cat fight

Confrontational Techniques Elicit Aggression

Remember the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray wakes up every morning to repeat the same day, over and over? That is a bit of what it feels like to write about the value of benevolence in dog training, and the problems associated with aggressive, confrontational techniques. And yet, I just can’t stop, because there is still a flood of advice about using force and confrontation to correct a dog for ….. (fill in the blanks)…. because 1) misbehavior is a sign your dog is attempting to dominate you and 2) you can only counter it by using force. Sigh.

Those of us arguing that we should be teaching our dogs, rather than forcing and threatening them, have an excellent study by Veterinary Behaviorists to support our perspective. Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB, Frances Shofer, DVM and Ilana Reisner, DVM, DACVB, of the Matthew Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, asked clients what methods they had used in the past, and how the dog responded. (Applied Animal Behavior Science 117 (2009), 47-54). 140 people, selected because the dogs were brought to the clinic because of “aggression” problems, responded to their survey. Granted, surveys asking people about past behavior are never ideal, we humans being poor historians of our own behavior, but I would argue that this retrospective study has a lot of value. The owners were asked what methods they had used in the past, a question I also always asked of my clients, and to describe their dog’s response to the best of their recollection.

The authors divided the methods used by owners in response to their dog’s misbehavior into the following categories: “Aversive: Direct Confrontation” (alpha rolls, leash corrections, “dominance down,” hit or kick, neck jab, putting on a muzzle, etc.), “Aversive: Indirect Confrontation” (Yell “NO,” Say “Schhhtt,” stare down, growl at dog), “Non-Aversive: Reward-Based” (Food, “Watch Me,” Clicker Training, Sit for everything) and “Neutral” (Avoid, increase exercise, pheromones).

Not surprisingly, leash corrections were common, used by 71% of respondents and 74% yelled “No” in response to their dog’s behavior.  However, 18% reported using an “alpha roll” and as many as 26% used a “stare down” to “correct” their dog. 11% admitting to hitting or kicking their dogs, and 14% to roughly grabbing the dog by the scruff or jowls.

Here are the numbers that matter: The most confrontational, and I would argue, aggressive, behaviors on the part of the owners resulted in the highest levels of aggressive responses from the dogs. 43% of dogs responded with aggression to being hit or kicked, 38% to having an owner grab their mouth and take out an object forcefully, 36% to having a muzzle put on (or attempted?), 29% to a “dominance down,” 26% to a jowl or scruff shake. You get the idea. Of course, these are all dogs who were seen by veterinary behaviorists for aggression-related problems, but it makes the data even more important. Violence begets violence, aggression begets aggression.

An important distinction: Note that the authors, correctly, did NOT label the owner’s responses as “punishment” or “reinforcement.” For one thing, “punishment” is an action that results in a decrease in behavior, so if an owner stares a dog down (argh! who ever started that idea anyway!) and the dog becomes more aggressive, the stare down was not punishment. Second, there are all kinds of actions correctly termed as “positive punishment” that have nothing to do with force or confrontations. For example, I use tons of food (positive reinforcement) to teach dogs a solid stay, and respond to breaks in a stay with a Body Block. A Body Block is an example of positive punishment (adding something to decrease the frequency of a behavior), but it is not confrontational or threatening if done correctly. (Note how little I move in the video, and how cheerful the entire episode is.)

Thus, the study is not so much about “reinforcement” and “punishment,” as about what happens when you threaten your dog, or forcefully and physically respond to misbehavior. Please be clear that I am not saying that if one of us occasionally raises our voice to our dog, or has a moment of humanity and loses our temper, we are going to destroy our dogs forever. Neither am I saying that aversives are always bad: aversive events are part and parcel of life, and we all need to know how to handle them, dogs included. However, as many of us have observed for years, using force and confrontation as a primary method of dog training often backfires and creates some of the very problems it is trying to solve.

One of my favorite parts of this study is that it was conducted by two Veterinary Behaviorists (Meghan Herron & Illana Reisner, both, DVMs and board certified vet behaviorists (DACVBs), who I suspect (I am just guessing here), are the experts most likely to effect the behavior of many others in the field of medicine. It has been my experience that quite a few canine professionals, included some veterinarians, are still quick to buy into the “dominance-based” theories of dog training, and it is great that we have data to add to the observations of CAABs and progressive trainers that force elicits force in return. Surely the study is a great addition for anyone who would like to have some good science behind their arguments for benevolent, science-based training, so don’t hesitate to remind people that if you force a dog to defend itself, it will. Canine defensive behavior does not include calling a lawyer or writing a letter to the editor. Teeth will be involved. I’m just saying.