Confrontational vs Non-Confrontational Training

So your dog is acting out, not listening to you and being stubborn. So what should you do? Yell louder? Physically hit the dog? Or patiently work with the dog offering positive reinforcement? One researcher found these observations…

If at any time the punishment is too strong, the animal may be physically harmed Punishment often causes fearfulness, and damage to the human-animal bond Although some animals appear remarkably stoic about punishment, many will become fearful, and may generalize this fear to other contexts. These animals often come to distrust the punisher (the owner, or trainer), resulting in avoidance, submissive behaviors (often interpreted as “guilt” by misguided owners; Horowitz 2009), and other forms of anxiety Aggression breeds aggression: punishment can increase aggressive behavior Punishment has been shown to increase the likelihood of aggression in many animals; Herron et al. (2009) reported that dogs whose owners used “confrontational methods” such as hitting, yelling, and kicking were more likely to see an increase in defensive and owner-directed aggression on the part of their dogs than owners who used gentler (force-free, rewards-based) methods Punishment may suppress important warnings from the pet Many owners make the mistake of (for example) punishing their dog for growling at children, strangers, other dogs, etc. Growling is one way dogs communicate discomfort; if the dog is punished for this communication but never taught an alternate, more appropriate reaction to the situation, the owner may find himself with a dog who no longer growls when stressed, but instead escalates to the next level (lunging or biting) in an attempt to change the situation Punishment does not teach alternate, more appropriate behaviors Rather than simply attempting to stop an undesirable behavior, a more productive approach is to focus on reinforcing an alternate, more appropriate behavior, and to redirect the dog’s energy into the desired behavior. Focus on what we would like the dog to do in that context, rather than on what we don’t want them to do (see also Friedman, 2010). Another important aspect of management, particularly for aggressive animals, could involve immediately putting measures into place to ensure safety of all who interact with the pet, until the pet’s behaviors can be addressed and improved. These measures will vary by situation and level of risk involved but could involve such steps as: not disturbing the dog when they are engaged in certain behaviors (such as sleeping, eating, or playing with a favorite toy); not interacting with the pet when they are behaving aggressively, including immediately ceasing any interactive positive punishment-such as hitting, scruffing, etc.-for the behavior, as this can make the behavior worse and put the owner at risk (Herron, Shofer, & Reisner, 2009;Ziv, 2017); crate training or muzzle training the dog so that they can be safely contained; and/or restructuring the pet’s physical environment to prevent further “practicing” of the behavior (e.g., installing blinds or window coverings to prevent a dog from continuing to bark aggressively at passersby when left alone) as noted earlier, these tend to intensify (rather than reduce) the problem, as well as putting the person administering the reprimand at risk ( Herron et al., 2009).

Use of confrontational training methods, such as holding a puppy down on its back, has been associated with the expression of aggressive behavior in dogs. For example, 29% of dogs placed in a dominance-down position by their owners reportedly responded aggressively in 1 study, 24 whereas only 2% reacted aggressively when receiving treats as behavior-modification interventions. Socialization classes offer an excellent opportunity to discuss and practice appropriate management of common puppy behaviors.

Historically, confrontational techniques have often been employed to make a “dominant dog” submit to the owner or to reinforce the dog’s dominant position to other household dogs (32). Research suggests that the application of confrontational training techniques (e.g., using a shock collar or hitting) is associated with and can exacerbate aggressive behavior [e.g., (33,34)]. Recent position statements from a variety of veterinary organizations disagree with these practices (e.g., American and Canadian Veterinary Medical Associations, Australian Veterinary Association, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) and it seems reasonable to be concerned about the impression of any word that might inadvertently imply the need for confrontational techniques.

Herron, Meghan & Shofer, Frances & Reisner, Ilana. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science – APPL ANIM BEHAV SCI. 117. 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011.

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