What Effects Do Dog Training Methods Have on Dog Behavior?

In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion about the effectiveness and appropriateness of different training and behavior modification methods.  Is clicker training better than compulsion training? Is training with a remote training collar more effective that training with rewards?  Everyone has an opinion, but there’s little objective data to support these opinions.  Another question that rarely gets asked is – Do different training and behavior modification methods have effects on behaviors other than those that are being trained or modified?  Do some methods create fear, distress, and even aggression problems? 

 We’ve found two studies that address these questions.  The first, by Schilder and van der Borg (2004), asked if using electronic remote (shock) training collars produced more distress and fear in dogs being trained for police work than did training without the remote collar but using ‘harsh’ training methods. The authors observed two groups of dogs differing in the use of the training collars during actual training sessions as well as when they were walked outside the training situation.  They found that police dog training was stressful for both groups but the dogs trained with the remote training collars showed more behaviors indicative of stress and fear (ears back, tongue flicking and raising a paw) during training and on walks.  The authors didn’t address the question of which method produced quicker and/or more long-lasting training. The conclusion is that use of remote training collars produces as a by-product, more stressful and fearful behavior.

 The second study by Herron, Shofer and Reisner (2009) asked owners of dogs seeking help for one or more behavior problems, what techniques they had personally tried to manage or correct the problem before seeking help, and if these procedures elicited threats or aggression from their dogs. Not surprisingly, owners using more intimidating methods (hitting the dog, staring and growling among others) reported more aggressive responses by their dogs than did reward based methods (rewarding the dog for engaging in an alternative behavior) or neutral methods (avoiding the problem situation). 

Many of you may be saying “Well DUH!! I could have told you that but nobody asked me!”  Many of us hold strong opinions concerning the undesirable consequences of using strong punishment in training or behavior modification. Many of us have seen these effects first hand. The fear and aggressive consequences also follow logically from laboratory research on the effects of pain on fear and aggression in other species.

 While deductions from other studies are helpful and our own individual experiences are real, these are not the same as direct, objective research.  There are several reasons we need the research such as the two studies described above. First, our experiences are often biased. By that we mean each of us sees only a small, not randomly selected sample of all dogs that need training and/or behavior modification, and only a small sample of all possible behavior problems.  The animals we’ve trained and treated in Denver for example, may be very different from those from New York City or Chicago. We need careful research to try to reduce those biases. 

Second, sometimes our deductions from other studies aren’t correct because of species or situational differences.  Pigeons in an operant chamber may behave differently than dogs on a police dog training field.  Third, sometimes information is revealed with direct research of a problem that we didn’t expect.  For example, Herron, Shofer and Reisner found that even reward based methods sometimes elicit aggression from dogs. 

Further research can help us sort out these unexpected results.  The bottom line is that we can have more confidence in the validity of our opinions when we have scientific research to support them.

We’ve written a more complete summary and analysis of the research by Herron et al. for our membership site, www.BehaviorEducationNetwork.com.  The study contains more fascinating results that we explain in the document we’ve put in BEN.  Such summaries and analyses are a regular benefit of BEN membership.

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