Aggressive Training Methods and Aggressive Dogs

How do we train our dogs? Do we need to be the alpha dog, the most dominant member of the pack, and insist that our dogs obey us, even if we must use force or punishment? This is the view still advocated by many trainers, but is it a scientifically sound way to train our animals?

A recent study by the Veterinary School at the University of Pennsylvania examined how dog owners respond to aggressive behavior in their dogs. (The abstract for the study can be found here.) They also asked owners if the technique(s) they used  resulted in an increase, decrease or no change in the dog’s behavior. Owners that used aversive or punishing techniques saw a higher rate of aggression and continuing “bad” behavior in their dogs. Owners who used non-aversive and non-punishing techniques (such as teaching an alternative behavior) saw a much lower rate of aggressive responses.

Here is a little of what they found:

The highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect:

•    Hitting or kicking the dog (41% of owners reported aggression)
•    Growling at the dog (41%)
•    Forcing the dog to release an item from its mouth (38%)
•    “Alpha roll” (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%)
•    “Dominance down” (forcing the dog onto its side) (29%)
•    Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%)
•    Staring the dog down (staring at the dog until it looks away) (30%)
•    Spraying the dog with water pistol or spray bottle (20%)
•    Yelling “no” (15%)
•    Forced exposure (forcibly exposing the dog to a stimulus – such as tile floors, noise or people – that frightens the dog) (12%)

Non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses:

•    Training the dog to sit for everything it wants (only 2% of owners reported aggression)
•    Rewarding the dog for eye contact (2%)
•    Food exchange for an item in its mouth instead of forcing the item out (6%)
•    Rewarding the dog for “watch me” (0%)

According to the author of the study, “confrontational training techniques can provoke fear in the dog and lead to defensively aggressive behavior toward the person administering the aversive action.”

However, the use of punishment and aversive training methods are still popular and often socially acceptable, largely due to the positive portrayal of these techniques by some of today’s most popular trainers. For example, trainers such as Cesar Millian advocate techniques such as alpha rolls or grabbing and shaking the dog, and the best selling training book by the Monks of New Skete includes instructions for  using choke chains and pinch collars.

Many owners want that perfect relationship with their dog. However, many who use these types of techniques act out of ignorance and frustration–they’ve never been taught a better way. Also, since punishment can seem to work at first, the use of punishment can be very reinforcing for the person doing the punishing.

So, what should we do instead of using punishment? We can remove the cause of the behavior, train an alternative behavior and/or train the dog to pay attention to and respond to the owner, rather than reacting to it’s environment.

Here’s an example of several ways to deal with a common behavioral problem. Many dogs run up and jump on visitors. This can be annoying and frustrating, especially if the visitors don’t like dogs or are afraid, or if dog is big enough to knock people over or is muddy. One way to deal with the problem would be to yell at the dog and grab the dog off the person, then put it in an alpha roll to show it who’s boss. However, this only punishes the dog for bad behavior, it doesn’t teach the dog a correct behavior it can do instead.

Instead, you could teach the dog to sit when people approach and wait to be petted. Or, you could teach the dog to go to a mat or designated spot when visitors arrived, instead of running to greet them. These redirect the behavior and give the dog an alternative, without turning to punishment. Or, if the dog just gets too excited when visitors arrive, you could leave the dog behind a dog gate in part of the house.

Want to see some positive dog training in action?

To read more about the study from a veterinarian’s perspective, I recommend reading this blog post.

You might also be interested in the AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) position statement on using punishment and also the AVSAB statement on dominance theory. Melissa Alexander has also written a excellent article on the history and misconceptions of dominance theory.

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