In the past few decades, dog trainers have predominantly moved to practice and recommend reward-based training for dogs rather than aversive training. Rewarding your pooch with treats, toys, or attention when they are well behaved and denying those things when they don’t seem more effective and beneficial rather than using aversive methods such as splashing water, pulling on a leash, or using a shock collar, to punish unwanted behavior. Scientific studies now provide empirical evidence for reward-based training.
These results are complemented by a new study published in the journal Scientific reports. A group of canine researchers and veterinarians based primarily in the UK discovered that dogs trained using aversive methods can have a more negative, pessimistic mood.
Lead author Rachel A. Casey and her colleagues recruited 100 dogs for their study. Fifty of the dogs had experienced two or more aversive training methods in the past, such as physical punishment, an electronic shock collar, a water sprayer, a choke collar, or a loud, noise-based distraction device. The other fifty had only received reward-based training. Dogs in the aversive and reward groups were assigned based on breed, age, neuter status, and gender.
Next, all dogs were trained in the same way that a bowl on the left side of a test arena would always contain a treat while a bowl on the right side would not. Eventually, they all ran to a bowl on the left much faster than the right, realizing that there would almost certainly be a treat in a bowl on the left.
Now the real experiment could begin. The researchers placed a bowl in an ambiguous location (somewhere in the middle of the room) and compared how fast each dog from the reward and aversive-trained groups ran towards it.
âThe latency to go to the bowl was used in these experiments as an indicator of whether the dog expected the food to be available (short latency – positive (â optimistic â) interpretation of ambiguity indicating a relatively positive affect ) or not (longer latency – negative (‘pessimistic’) interpretation of ambiguity suggesting a relatively negative affective state), “explained the authors.
They found that dogs trained without aversive methods, regardless of where they were placed, ran to the bowls faster than if they were more optimistic that there would be a treat.
“This ‘pessimistic’ tendency shows that dogs exposed to more aversive training methods have lower reward expectations than those who have not experienced these methods,” the authors write. “This could reflect negatively biased processing of ambiguous information such as that found in depressed humans, rats exposed to chronic psychosocial stress, and a variety of other biased studies in animals in suspected negative affective states.”
This explanation is perhaps a bit lengthy. It could simply be that dogs who have been extensively trained with treats are more likely to be on the lookout for them. However, the authors note that owners in both groups reported training their dogs using reward-based methods (e.g., praise, play, and treats) because it is difficult to find owners who do not use such methods on their dog. The dogs in the aversive group therefore not only received no reward, but also aversion-based training.
âBecause of the potential welfare impact of the use of two or more punishment-based techniques identified in this paper, we believe that professionals should advise owners to use the least aversive methods available to them change their dog’s behavior, âthe researchers concluded.
Source: Casey, RA, Naj-Oleari, M., Campbell, S. et al. Dogs are more pessimistic when their owners use two or more aversive training methods. Science representatives 11 19023 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97743-0