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Punishment, puppies, and science: Bringing dog training to heel

Who’s an excellent dog?

Trainers have long relied on punishment as an exercise tool.

Teenager playing fetch with her dog

Enlarge / Teenager playing fetch with her dog

3 years ago, Valli Fraser-Celin adopted a blonde husky mix puppy, whom she named Husk. Fraser-Celin soon started researching to curb Husks totally wild behavior, she said, like stealing food from your kitchen counter and barking incessantly at strangers. In line with the advice of a YouTube trainer, Fraser-Celin started utilizing an electronic collar, or e-collar, that delivered a little shock when Husk misbehaved, but said she felt yucky about any of it.

Fraser-Celin rethought her approach after hearing about an animal trainer who taught a grizzly bear to cooperate with treatment only using positive reinforcement. If that hulking animal could learn with treats and praise, she thought, why were trainers using prong and shock collars? That has been the catalyst into my advocacy, said Fraser-Celin, who studied African wild dogs on her behalf Ph.D. and today works as a remote community liaison for the Winnipeg Humane Society and advocates independently for positive reinforcement training on Instagram. I must say i believe there must be regulations which are placed into place, she said, in line with the science and the studies which have shown the very best kind of training for dogs.

Fraser-Celin isn’t alone. Many researchers, trainers, and veterinary and training professional organizations are advocating for greater oversight for dog training, that is largely unregulated worldwidethough they sometimes disagree on the very best path of action and elect to focus on the study that reinforces their preferred approach. At this time, its the wild, wild West, said Anamarie Johnson, a psychology Ph.D. student at Arizona State University with a background in animal behavior and dog training. She recently published a report that analyzed web sites of 100 highly-rated trainers over the US, which discovered that most gave no indication if the trainer had relevant education or certification.

Anyone can identify as your dog trainerthey can set up a social media marketing page, they are able to offer services to the general public, and theres no expectations for his or her education, their continuing education, or their standards of practice, said Bradley Phifer, the executive director of the Certification Council for Professional TRAINERS, or CCPDT, a business promoting science-based training standards. People who have little if any education in animal behavior could be advising owners on handling aggression, he added. Theres a large consumer protection piece here, that when youre not adequately trained, or you dont have adequate experience in the market or in this content, then you must not be advising people on how best to prevent dog bites.

Some experts and organizations are pushing for greater regulation of the. Under an umbrella organization referred to as the Alliance for Professionalism in Dog Training, two major certification bodiesthe CCPDT and the Association of Professional TRAINERS, or APDThave jointly proposed model legislation they hope could possibly be adopted on a state-by-state basis. The legislation would require trainer licensure by way of a state board, create accountability standards, and require trainers to activate in continued education. Phifer said hes currently dealing with legislators in NJ, where regulations for trainers were first proposed in 2019, and that the joint effort can be making progress in California and Illinois.

However the push for regulation has exposed a schism in the market over using punishments versus rewards. Beneath the proposed legislation, certifying bodies will be necessary to uphold a policy that prioritizes positive reinforcement, though will not entirely eliminate punishmentan approach generally backed by research on efficacy and welfare and ever more popular among training professionals. While researchers and trainers largely concur that punishment-heavy approaches are harmful, they’re at odds whether all-out bans on aversive tools are productive, because the approach may work in limited circumstances.

Without clearer rules, the broad gaps in dog training pose a potentially large safety risk to the general public, said Johnson, because pet owners are trusting trainers to change the behavior of animals with sharp, pointy teeth that reside in the house.

Modern dog training is rooted in the mid-20th-century work of American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who suggested four categories for behavior modification: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Here, negative and positive dont indicate good or bad. Positive reinforcement adds something your dog loves to reinforce a behavior, like a treat or perhaps a toy for sitting on cue, while positive punishment adds something aversive, such as a tug on a leash, to diminish a behavior. Negative reinforcement removes something your dog dislikes, such as for example stopping a shock collar whenever a dog obeys a command, while negative punishment removes something desirable, such as for example facing from a dog that’s jumping for attention.

Many trainers and animal behavior experts say that aversive methods, such as positive punishment and negative reinforcement, are overused. Two major professional organizations that represent trainersthe APDT and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultantsnow limit the usage of tools like e-collars amongst their members.

In October this past year, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, which include both veterinarians and behaviorists with doctorate-level education in animal behavior, issued a statement: There is absolutely no evidence that aversive training is essential for dog training or behavior modification, referencing 21 studies on the potency of reward-based methods and risks of aversive methods. Alexandra Protopopova, an animal welfare researcher at The University of British Columbia, wrote within an email to Undark that the recent research cited by the statement reflected the undeniable risks of aversive techniques, adding: Ultimately, recent research in addition has shown that aversive methods usually do not bring about better trained dogs; thereby making traditional aversive dog training methods obsolete.

The study has raised concerns about dog welfare. In a single small study, dogs trained with rewards were more playful and better at learning a novel behavior than dogs whose owners reported using punishment. In another, dogs reportedly trained with aversive tools were, because the researchers put it, more “pessimistic than dogs which were not, predicated on their hesitation in approaching a plate of food. Some evidence also shows that usage of punishment in training can diminish the bond between your dog owner and their canine.

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