Dog training

Punishment, puppies and science: Bringing dog training into line

Enlarge / Teenage girl playing with her dog

Three years ago, Valli Fraser-Celin adopted a blonde husky puppy, which she named Husk. Fraser-Celin soon began looking for ways to curb Husk’s “totally feral” behavior, she said, such as stealing food from the kitchen counter and incessantly barking at strangers. Based on the advice of a YouTube trainer, Fraser-Celin started using an electronic collar, or e-collar, which came as a bit of a shock when Husk misbehaved, but said she felt “disgusting ” on this subject.

Fraser-Celin rethought her approach after hearing about an animal trainer who taught a grizzly bear to cooperate with medical treatment using only positive reinforcement. If this imposing animal could learn with treats and praise, she thought, why did dog trainers use prong and shock collars? “It was the catalyst for my advocacy,” said Fraser-Celin, who studied African wild dogs for her doctorate. and now works as a remote community liaison for the Winnipeg Humane Society and independently advocates for positive reinforcement training on Instagram. “I really think regulations need to be put in place,” she said, “based on science and studies that have shown the best kind of training for dogs.”

Fraser-Celin is not alone. Many researchers, trainers, and professional veterinary and training organizations are advocating for greater oversight of dog training, which is largely unregulated around the world, although they sometimes disagree on the best path to this. action and choose to focus on research that reinforces their preferred approach. “Right now it’s the wild Wild West,” said Anamarie Johnson, who holds a doctorate in psychology. student at Arizona State University with a background in animal behavior and dog training. She recently published a study analyzing the websites of 100 highly rated dog trainers across the United States, which found that most gave no indication if the trainer had any relevant training or certification.

“Anyone can identify as a dog trainer – they can create a social media page, they can offer services to the public, and there are no expectations for their education, continuing education or training. standards of practice,” said Bradley Phifer, the executive director of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, or CCPDT, an organization promoting science-based training standards. People with little or no education in animal behavior can advise owners on how to handle aggression, he added. “There’s a big consumer protection element here, that if you’re not properly trained, or you don’t have adequate industry or content experience, then you shouldn’t be advising people. on how to prevent dog bites.”

Some experts and organizations are pushing for greater regulation of the industry. Under an umbrella organization known as the Alliance for Professionalism in Canine Training, two major certifying bodies – the CCPDT and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, or APDT – have jointly proposed model legislation which they hope can be adopted on a state-by-state basis. base. The legislation would require a trainer’s license issued by a state board, create accountability standards and require trainers to complete ongoing training. Phifer said he is currently working with lawmakers in New Jersey, where regulations for dog trainers were first proposed in 2019, and the joint effort is also progressing in California and Illinois.

But the push for regulation has revealed a schism in the industry over the use of punishments versus rewards. Under the proposed legislation, certifying bodies would be required to maintain a policy that prioritizes positive reinforcement, but does not rule out punishment entirely – an approach generally supported by efficacy and well-being research. and increasingly popular among training professionals. While researchers and educators largely agree that penalty-heavy approaches are harmful, they disagree on whether total bans on aversive tools are productive, as the approach can operate in limited circumstances.

Without clearer rules, the wide gaps in dog training pose “a potentially very significant risk to public safety,” Johnson said, as dog owners trust trainers to modify animal behavior with “teeth.” sharp and pointed that live in our house.”

Modern dog training is rooted in the mid-20th century work of American psychologist BF Skinner, who suggested four categories of behavior modification: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Here, positive and negative do not necessarily mean good or bad. Positive reinforcement adds something a dog likes to reinforce a behavior, like a treat or toy to sit on a cue, while positive punishment adds something aversive, like a leash tug, to decrease a behavior. Negative reinforcement removes something the dog doesn’t like, like stopping a shock collar when a dog obeys a command, while negative punishment removes something desirable, like dealing with a dog jumping up to attract attention.

Many trainers and animal behavior experts say aversive methods, which include positive punishment and negative reinforcement, are overused. Two major professional organizations representing trainers – the APDT and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants – now limit the use of tools such as electronic collars among their members.

In October last year, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour, which includes both veterinarians and behaviorists with doctorates in animal behavior, issued a statement: “There is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification”. referring to 21 studies on the effectiveness of reward-based methods and the risks of aversive methods. Alexandra Protopopova, an animal welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia, wrote in an email to Undark that recent research cited by the statement reflected the “undeniable” risks of aversive techniques, adding: “In Ultimately, recent research has also shown that aversive methods do not result in better trained dogs; thus rendering traditional aversive dog training methods obsolete.

The research has raised concerns about the dogs’ welfare. In one small study, dogs trained with rewards appeared to be more playful and better at learning a new behavior than dogs whose owners reported using punishment. In another case, dogs that were allegedly trained with aversive tools were, as the researchers put it, more “pessimistic” than dogs that weren’t, due to their reluctance to approach a bowl. of food. There is also some evidence to suggest that the use of punishment in training can diminish the bond between a dog owner and their dog.