When I was a new dog owner, I thought all training was positive reinforcement based and I had never heard of or seen aversive training techniques.
My parents, who lived in the Vancouver area at the time, were eager to adopt a Beagle mix named Cooper. To ensure a smooth transition, I recommended obedience training and found what seemed like a reputable trainer in their suburb of Richmond. He had a nice web site, and did performances at the local mall, and was featured on TV. Everything checked out.
The Shocking Revelation
After the first session was over, I eagerly phoned my mom to ask how it went!
The first training session was nothing like my parents anticipated. The trainer, discarding the idea of using treats, asserted that food rewards only encouraged begging, a statement that went against everything I believed in dog training. Instead of a gentle method, Cooper was introduced to a choke chain and leash pops. This technique, aimed at correcting undesirable behaviors, was distressing for Cooper.
The impact was immediate and heartbreaking; Cooper refrained from eating for three days, a clear sign of his trauma. He developed a fear of men, and would often bark and lunge at them in public if they got too close, after that single traumatic experience with that male trainer.
Saddened by the news, I insisted that Cooper not return for subsequent lessons they had pre-paid for. No refunds were offered or available, and my parents forfeited their class fees.
The Aversive Training Reality
This incident was a rude awakening to the existence of aversive training methods. These techniques, unlike positive reinforcement, use unpleasant and painful stimuli to reduce unwanted behaviors. Choke chains, shock collars, and physical corrections are some common tools in this approach. The rationale behind such methods is to create an unpleasant experience for the dog when it misbehaves, intending to discourage that behavior in the future.
Recently, we posted an Instagram Reel comparing and contrasting a popular dog training influencer’s reactive/aggressive dog training techniques to footage from our Reactive Dog Group Class. A few of our students left comments highlighting how shocking it is to see for the first time.
The Positive Reinforcement Philosophy
In stark contrast, positive reinforcement, the method I was familiar with, focuses on rewarding desirable behaviors. Treats, praise, or toys are used to reinforce good behavior. This approach is based on the principle that behaviors followed by pleasant outcomes are likely to be repeated. Clicker training involves using a distinct sound to mark the desired behavior, followed by a reinforcer.
Choosing the Right Trainer
For new dog owners, choosing the right trainer is crucial. It is vital to research and understand the trainer’s methodology before entrusting them with your beloved pet. Look for trainers who use methods aligned with your beliefs and values. Remember, training methods should not only be effective but should also prioritize the mental and emotional well-being of your dog.
Many When Hounds Fly students are only familiar with positive reinforcement and clicker training, because it is all they have ever experienced. It is our responsibility to inform them about the variety of training techniques available, enabling them to make informed decisions for their pets, and to avoid sending friends and family members who live in far away places to the same scary experience that Cooper had to endure.
If you have friends and family in far away places, where certified trainers like us are unavailable, our Puppy Start Right and Foundation Skills courses are now available on-demand, and on-line. Send them this way, so they don’t end up like poor Cooper!
Andre Yeu, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP
Founder, When Hounds Fly