The manipulation of learning theory through biased science, emotional language and opinionated fallacies

“Every living, thinking, feeling being is motivated in two directions: towards something appetitive and away from something aversive. This is the most basic form of survival and the very basis for life.”

  • Ivan Balabanov (12 times national and 2 times world champion winner)

The dog training industry is flooded with manipulative words, pseudo-science and straight up fallacies that are spouted on repeat in an attempt to make it “reality.” Even Google is now taking the side of positive reinforcement only, by throwing up every comparison blog between reinforcement and punishment, while leaning heavily to the side of +R. With this barrage of poorly designed scientific studies – clearly designed to confirm an outcome, rather than finding the truth – and dog trainers with 25 abbreviations after their name regurgitating these studies ad nauseum (I presume because they don’t have enough work to keep them busy), I thought it was time for me to sit down and give you the full picture instead.

 

Here’s an interesting fact: aversives are far more effective than appetitives.

Big, bold claim right there. Well, at the end of this blog post, I will prove to you that it’s true. Not by making you read a whole bunch of studies, but simply through a thought experiment. First though, we have to start digging through some of the vast amount of nonsense out there.

 

UNDERSTANDING THE MOST BASIC LEARNING THEORY

Okay, before I get properly stuck into dismantling this balderdash, we need to understand the very basics of learning theory – in particular – operant conditioning. I have written about this before, but it is worth reiterating here, as this will be important as we move down the list.

Every single living, thinking, feeling organism on this planet, is motivated in two ways: towards something appetitive and away from something aversive. It is that simple, yes. We seek to acquire something we find reinforcing and avoid something we find punitive. This is the very basic of operant conditioning, also referred to as “learning through consequences.”

Now, operant conditioning is defined as such:

  • Reinforcement will increase the frequency, intensity and likelihood of a behaviour happening again.
  • Punishment will decrease the frequency, intensity and likelihood of a behaviour happening again.

Both reinforcement and punishment are available in two forms: positive and negative. This does not mean good or bad, it means additive or subtractive.

More specifically, we can break it down as follows (using dogs as an example): 

Positive reinforcement: we add something the dog wants (an appetitive) in order to increase the likelihood of a behaviour happening again. (Example: food, play, pats, praise)

Positive punishment: we add something the dog doesn’t want (an aversive) in order to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour happening again. (Example: loud sound, leash correction, high stim on an electric collar)

Negative reinforcement: we remove something the dog doesn’t want (an aversive) in order to increase the likelihood of a behaviour happening again. (Example: leash pressure, take our hands off the dog, step away from the dog, remove low level electric collar stimulation)

Negative punishment: we remove something the dog wants (an appetitive) in order to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour happening again. (Example: take away food, stop play, tie the dog up, hold the dog back from interacting with other dogs or people)

This is actual, factual science, and science does not care about your feelings. 

When people say things like “Punishment doesn’t work”, not only are they wrong, they’re also proving that they don’t understand the very basics of learning theory. These are definitely not the people you want working with your dog, especially if you’re dealing with complex behavioural issues.


MANIPULATIVE LANGUAGE AS AN INTENTIONALLY DECEPTIVE TOOL

Alright, let’s start diving into the language these people use, in order to actively try and manipulate your way of thinking. I’ll list a whole bunch of phrases commonly said and written by the force free community, and we’ll decipher them one at a time.

  • “The best way to teach something, is by using positive reinforcement only”
  • “We are science-based trainers”
  • “Punishment based training is old and outdated”
  • “Pressure and punishment make dogs fearful and aggressive”
  • “Prong and electric collars are inherently evil”
  • “Aggression can be stopped, using positive reinforcement, counter conditioning and desensitisation”
  • “If a dog’s behaviour cannot be changed without aversives, the dog should be medicated or euthanised”

Let’s start breaking these down and putting some truth to the nonsense:

“The best way to teach something, is by using positive reinforcement only”

Duh! Of course it is! We teach every new skill with the use of positive reinforcement! Say I have a puppy that doesn’t know that the word “Sit” means I want it to put its bum on the ground. Alright, let’s break out the treats and teach the dog that, through hundreds of repetitions.

Food to the nose -> move food up over the dog’s head -> bum hits the ground -> I say “Sit” and deliver the positive reinforcement.

That is literally how we teach everything new, so nothing wrong with that statement, right? Well, the way that the force free community and organisations such as the RSPCA use the phrase, is to imply that absolutely any form of behavioural issues can be eliminated by teaching an alternative behaviour, which is simply not true. When a dog is stuck in a behavioural pattern, we have to implement some form of aversive pressure, in order to break the dog out of that cycle. You can click and reward until you are blue in the face, over hundreds of sessions, over months and years, but the slightest mistake and the dog will revert back to old behaviours.

“We are science-based trainers”

 *slow clap*

Yes, you and everyone else who uses any part of operant conditioning. Whether you’re training with positive or negative reinforcement, you’re actively using a scientific basis for your training, in order to increase the likelihood of a behaviour happening again.

Now, what they are trying to say with this sentence is that “We are better trainers, because we consider ourselves more proficient in positive reinforcement only, and we think that anyone who uses anything other than positive reinforcement are cruel, unjust and outdated in their training.”

Hogwash. If you put a leash on a dog and that dog hits the end of the line, then turns and comes back to you, guess what? You’ve used force and negative reinforcement to change that dog’s behaviour. In fact, if you put anything on a dog – collar, harness, Halti, even a rope – you are using force to compel that dog into doing a specific thing (in most cases don’t run away from me).

Here’s the thing. By rejecting actual, proven science, you’re not science based – you’re science biased. This means you choose your personal emotions over the efficacy you can help the dog in front of you with. That means you are putting said dog through more stress, over longer periods of time than what is necessary. In fact, you are now conducting the opposite of LIMA training (Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive) because you are putting that animal through extended aversive experiences to make yourself feel better.

“Punishment based training is old and outdated”

Now, this is one that really grinds my gears. Okay, there is no such thing as ‘punishment based training’! What would we be teaching? Nothing, that’s what! We would be teaching the dog only to do nothing! Because punishment can only stop a behaviour and make it less likely to happen, “punishment based training” would only be able to extinguish any form of behaviour, which is not training, only suppression. But again, this just comes back to a lack of understanding of the most basic principles of learning theory, as well as using emotive and manipulative words, in order to sway someone into a logical fallacy.

That’s a fancy way of saying it’s BS, by the way.

“Pressure and punishment make dogs fearful and aggressive”

Once again, we have an absolute statement, with no explanation and little to no understanding of the basics.

Can pressure and punishment make dogs fearful and aggressive? Yes, absolutely.

Is this always, unequivocally, the case? Absolutely not. Allow me to elaborate.

Utilising negative reinforcement as an aggression activator

We can actively use negative reinforcement (pressure and release) to create an aggressive response in a dog. This is how we train dogs to become aggressive for the purpose of making them police and military dogs, for example. We encourage the dog to bark at a decoy (person in bite suit, part of the training). The dog barks and barks, but eventually gets confused and/or tired and the barking seizes. Now, we can apply pressure to the dog with a tool such as an electric collar or a prong collar, in order to restart the barking behaviour. The dog begins barking again, we remove the pressure, thereby reinforcing the dog for the aggressive behaviour. We then give the command to bite the decoy, which to these dogs is seen as positive reinforcement, because they enjoy it. The dog thrashes and growls as it hangs onto the decoy, but lo and behold: after a while the dog starts getting tired. It begins loosening its grip, something that could be potentially lethal to the dog and its handler in a real-life situation. So, what do we do? We tighten the prong or activate the e-collar once again, to encourage the dog to bite harder. The dog clenches its jaws as hard as it can, and we remove the aversive pressure, thereby rewarding the dog for a stronger bite.

In the example above, we are teaching the dog to be aggressive on command, in order to assist with the apprehension of a criminal. But this is intentional and taught in a controlled manner. Does this mean that putting a prong collar on a dog to teach it to walk on a loose leash will make it aggressive or fearful? If you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, then yes, you could potentially create undesirable fallout. If you pressure the dog to hard, you’re unfair to the dog, or you’re not teaching it to escape the pressure, that can cause problems. But again, that is not the fault of the tool, but the uneducated application of the the tool!

When punishment becomes problematic
Inappropriate and unclear use of punishment, can create a whole host of problems between a dog and its owner / handler / trainer. Again, notice that I wrote inappropriate and unclear use of punishment. Punishment used in a clear, precise, and immediate manner is extremely effective at stopping behaviours, with no fallout or side effects. If the dog understands exactly which behaviour created the punishment event, and the punishment event was delivered within a 1.6 second time frame, there is no lack of clarity from the dog on why it happened. And so now the dog understands how to avoid that punishment in the future, hence it will not become fearful of the person administering the punishment.

There are severe punishments for the incorrect use of a vehicle. Enormous fines (positive punishment as a fine is added), potential jailtime (negative punishment as freedom is taken away). Does that mean I am scared of driving a car?

Not at all. Why?

Because I know what behaviour will get me punished and what is incorrect use of a vehicle. Therefore, I make sure to never speed, never drive recklessly or intoxicated, and voila: I now avoid all the potential punishments and I’m not scared of utilising my car for transport.

Now, here is a very simple example of how punishment is used inappropriately and can lead to fear in a puppy:

Someone gets a new puppy. The puppy is not toilet trained. The owner of the puppy leaves the house to go shopping. While the owner is gone, the puppy goes to the toilet inside, because it doesn’t know any better and may not have access to an appropriate place to toilet. A little while later, the puppy hears the car come up the driveway and gets excited. It runs to the door, wagging its tail and jumping with literal joy. The owner opens the door, sees that the puppy has toileted inside, and now administers a swift and harsh punishment. The problem here is that the puppy was not caught in the act, and therefore has absolutely no clue as to why it was punished. Even if you take the puppy over to where it toileted and tell it off, it will not make the connection between the two events. In the puppy’s mind, it simply got punished for being at the door when the owner arrived home. So now the communication is unclear and inappropriate, and nothing of value has been learned. The next day, the owner leaves again, and when the puppy hears the car come up the driveway this day, it runs and hides, attempting to avoid a punishment it does not understand why is being administered.

The above scenario is a classic example of when punishment is incorrectly used and can eventually lead to fear, anxiety and aggressive behaviour, and a breakdown in a relationship between man and dog.

“Prong and electric collars are inherently evil”

This completely, utterly, nonsensically emotionally biased statement, was recently made by RSPCA Tasmania’s CEO Jan Davis. The exact wording was:

“’Pronged collars are really evil things. They’ve got really sharp spikes. When you pull on a lead they actually poke into the dog’s neck,’ RSPCA Tasmania chief executive officer Jan Davis told reporters.”

Prong collars and electric collars are simply tools, designed for very specific purposes (also, their ends are flat or rounded, not sharp!). They are made up of metal and plastic and are no more “evil” than a loaf of bread. The recently introduced prong collar ban in Queensland, Australia, has really shown the ugly face of the force free industry. From trying to sneak the ban through – thereby ignoring the governments very own ‘best practices’ – to online wars and flooding politicians with false, emotionally biased information, they’ve have gone above and beyond to remove this tool from the shelves.

The president of the Pet Professional Guild Australia has posted a whole host of gibberish on her Facebook page – Goodog Positive Dog Training – claiming that all balanced trainers who use prongs are abusive and have no idea how to train with positive reinforcement. When someone commented in defence of prongs and balanced training, she deleted the comment and stated that she will block and ban anyone that does not 100% yield to her belief system. Even more proof that this has got nothing to do with animal welfare, but has everything to do with fanaticism.

Amongst the submission regarding the recent prong collar ban in Queensland, was this vehement and hateful statement made by the committee (which clearly has no understanding of dog training): 

“If ongoing aversive methods are required to control a dog’s behaviour, it is reasonable to question whether the dog is suitable for that person. If the dog is not suitable for a person, options for dealing with the dog includes appropriate humane retraining, rehoming or humane euthanasia.”

Here, they are claiming that no matter the circumstance, if a prong collar is needed in the training of an animal, that animal should be rehomed or euthanised, without question or consideration for the situation. Let’s paint a picture of how this may look in the real world:

Say you have a big, strong dog. A Rottweiler for example. Friendly and happy, but likes to pull on the leash. Now, we have worked on getting loose leash walking happening with a slip leash, but as with everything, it takes some time. Then, unexpectedly, the owner is involved in a bad accident, causing severe injury to his back, amongst other things. This particular owner is now physically unable to continue the training for the foreseeable future, and is currently unable to walk his dog because of his injuries. Said person is very distraught and asks a Victorian based trainer what their thoughts on prong collars are. The reply is that they are an excellent training tool and exactly what he needs for the time being, while he is healing. Press the skip forward button, and this person and his dog are now able to enjoy walks together again, despite a lengthy recovery process. The dog wags its tail as they’re happily strolling down the street, good exercise for both, before retiring to the couch with snuggles and some TV.

In the above scenario, the owner of the dog is by Victorian law a criminal. He is an outlaw, simply because he walks his dog. He can be fined huge amounts for allowing his dog to sniff and experience the world. And according to the committee in Queensland, he should have the dog forcefully taken away from him, and rehomed or euthanised, because the dog wears a series of metal links around its neck, which were designed to apply as little pressure as possible to a dog’s neck. It is disgraceful.

One last remark about prong collars. Tasmania has now banned the prong collar as well. They tried to ban it in 2015, but the ban was halted as “there was not enough clear information that the prong collar was an abusive tool.” So, what has changed? In light of said statement, they must now have acquired new information, in order to revisit the ban on the prong?

No. Nope, nopety nope. Everything is exactly as it was 7 years ago. The information is the same, the results and proof is the same. Somehow they funnelled enough lies and pressure onto politicians (whom I assume aren’t dog behaviour experts) to have the ban signed off on. Again, no new evidence. Just manipulation and lies.

Check out this video. Huon Valley K9 were one of the companies that fought the prong collar ban in Tasmania. When he requested the evidence that was used to ban the prong collar, he basically received dozens of redacted, blacked out pages. Sounds like someone may be hiding something, perhaps?  

“Aggression can be stopped using positive reinforcement, counter conditioning and desensitisation”

Anyone who thinks any behavioural cycle can be broken by saying “Yes” and giving a treat is… well, wrong.

That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with the methods of training described here! I use positive reinforcement, counter conditioning and desensitisation on a daily basis, when working with aggression issues. But that will never complete the picture. Because no matter how much you reward a dog for sitting (as an alternative behaviour to lunging and barking), no matter how many times you click and give a piece of chicken when that dog looks at another dog (counter conditioning) and no matter how many dogs you put that dog around in a controlled manner (desensitisation), there will come a time when that dog goes over threshold. You can be a centimetre off and the dog blows. Force free trainers will then say that the session is wasted and that the dog will regress massively. An excellent way of selling another several thousand dollars’ worth of training to the poor owner. A straight up scam in my eyes.

In said situation, I would apply pressure to the dog, in order to tell it that its behaviour is unacceptable. And guess what? The behaviour stops and the dog looks at me like “oh hell, what do you want instead?.” Now, the session and the positive reinforcement can resume.

“If a dog’s behaviour cannot be changed without aversives, the dog should be medicated and/or euthanised”

While I have already covered said topic, it is worth reiterating how deeply ingrained this dangerous mentality is. First, let’s look at what an aversive is. It is something undesirable to the recipient of it. Something the recipient wants to escape at the moment of it happening and avoid in the future. To a dog that can be the application of pressure with a tool, or it can be a correction to stop a currently happening behaviour. Does it have to be painful? Nope, it just has to be significant enough for the dog to think “Okay, I don’t want that happening again.”

Vet behaviourists are a huge problem in our industry. I know I’m lumping all vet behaviourists in one big group here. There are good ones out there. I have met them. But they are extremely few and extremely far between. They are overtaken by bad ones, 1,000 to 1.

So, why am I singling out vet behaviourists here? It is because I have seen so many dogs that have been misdiagnosed and so many dog owners mislead by vet behaviourists. I recently worked with a one-year-old puppy, where the owner had been told to medicate the puppy at five months old (that’s right, anti-anxiety medication at five (5) months old), because it had started barking at other dogs out on their walk. The vet behaviourist arrived, threw a couple of treats on the ground, wrote some notes, charged $1,500 AUD, prescribed medication and told the owner “never to play tug with the dog, as it will make it aggressive.”

That’s it. No training plan, no progression goalposts, no nothing. “Medication for life” she said after a two-hour long consult, where she didn’t even take the leash. Luckily, the owner was not happy with that reply, and contacted me after having attended my dog aggression seminar – Cranky Canines. In two hours, we taught the dog how to walk on a loose leash, how to play properly, some basic obedience, corrected the dog once for barking, and we were able to walk straight past other dogs. And I charged way less than a fifth of the vet behaviourist (which reminds me, I should probably up my prices!). 

Vet behaviourists are vehemently opposed to any form of corrective measure. Which kind of makes sense. They’re vets, first and foremost. They’ve taken the Hippocratic oath – “first, do no harm” – presuming any form of pressure or punishment is inherently violent and painful to the animal. Vets heal the dog’s body, while trainers heal their mind. But vet behaviourists find themselves caught in the middle. Their experience lies in the body and medication, while their limited understanding of actual dog behaviour leaves them wanting for much, when dealing with complex behavioural issues. And so, they turn to medication, because that’s the experience they have. And if that doesn’t work, well… then it’s off to the rainbow bridge. Sad, but unfortunately true. Ivan Balabanov talks more in-depth about the issue in this video

Here’s the thing. By rejecting actual, proven science, you’re not science based – you’re science biased. This means you choose your personal emotions over the efficacy of helping the dog in front of you.

FLAWED STUDIES DESIGNED TO PROVE A BIAS

There are several force free promoting groups out there who refer to a handful of studies frequently. All of these studies – of course – promote the efficacy of positive reinforcement and the negative fallout that follows the use of pressure or punishment. There are loads of studies posted on the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour website for example. Now, there is one interesting thing that you will find when reading through these “studies”.

The wast majority of them are surveys.

Surveys are a valid tool in certain areas. Say someone is testing out a new drug and you want to find out if test subject is experiencing side effects. Perfect time to implement a survey to find results. But when it comes to dog training, they have absolutely zero validity. And here is why:

Language and user base can be manipulated to get the results you seek.

When writing a survey (from a biased mindset) you can manipulate several factors in order to get the answer you want, rather than finding out what is true. First of all, you can control exactly who answers your questions. If you have a huge positive only / force free following, you would of course only pose the questions to them, as they will likely answer the way you want them to. But language also plays a huge role here. Say I was going to do a survey on the use of electric collars. Here are two different ways of asking the very same question:

“Would you ever cause pain to your dog – through the use of illegal shock collars – to stop them from conducting a behaviour, which could easily be stopped with gentle, modern training techniques such as positive reinforcement?”

Obviously, the sentence above is highly emotional and geared against the use of electric collars. If I was pro electric collars however, my question might look something more like this:

“Would you ever implement the use of an electric collar – also known as a remote trainer – which delivers a low voltage electric stimulation (5mJ as opposed to an electric fence which delivers 15,000mJ) in order to quickly and efficiently stop your dog from conducting dangerous behaviour, such as chasing livestock?”

My guess is that those two questions – both of which say the same thing – would receive very different answers.

Another huge fallacy that you will find in studies that are promoted by the anti-aversives groups, are the so called ‘versus’ studies. These are studies that look at positive reinforcement VERSUS some form of aversive training method. Every single ‘versus’ study I have read, concludes that “positive reinforcement based training causes less stress in dogs.”

Well of course they do! If all you do is throw treats at the dog on one side, while only crush them pressure or punishment on the other side, of course the dogs that receive zero positive reinforcement is going to be more stressed and less enthusiastic. Because when all you do is avoid punishment and pressure, your desire to participate is quickly going to diminish. But that is not what good, effective balanced training is. Most truly balanced trainers worth their salt use huge amounts of positive reinforcement, way more than negative reinforcement or any form of punishment. As stated earlier: positive reinforcement is how we teach everything new. However, the use of positive reinforcement as a method for stopping undesirable behaviour such as aggression, is simply not a valid method of training. I have never, ever seen any conclusive result that aggression can be eliminated solely through the use of positive reinforcement, counter conditioning and desensitisation. I see trainers claiming that they have done it all the time, yet for some reason, they never have video evidence to prove their claims. I wonder why…

ONE OF THE MOST DEBUNKED STUDY OF ALL TIMES – DEFRA’s “Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement”

DEFRA – Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – conducted a study in 2020, which was intentionally designed to “prove” that positive reinforcement was more effective than electric collars to seize predatory behaviour (the dogs in the study were known to have killed livestock in the past). The study was set up so wilfully biased that top scientists from all around the world has said that “it is so very seriously flawed that it should not be relied on.”

The study split the dogs into two groups: one group was to be trained with nothing but positive reinforcement (primarily food) the other group was to be trained strictly with electric collars. The first flaw in the study was that the +R group dogs were restrained on Halti’s – probably the most aversive dog training tool that exists – and released video footage shows the dogs being positively punished with these tools when they refused to take the reinforcement. Not so positive reinforcement based after all.

Secondly, all the positive reinforcement based training took place inside, in summer time, while the e-collar training all took place outside, in the middle of winter. Again, the e-collar trained dogs were set up to fail. At the end of the study, all the dogs were meant to be left alone around livestock, with the handler leaving the dog’s view, to test the efficacy of the training that had been conducted. In the end, not a single one of the positive reinforcement trained dogs were made to do the final test as – according to one of the study designers – “it was not safe to do so.” The e-collar trained dogs, however, were made to conduct the final test and passed with flying colours.

Surely, at the end of such a ridiculous study, the conclusion would be that e-collars are more effective, right? Especially seeing as they didn’t even test the dogs trained by positive reinforcement!

Oh, no. The study concluded that positive reinforcement was in all ways better than e-collar training, completely ignoring the actual results found and presented, which showed the opposite in every single area. This was not just a flawed study – this was a straight up “scientific” lie.

Surveys are a valid tool in certain areas. Say someone is testing out a new drug and you want to find out if test subject is experiencing side effects. Perfect time to implement a survey to find results. But when it comes to dog training, they have absolutely zero validity.

EMOTIONAL LANGUAGE USED TO MANIPULATE THE TRUTH

One thing you will find plenty of in the force free / positive only groups, is the use of highly emotionally driven language, as a means to shut down questions when their “science” falls apart. And one of the big problems here is that everyone is always trying to “out-forcefree” each other, meaning their claims go from weird and laughable, to straight up madness.

The above resulted in a woman named Cindy Ludwig in America to write a post claiming that “electric collars are never necessary, because dogs aren’t predators.

Yep, you read that right. She made – and defended vehemently – a claim that dogs are in fact not predators, but simply “opportunistic scavengers.” I mean, this isn’t just a ridiculous and hilarious thing to say, it also goes to show how far someone is willing to go – how extremely willing they are to manipulate reality – in an attempt to prove themselves right.

Now, from the many discussions I have been in on social media (something which I don’t do anymore, as I have come to realise that the only thing that is infinite in this universe, is human stupidity) it goes from absolute claims, to made up science, to “I have seen it myself” and finally we slide into harassment and name calling. A large majority of the “conversations” I’ve had has gone something like this:

————————–

Person: Punishment makes all dogs fearful and aggressive.

Me: I have punished many dogs for poor behaviour, and they are now happy and content. Where is your proof that what you’re saying is true?

Person: The proof is out there, you just have to do your own research.

Me: But if you have it, and can prove that you’re right, why not share it here, so I can see it immediately?

Person: Because I’m not your secretary.

Me: But you say you have it handy, and you have made a very big claim, so just show it to me, so you can prove me wrong.

Person: I have seen it happen myself with many dogs, you just don’t understand what a fearful dog looks like!

Me: I don’t have numbers on how many fearful dogs I have worked with, who are now much less fearful according to their owners, so that’s simply not true.

Person: Well, well, look at the dog training expert here, don’t you have some dogs to abuse, you neanderthal?!

————————–

That pretty much sums it up. When pressed for proof, it almost always delves into personal attacks, blocking, deleting of comments and so on. Why is that? Well, I personally think it’s because they’ve lied themselves into a corner and they cannot see any way out. Therefore they do what a cornered dog would do: they turn to aggression in order to intimidate the trigger away.

Being publicly embarrassed has a tendency to push people in that direction, rather than reflect and contemplate. Rather than present the evidence (which I presume they have simply made up) and further conversation, they shut it down, and negatively reinforce themselves, by removing the aversive pressure from their life. Funny how effective self-reinforcement through escape and avoidance training really is, hey?

Another very common phrase you hear from the PP/FF community is the term “Dominance based training.” Again, proper, balanced dog training, has nothing to do with dominance. But because studies on dominance from the 70’s have been debunked, they try to push this term onto us, in order to validate their claims that their “modern” training is more effective. Yet, it holds absolutely no water in any conversation, as it simply isn’t a thing.

(Dominance and submission is absolutely a thing, but it is not a thing in effective dog training, I should clarify).

UNCERTAINTY BREEDS ANXIETY

Some of the most anxious dogs I have ever met in my life, were raised force free. Their trainers taught them to avoid any form of stress or aversion, so the dog can lead a “stress free” life. The problem is that now the dog has zero tolerance for stress, and things that should not even have registered on the dog’s radar, suddenly becomes a huge issue.

One of my former students sent me the screenshot below.

Here is a woman who, for the first time, raised a dog without any aversive feedback. And she now struggles with a dog that is scared of its own shadow. This is exactly what shielding your dog from pressure and stress does – it renders your dog incapable of living in the real world. Because, no matter how much you try to avoid it, stress is unavoidable.

Another thing that people fail to talk about is this: cortisol – the stress hormone the body produces – is crucial in order for learning to take place. Whenever you find yourself in a new situation, environment or attempting to learn a new skill, additional cortisol will be released into your blood stream. That is literally part of the learning experience! When “studies” use nothing but a measure of cortisol to prove that aversives are bad, all they’re proving is that the dog is in fact learning.

We expose babies to new sensations, sounds, sights, smells surfaces. This teaches them to slowly withstand and not get overwhelmed by these stimuli. Sometimes things can go wrong. Suddenly a loud, unexpected sound may happen, which startles the baby and makes it cry. What happens in that scenario, is that we have gone from eustress – defined as ‘moderate or normal psychological stress, interpreted as being beneficial’ – into distress. Distress is defined as ‘extreme anxiety, sorrow or pain’. Once we hit a level of distress, now no new learning can take place. That’s where we have to manage space and move the baby away from the trigger, until cortisol levels return to an eustress level and learning can begin taking place again. This is exactly what we do with puppies and dogs with low levels of stress tolerance as well.

The more tolerant to stress your dog becomes, the less anxious it becomes. Because it is learning to withstand its surroundings, not crumble under them. By shielding your dog from anything that can cause some stress or discomfort, you are doing your dog a huge disservice as you’re now forcing it to live a life of unease and anxiety.

LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD THROUGH UNJUSTIFIED BANS

The purely positive / force free community are fully aware of the effectiveness of aversives in dog training. However, they have chosen not to learn how to use it, because they believe that is the “modern and kinder” way to train dogs.

The idea is that using nothing but positive reinforcement (primarily through food) and negative punishment (by withholding a reinforcer) is enough to manipulate the dog into any behaviour – be that starting or stopping behaviour. The idea is that the application of some form of aversive is inherently cruel or bad, and they will usually use loaded words such as “pain” in order to describe said pressure. The majority of pressure I use in my training does not cause pain, only mild annoyance that the dog can quickly alleviate. But again, that doesn’t sound as horrible as screaming the words PAIN, SHOCK, ABUSE etc. They are after all not selling you the truth here – only their preconceived notion of it.

There are a couple of things that are important to understand here.

The first thing is that dogs are tactile creatures and respond faster, better and more accurately to direct, physical pressure. Dogs get extreme clarity from physical consequences, which means they become proficient in something much faster through the application of pressure.

The second is that the use of negative punishment (taking away something appetitive) is for most dogs WAY more aversive than any form of tactile pressure. More importantly, the use of negative punishment in high drive dogs, very often is not perceived as punishment: it instead turns into frustration building which increases the intensity of the behaviour, in order to acquire the reinforcement. Trust me, when you have a proper aggressive dog in front of you, you do not want to wait for an extinction burst (the definition of an extinction burst is a “sudden and dramatic increase in behaviour when reinforcement for that behaviours has been removed”).

I have a Belgian Malinois. He is an intense dog. And by far the worst thing I can do to him, is tell him that he made a mistake, therefore we stop our training session. If I correct him with an electric collar, he simply shakes his head and keeps on going, harder than before. However, if I say “Game over” and take his toy away from him, he screams, whines, paces and stresses out. To him, losing the opportunity to work is so heinously aversive, I almost never do it.

Which bring me to possibly the only valuable study done regarding dog training and dog training tools that I have read so far:

Comparison of stress and learning effects of three different training methods in dogs by E. Schalke. 

Read the actual study here.

This study looked at the comparison between different forms of punishment – two types of positive punishment through the use of electric collars and prong collars, and a negative punishment through a quitting signal (giving a verbal cue to tell the dog that the training session was over because they made a mistake). Here we have a simple, clear formula, that strictly tests different forms of punishment – not a ‘versus’ study that looks at positive reinforcement versus punishment.

What was the end result of this study? “Cortisol levels were significantly higher when using a quitting signal, than when using the pinch collar or e-collar.”

That’s right. The negative punishment was way more aversive for the dogs than any of the “cruel” tools used for positive punishment. So, the next time someone says using only “force free” methods are kinder or less cruel, keep in mind that these methods put the dog into a higher level of stress than a direct, tactile correction. 

AVERSIVES ARE MORE EFFECTIVE THAN APPETITIVES

Alright, it’s time for our very simple thought experiment to prove that aversives are in fact more effective than appetitives, and that the use of aversion does not immediately and unequivocally cause fear and/or aggression.

How many times have you come home from work and “treated” yourself to one of your favourite appetitives? Be that a glass of wine, a piece of chocolate or whatever tickles your fancy. I’m going to guess we are talking thousands of repetitions and it’s still an ongoing thing.

Now, let’s draw our attention to the stove. How many times have you cooked food on a stove? Again, I’m guessing we’re talking thousands of times. We apply heat to food in order to create an appetitive meal, something we enjoy. Again, an ongoing schedule of reinforcement needed every day.

We have now established that the stove is a crucial tool in order to create positive reinforcement, so here comes the next, and even more important question:

How many times have you touched a hot stove?

My guess is that the number is lower than two. Putting your hands on a hot stove is a highly punishing and aversive event, one that is unlikely to be repeated many times.

Now, you have experienced this highly aversive event around the stove. Does that mean that you are scared of cooking?

No, of course not! What you have learned through this aversive experience is that there are rules and boundaries when using a heated stove, but it hasn’t made you fearful, aggressive or shut down towards cooking. It has simply set a clear boundary for what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour when the stove is turned on.

It is exactly the same when an e-collar or prong collar is used with clarity. The dog understands exactly when it made a mistake and what the mistake was. Now it has the ability to avoid making the mistake again. This does not cause a dog to become fearful, anxious or aggressive. In fact, it does the opposite – it provides absolute clarity, which reduces stress.

What does this all mean? That we should use more aversives in our training? 

Nope, the complete opposite. Because they are more effective, if you are an effective trainer, you should be using less aversives, but in a more meaningful way. This creates a complete and fully understandable picture for the dog: “I like it when you do this, but you’re never allowed to do that”. The more clarity we have with our dogs, the less tension and anxiety the dog will experience, the better your relationship and training will be.

WHAT CAN WE DO TO FIGHT THE LIES AND NONSENSE?

Vote with your brain and your money.

Do not believe political parties such as the Animal Justice Party. They are run by ex-PETA members and are not looking to improve animal welfare, but abolish any human – animal co-existence. Animal rights, has got nothing to do with animal welfare. Don’t believe me? Have a read through this article: https://protecttheharvest.com/what-you-need-to-know/overview-of-animal-rights-organizations/people-for-the-ethical-treatment-of-animals/

Don’t vote for politicians, such as Annastacia Palaszczuk, who went against government ‘Best Practices’ simply to win a popularity contest and snag a few extra votes before the election. She couldn’t care less about animal welfare.

Do not support the RSPCA in any way form or shape. Do not give them money, do not give them attention on social media, do not spread their word, do not foster for them or donate you free time through volunteering. The RSPCA is one of the biggest spreaders of force free lies and they put a ton of money into having tools and methods banned, when they should be using that money to help dogs. From 2020-2021, they euthanised 2,502 dogs, and 66.55% of those dogs, were euthanised because of behavioural issues. Maybe throwing food around and hoping for the best, isn’t as effective as they claim it to be. 

Do not hire any trainer that refers to themselves as ‘science based’, ‘force free’, ‘positive only’, ‘fear free’ or whatever the latest buzz word is.

Do not engage a vet behaviourist before a trainer, even if your vet tells you that you need one. You probably don’t. You need a balanced trainer, with experience in the particular issue you’re having. Contact any balanced trainer, and most will gladly refer you to another, if they don’t feel comfortable dealing with the issue themselves. However, if your balanced trainer agrees that medication may be needed for your dog, then all three of you should collaborate towards the best achievable goal.

Do not buy into new phrases such as “Fear Free Certified.” This is all marketing blather and has nothing to do with the real world. In fact, some prominent “fear free” vets here in Melbourne, Australia, proudly promote that they will go straight to medication in order to sedate a dog, to have veterinary work done on them. Interestingly, they never mention any form of training or increasing confidence before a vet visit, only medication.

And most important of all: tell your dog “No” when it is acting up and you will likely never need help from a professional. Treat your dog as a predator and set clear boundaries for it. Make it understand what is okay and what isn’t. Don’t use phrases such as “furbaby” and don’t take pride in having a “spoiled brat.”

Dogs really aren’t all that complicated. Like all living, thinking, feeling beings they are motivated by two things:

Towards something appetitive.

Away from something aversive.

Stian Berg

Dog trainer and behavioural consultant