While dog training based on positive reinforcement is quickly gaining mind share, it is not the only game in town. Dog training philosophies range from very aversive, punishment-based paradigms to those that strive to be completely force-free in their approach. And somewhere in the middle of this range, there are trainers who identify themselves as “balanced” to describe their belief that effective dog training requires the use of all four of B.F. Skinner’s learning quadrants (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment).
The truth is some of the best behaviorists and behavior analysts of our time have refused to completely disavow punishment in dog training, and most dog trainers who really think it through will acknowledge that not all methods that fall into the positive punishment or negative reinforcement quadrants are inhumane. For example, here is an excellent summary of Dr. Susan Friedman’s “Humane Hierarchy” of dog training. But pretty much all positive reinforcement trainers recognize that methods which empower dogs to make and be rewarded for “correct” decisions tend to be quicker, more effective, longer lasting, and more humane. These methods primarily reside under the umbrella of positive reinforcement.
As positive dog trainers, there are a number of situations where we will find ourselves face to face with people or tools dedicated to aversive methods. For example:
- In shelters and rescues that utilize a variety of trainers from the community. It is not uncommon to find shelters that have adopted aversive methods on the recommendation of available, local aversive trainers.
- In the client’s home when they inform you they have tried aversive equipment or other aversive trainers. And do not be surprised when they tell you some of the trainers or equipment have yielded some degree of success, which they do not want to lose.
- Your client says things that indicate they have bought into the methods of aversive celebrity trainers. On television, such trainers seem to get near-instantaneous results. It only makes sense that a client may have tried to emulate these trainers.
- You might find yourself in a conversation with an aversive trainer. Whether in your community or online, it is difficult to avoid the diversity that exists among dog trainers.
Here is a brief guide about what you should or should not do in these situations.
- Don’t say aversives do not work. It is true that aversives have a failure rate and potential side-effects. Positive trainers have a failure rate as well, often a side-product of a lack of trainer experience or a lack of client follow-through. However, aversives do indeed work, otherwise they would not have been the predominant method of training dogs until the recent growth of positive training mind share. In fact, aversive trainers sport a lot of major titles and accomplishments in nearly every dog sport niche.
- Don’t be critical of the client. The owner would not have called you had they not realized they needed help. They have recognized that what they have been trying is not working, and they are humble enough to ask for YOUR help. Plus, they are indeed your bread and butter.
- Explain the potential side-effects of using aversives. There are many reasons people may be willing to avoid using aversives. For example, aversives might create an unwanted association between the punishment and whatever the dog happens to be looking at; or it could cause complications in the bonding between the owner and the dog.
- Be professional in your discussion of aversive trainers. Nothing turns off a client more than being unprofessional. One aspect of being unprofessional that is difficult to recover from is speaking badly of other trainers. Simply state that you know of the aversive trainer (if you do), that you understand what their perspective was (if you do), and that your take on the problem and how to solve it is a bit different.
- Challenge the client to give your positive approach a try. When the positive approach and its benefits are explained in a clear, educated fashion, most clients are willing to give it a try. Ask the client to bare with you for a few weeks and apply themselves to your method.
- Don’t get in over your head. Some training goals are easier to reach than others. For example, it is easier to teach a dog to sit-stay than it is to cure leash reactivity. If you are not accomplished at working with a particular issue, refer your case to a positive trainer who is — and shadow that trainer if possible. By doing so, the positive approach gets a fair shot, as does the client. And you get to learn something.
We’d love to hear what you have learned about responding to aversive techniques in your own dog training practice in the comments below!
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