I have a confession to make: I used a prong collar on my dog for years before becoming a professional trainer. I justified it to myself with the usual reasons: that it didn’t truly hurt her, that it was necessary because she pulled so much, and crucially, because she seemed so excited when the prong collar came out of her doggie drawer. I’m here to tell you about aversive tools and how they really work, so that you can make an educated choice for yourself and your dog without relying on old tropes and misunderstandings of canine behavior.
What is an aversive tool?:
In dog training, an aversive stimulus is something that a dog wishes to avoid, usually due to discomfort or pain. This can be anything from the boom of thunder to their paw being stepped on. Aversive stimuli are determined by the animal experiencing the stimulus, meaning that some stimuli may be aversive to some dogs and not to others. It is impossible to completely remove aversive stimuli from your pup’s life, but we do have the power to add in more aversive stimuli if we choose to, or to refrain from doing so.
Aversive tools are training tools which deliver an aversive stimulus, usually pain. These include shock collars (also called e collars), choke collars, citronella spray collars, and prong collars, although a dog can find any tool or piece of gear aversive. The difference between a dog who finds a harness aversive and a dog who finds a shock collar aversive is that the function of a harness is not to inflict pain or discomfort, and that a well fitting and comfortable harness can in most scenarios be conditioned to be non-aversive to the animal. Aversive stimuli can also be delivered without use of any of these tools, such as by shouting at, hitting or forcibly physically manipulating a dog into a specific position (practices such as alpha rolls and dominance downs).
Operant conditioning and how aversive tools work:
The lie that aversive tools do not cause pain can be easily debunked by learning the basics of operant conditioning, which is a process in which an animal learns about the consequences of their behavior. There are four quadrants of operant conditioning: Positive Reinforcement (R+), Negative Reinforcement (R-), Positive Punishment (P+), and Negative Punishment (P-). This may be confusing at first (how can punishment be positive?) but the difference between the four quadrants are these: whether a stimulus is introduced or removed, whether the stimulus is desired by the dog, and whether the change in stimulus produces an increase or decrease in the behavior of the dog.
A dog sits when given the verbal cue “sit”, and receives a treat. The dog desires the treat, so they will sit on cue more frequently. This is R+ (positive reinforcement).
A dog is shocked continuously whenever they are not in the heel position. This leads them to perform the heel behavior with more frequency. This is R- (negative reinforcement).
A dog is given a leash pop on their prong collar when they pull. This causes discomfort and causes them to pull less frequently. This is P+ (positive punishment).
A dog is playing with their human. They nip at their human’s hands, and the human discontinues play as a result. The dog desires playtime, so the removal of playtime leads to the nipping behavior occurring less frequently. This is P- (negative punishment).
A common refrain from trainers who use e collars and prong collars is that they are not actually very uncomfortable, producing only a “static shock” or a “slight pinch”. However, in order for a punisher to be effective, the animal needs to desire to avoid it more than they desire to perform the original behavior. Therefore, anyone effectively utilizing positive punishment effectively is causing significant pain or discomfort to the animal they are punishing.
Force free training utilizes food, play, and other rewarding items and activities in training and does not utilize methods that cause pain or fear (such as aversive tools). It also focuses on giving animals agency whenever possible and not forcing them to perform behaviors that they do not wish to perform. Force free trainers stick within the R+ and P- quadrants whenever possible
Coercive training utilizes aversive tools and other methods of creating aversive stimuli, and does not give the animal agency to decide what behaviors they want to perform or avoid engaging with certain stimuli. It may or may not utilize food and other rewarding items and activities. Coercive trainers utilize all quadrants of operant conditioning but tend to rely heavily on P+ and R-.
In my experience there are 3 main reasons people use aversives in dog training:
I’ve always used aversive tools for my dogs, and they seem fine!
Many dog owners are recommended aversive tools by trusted friends, neighbors, or trainers, without being told how they work! As I laid out above, aversive tools work by inflicting pain or discomfort, otherwise they would not work. Dogs have a similar mental capacity to that of a two year old child, and are not susceptible to human concepts like shame and morality. They learn through the consequences of their actions, and their behavior changes based on whether those consequences are desired or undesired. Therefore, your dog who has perfect recall from on a shock collar does not choose to come back to you because you are telling him what is and is not “right”, he is doing so in order to avoid punishment.
Many dog owners do not realize their dogs are uncomfortable with the tools being used on them. I would attribute this to two factors: most dog owners do not have a good understanding of canine body language, and dogs often associate the tool being put on as a sign that they will be allowed to engage in a rewarding activity (such as an off leash walk). For many dog owners, the aversive tools they use become necessary items for managing walks or playtime, so the dog may begin to associate the tool being put on with the desired activity through classical conditioning. Dogs also do not necessarily know what is causing the discomfort or pain they are feeling- especially if they have never known another way.
But I tried positive reinforcement already
The job of a dog trainer is twofold: to train the dog, and to train the human. A good force free dog trainer will teach owners handling techniques and management techniques, but will also give them realistic expectations. A dog who is fear reactive to other dogs cannot be trained to not fear other dogs in one session- but it may be possible to suppress their reaction in that time. A dog who barks when left alone due to separation anxiety will not stop feeling anxious if they are punished until they stop barking. Positive reinforcement training acknowledges that real change takes time and effort, whereas many coercive trainers will promise that your dog will be fixed in a short period of time. This can make owners feel that the longer timeline projected by a force free trainer is hiding a lack of progress, rather than making progress at a sustainable rate.
Not all trainers are created equal. There is no licensing or certification requirement for becoming a dog trainer. In fact, many famous television trainers (think Cesar Milan) have no dog training credentials at all. When seeking out a positive reinforcement or force free trainer, it is important to look for someone who has appropriate training and experience to help your dog. Don’t be afraid to ask your trainer for credentials, references, training philosophy, and training experience. Also be wary of any trainer who refuses to explain their training plan for your dog to you- a good trainer will want to involve you in your dog’s training.
My dog needs a “strong leader”
The dog training world is full of outdated ideas of how dog social structures work and what kind of animals dogs truly are. Dogs are not, as you may have heard, pack animals. Wolves, lions, and other group hunters are what would be classified as pack animals, because of the way that they hunt. In a pack, every hunter has a specific job, and animals actively work together to catch their prey. Feral dogs, on the other hand, have been observed to scatter when it is time to hunt or scavenge, despite often living in groups.
My dog displays dominance:
Dominance is a context based behavior, and is totally normal! This does not mean that your dog is trying to be “the alpha” or views you as weak. That being said, what most owners think of as dominant behavior is usually an expression of resource guarding or another form of aggression. Resource guarding is displayed by a dog when they are worried about an item of value being taken away (food, toys, or even a favorite person), and aggression is most often displayed in order to create distance from a frightening stimulus. If your dog growls when you approach her while she’s eating, or lifts his lip if you approach his favorite sleeping spot, please contact a qualified force free trainer.
Dogs learn from each other through punishment:
This is true! However, socially adept dogs display warning signs before resorting to physical punishment. It is incredibly rude for a dog to bite another dog without any warning, and usually comes at a physical and social cost to the aggressor. Dogs also punish others to protect themselves and their resources, not to teach specific behaviors like a heel. Dogs are definitely capable of learning from positive punishment, but research has shown that they learn better from positive reinforcement.
Long term effects of aversive training
Many force free trainers are familiar with the fallout of positive punishment, since we frequently see dogs who have been brought to one or more coercive trainers in the past. This is for a couple of aforementioned reasons, that coercive trainers will be more likely to guarantee success in a short time and that there is no regulation in the dog training industry, allowing individuals who have no knowledge of canine behavior to label themselves trainers.
When an animal learns that its’ actions do not prevent or mitigate punishment, it enters a state of learned helplessness. This can happen even if an aversive is being applied with a very specific criteria, such as “the dog is given a leash correction for jumping on people”. If the timing of the punishment is not always completely accurate, the dog may not understand what behavior is leading to the punishment. They may stop performing the behavior, but not because they have learned that they should not perform it. Rather, they stop because they become emotionally shut down. A dog displaying learned helplessness will show signs of stress and appeasement signals, and may appear unengaged.
Similarly to learned helplessness, if a dog is punished in combination with specific stimuli they may attribute the punishment to a stimulus in the environment and begin to view that stimuli as a predictor of punishment. For example, a dog tends to bark at groups of children. Every time they bark at a group of children (or stare, growl, lunge, etc.) they are shocked. The dog will begin to associate seeing groups of children with being shocked. This association can cause the dog to behave increasingly aggressively towards this other stimulus in order to protect themselves from the pain of the shock.
Before escalating to a physical altercation, most dogs will show ritualized aggression or “distance increasing” signals. These are behaviors utilized by dogs to prevent violent confrontations by communicating discomfort with a situation, such as growling when another dog approaches their food bowl. Force free trainers view these signs as useful communication from dogs that can prevent bites and help structure training regiments. However, coercive trainers often view these signs as “bad behavior” on the part of the dog and punish the dog for displaying these behaviors. This punishment is often very effective and stops the dog from displaying warning signals, but is far less effective at actually stopping an escalation to violent behavior. The result is a dog who bites seemingly at random or without warning, a situation that is dangerous for the owner, trainer, other animals, and the dog.
So you want to cross over
Switching to positive reinforcement based training isn’t easy for everyone, but your dog will thank you and it won’t take long to notice changes in their comfort and confidence. Here are some important tips to keep in mind during your transition.
Look for qualifications:
Your trainer should be able to produce proof that they are qualified to work with your dog. Familiarize yourself with the most common training schools and certifications in your area, and any that pertain to specific behavioral needs your dog has. For example, a trainer with no certifications and a year of experience may be equipped to teach your dog to sit, roll over, and come when called, but is likely not able to effectively build a plan to treat your dog’s separation anxiety.
Many coercive trainers co opt the language used by positive reinforcement or force free trainers to make their training sound more appealing. They may use vague language like “relationship based training” or “clear communication”. Ask your trainer what happens when your dog does something right and what happens when they do something wrong. Ask them what tools they use in training, and how they work. Ask as many questions as you need to to be comfortable.
Trust your gut:
If something feels off, it’s probably a good idea to find a different trainer. Maybe the trainer uses some methods you aren’t sure you’re comfortable with or doesn’t keep you in the loop enough. These are perfectly valid reasons to have a chat with your trainer about best practices or look for a new trainer. In an unregulated industry, you need to be your dog’s best advocate.