There is seemingly an unlimited amount of information when it comes to training a dog. Many of the more eye-catching videos with dramatic changes in behavior are the result of aversive training techniques. Many pet parents are drawn in by these behavior changes and the methods that are responsible for those changes. Even more, the media has popularized aversive training methods and sold the idea that you must assert dominance to get your dog to obey. Because of this, some believe they must use these aversive techniques to show their dog that they are the alpha in the household. These methods are sold as necessary and natural. If certain devices are sold, they are often seemingly easy to use and have an immediate effect, albeit not long-lasting, on a dog’s behavior. What an unknowing pet parent doesn’t realize, are the negative, long-term side effects of these methods.
In my previous blog, I debunked “the alpha dog myth” and provided evidence against the alpha myth theory. In this blog, I will discuss various common aversive training techniques and their side effects. Lastly, I will discuss the benefits of using positive reinforcement and other ethical ways to create behavior change, even when a dog engages in aggressive behavior.
Common Aversive Training Methods
Aversive training techniques include hitting or kicking a dog, the use of throw chains, stringing dogs up, the use of an alpha roll, and the use of e-collars. Sadly, these methods are used to teach obedience behaviors and treat behavioral problems. Let’s talk about two of the most common and controversial aversive training techniques: the use of shock and the alpha roll.
Praise for shock collars comes from their ability to produce a huge magnitude of behavior change in a very short amount of time. Another reason why some people like training with shock collars is that you do not need to be physically close to your dog and can train from a distance. Pet parents often use e-collars to teach off-leash behaviors like heel and recall. Others see the dramatic effects of shock and begin using it to address manners like jumping, chewing, or playbiting.
Many pet parents also use shock as a last resort to treat severe problem behaviors after failed attempts using other methods. What these unsuspecting pet parents do not realize, is the amount of unintended and slowly building side effects of shock. These side effects are often long-lasting, if not forever, and trump any problem behavior that was initially present.
As a CAAB, one of the major reasons I recommend against the use of shock is because it can elicit aggressive behavior. Research has shown that shock can produce aggressive behavior in dogs as well as other animals. According to Polsky, aggressive behavior such as a bite is a possible result of a dog receiving an electric shock. In another study by Azrin et al., shock procedures were shown to induce a biting-attack response in rats and monkeys whenever a target was present. There was also a direct relationship between the number and duration of shocks and the number of attacks. Although not directly applied to all of the contexts used, these findings can be extended to other areas.
In some cases, shock has been used to reduce aggressive behavior. In these cases, not only is the dog learning the wrong message through associations (i.e., other dogs or people equal shock), but other more subtle signs of aggression, are effectively punished. What that means is that those subtle signs of aggression no longer occur and a bite seems to happen out of nowhere as supported by Azrin et al.,’s research. The targets of the bite do not get any warning and instead suffer a serious bite.
In nearly 20 years of practice, I have observed numerous dogs who were previously trained using shock and with whom began engaging in aggression because of the use of shock. In these cases, through learning by association, the dog ties shock to the presence of other stimuli in the environment—-other dogs, people, or even their owner or the sound of an obedience command. When they see or hear the stimulus—now an aversive stimulus—they become aggressive.
For example, I once received a call from a pet parent whose dog attacked him after hearing the sit command. The dog had a history of being shocked for not complying with the sit command. On another occasion, I entered a home and the dog became very aggressive at the front door as I entered. After speaking with the pet parent, they had begun using a hand-held shock collar to reduce jumping on guests–a friendly behavior–at the front door. In other cases, dogs might become fearful of an area they have been shocked. For example, if shock is used when a dog is outside, the dog could develop a fear of going outside, creating a potty training nightmare.
The Alpha Roll and Aggressive Physical Manipulation
Some pet parents have been advised to use the alpha roll, which is rolling your dog onto their back and pinning them to the ground if they growl or disobey you to show them you are the alpha. Research has shown that dogs exhibiting aggression towards familiar people (e.g. growling at their owner) were more likely to respond with aggressive behavior to aversive training techniques like the alpha roll compared to dogs with other behavioral issues (Herron et al., 2009).
The alpha roll is both outdated and potentially dangerous. It was originally popularized in the book “How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend” published in 1978 by the Monks of New Skete, award-winning dog trainers. However, in 2002, the second edition of the book was released, and the authors strongly discouraged the use of the alpha roll due to pet parents reporting aggressive reactions.
The alpha roll might seem to work as a punisher on some dogs, depending on their genetic makeup, demeanor, and behavioral history. For example, a 12-week-old golden retriever with no behavioral issues could react very differently to the alpha roll than a 6-year-old rescue mastiff with a history of trauma and abuse. The golden retriever might roll onto their back easily without much resistance or fear because they are so young and respond quickly to intimidation, while the mastiff might become fearful and potentially aggressive in a defensive manner.
Using the alpha roll is simply not worth the potential damage to you and your beloved dog’s relationship. There are plenty of ways to get your dog to listen to you using behavior modification without inducing fear in your dog!
Aversive Training Effects on Wellbeing
Shock collars, the alpha roll, and other aversive training techniques can have adverse effects on your dog’s overall well-being. Research has proven that out of all training methods, aversive techniques such as hitting or kicking your dog, growling at your dog, the alpha roll, and other physical manipulation techniques, are associated with the highest frequency of dog aggression (Herron et al., 2009).
Aside from potentially causing greater aggression in dogs, aversive training techniques have also been associated with decreased well-being. Research suggests that aversive-based training methods compromise the welfare of dogs both during and after training (Fuchs et al., 2020). In this study, dogs that received aversive-based training displayed more stress-related behaviors and tense body language during training. They also had higher post-training levels of cortisol. The frequency of aversive-based training also seems to make a difference in well-being with higher amounts of aversive training leading to higher levels of stress.
Additional evidence that supports that aversive training methods cause decreased well-being was found in a 2021 study by Casey et al. In this study, researchers found that dogs trained with aversive training methods experienced a more negative mood state than those trained with positive reinforcement. This could reflect a tendency to process ambiguous information more negatively, which also occurs in depressed people. We want our dogs to be as happy and healthy as possible, but also well-behaved members of the family. We can do this by training our dogs with positive reinforcement and avoiding aversive training techniques.
Shock can be especially damaging to a dog’s overall well-being. According to Schilder et al., shock is a painful experience for dogs. If an owner shocks their dog, the dog can associate the shock with the presence of the owner therefore compromising the well-being of the dog in the presence of the owner. In situations where a collar fails due to various technology issues or worse, a hand-held remote is used, error is likely to occur. Dogs are then shocked seemingly at random which creates generalized anxiety.
In a recent 2020 article, Kaptejin found shock can quickly cause fear or mental trauma, and continued use can cause general anxiety and an overall fearful dog. In dogs that are already experiencing high levels of fear and stress leading to aggression, adding shock to the mix can increase the amount of time dogs spend in these negative mood states, therefore increasing aggressive behavior.
I recommend against the use of shock collars and the alpha roll because of their unintended side effects. The great news is that there are better methods—specifically positive reinforcement and classical conditioning– to train dogs without these terrible side effects. In fact, researchers found that dogs trained with e-collars showed more behavioral signs of stress than dogs trained with positive reinforcement (Cooper et al., 2014). Even more exciting, there was also no difference in the efficacy of training when comparing dogs trained with e-collars versus dogs trained with positive reinforcement. This suggests that there is no benefit to using e-collars over positive reinforcement for training, especially considering the risks to wellbeing.
Behavior Modification: Is it Effective as Aversive Methods?
From my experience, positive reinforcement and classical conditioning are as effective, if not more effective, in teaching obedience behaviors and treating problem behaviors. Not only is this evident in practice, but research also supports this. Dogs trained using methods primarily based on positive reinforcement performed better in a series of obedience tasks than dogs trained using mostly punishment (Hilby et al., 2004).
Research has also shown that dogs trained primarily with punishment were much more likely to develop future fear-related behavior than dogs trained with positive reinforcement (Blackwell et al., 2007). Behavior modification training can improve your relationship with your dog, effectively reduce behavioral issues, and teach advanced obedience as supported by Kapteijn.
Our science-based training methods are based on positive reinforcement and classical conditioning. Behavior modification is the most effective method in treating aggressive behavior in dogs. If you have tried training your dog yourself or feel at your wits end about your dog’s aggressive or fear-based behavior, we would love to help. Schedule a free consultation with us today and check out my other blogs on dog behavior if you’d like to learn more about our methods of training and the range of behaviors we treat here at Beyond the Dog.
Azrin, N. H., Hutchinson, R. R., & Hake, D. F. (1967). ATTACK, AVOIDANCE, AND ESCAPE REACTIONS TO AVERSIVE SHOCK1. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 10(2), 131–148. https://doi.org/10.1901/jeab.1967.10-131
Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. A. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3(5), 207-217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008
Casey, R. A., Naj-Oleari, M., Campbell, S., Mendl, M., & Blackwell, E. J. (2021). Dogs are more pessimistic if their owners use two or more aversive training methods. Scientific Reports, 11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-97743-0
Cooper, J. J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014). The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training. PLoS ONE, 9(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102722
Fuchs, D., Morello, G. M., Pastur, S., & S. Olsson, I. A. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLOS ONE, 15(12), e0225023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225023
Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., & Reisner, I. R. (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, 117(1-2), 47-54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Hiby, Elly & Rooney, Nicola & Bradshaw, J. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare. 13. 63-69.. 10.1017/S0962728600026683.
Kapteijn, C.M., Van Der Borg, J.A.M., Vinke, C.M., & Arndt, S.S. (2020, December 14). The negative effects of the electronic collar on the welfare of dogs and positive training methods as alternatives. Utrecht University. https://www.uu.nl/en/news/the-negative-effects-of-the-electronic-collar-on-the-welfare-of-dogs-and-positive-training-methods
Polsky, R. H. (2000). Can aggression in dogs be elicited through the use of electronic pet containment systems? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3(4), 345–357. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327604jaws0304_6
Schilder, M. B., & Van Der Borg, J. (2004). Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 85(3–4), 319–334. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2003.10.004