techniques are more successful at achieving the desired outcome. In essence, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and the honey is a lot less caustic. When“one more bite” is often the deciding factor used in the decision to euthanize a dog, it is imperative for both human and animal welfare that we recommend interventions that minimize the risk for escalating aggression.The veterinary staff should be promoting positive training techniques for safety and efficacy.—Jacqueline Neilson, DVM, Diplomate ACVB

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 ANIMBEHAV SCI 117:47-54, 2009.