Over the past six months, I've had the amazing pleasure of deepening my education and experience in dog training and behavior:
Differences in Dog Training Methods and the Creation of Positive or Negative Welfare
There are various dog training methods being utilized today. While positive reinforcement and reward-based training are increasing in popularity, traditionally, domestic dogs have been and some continue to be trained with negative reinforcement and positive punishment (Hiby, Rooney & Bradshaw, 2004). Animal guardians, as well as professionals who work with dogs, must consider the welfare implications of utilizing various training methods.
It is apparent that animal guardians and professionals alike care about the welfare of our canine companions. However, when examining their welfare, oftentimes the goal is simply to improve negative welfare. Improving negative welfare through the avoidance of negative states does not inherently create positive welfare. Creating positive welfare requires us to go beyond trying to improve poor conditions or ensuring a dog’s basic needs are met. In this paper, I discuss which dog training methods create positive welfare and as well as which training methods create negative welfare.
By creating positive welfare, we go beyond the traditional practice of only satisfying the basic needs of the animal, and additionally, consider what they “want” and “like,” also known as preferences and motivations (Yeates & Main, 2008). Coincidentally, positive welfare is intrinsically difficult to measure due to various limitations, such as anthropomorphism and our inability to fully understand the realities of nonhuman animals, even the dogs we share our homes with. However, there are three criteria that can be considered when evaluating the welfare of an individual dog—physical health, natural living and affect. Fraser (2008) proposes a relevant example of when just two of the three criteria, natural living and basic physical health, are met for a dog, but affect, the dog’s emotional state, is not: “a dog with a punitive but otherwise attentive owner, healthy, well fed, and living free in the countryside, but in chronic fear of the owner and occasionally in pain from being struck” (p. 230). In this scenario, I argue that this individual dog is not experiencing positive welfare.
I will utilize three questions drawn from these criteria to determine whether or not positive welfare is created using various dog training methods: Are they healthy? Do they feel well (mentally)? Do they live a natural life? The answers to these questions demonstrate how various training methods impact the welfare of domestic dogs and provide insight on how we can not only improve negative welfare but create positive welfare.
The Three Questions: Summaries & Analysis
Are they healthy?
Ensuring that an individual dog is physically healthy is one of the basic needs that should be addressed to prevent negative welfare. While good physical health alone will not create positive welfare, it lays a necessary foundation.
Shock collars are training tools that can be used for negative reinforcement or positive punishment, depending on what their being used for—negative reinforcement increases a behavior by removing something aversive (remove shock) and positive punishment decreases a behavior by adding something aversive (add shock) (Schilder & van der Borg, 2004; Deldalle & Gaunet, 2014). One study tested the short- and long-term effects of using shock collars in training and determined that, particularly in the presence of their handler, dogs presented more stress signals, including vocalizations that indicated the shocks were painful. The researchers also discussed how the dogs learned to expect something aversive in the presence of their handler, as evident by their continued display of stress signals during walks outside of training sessions. This implies that these dogs are experiencing chronic stress, which may have long-term effects on their physical health through the impairment of basic health and functioning and pathological changes such as disease (Fraser, 2008). However, this study could have provided more insight into the physiological effects of using shock collars by measuring cortisol, heart rate and other parameters.
One study on the efficacy and welfare consequences of using shock collars, also known as electronic collars or e-collars, did measure cortisol levels. Specifically, the researchers measured salivary cortisol in both their preliminary and main study as well as urinary corticosteroids in their main study (Cooper, Cracknell, Hardiman, Wright & Mills, 2014). In their preliminary study, they tested a group of dogs that were being trained with e-collars to avoid sheep or to improve their recall, and there was a significant increase in their salivary cortisol. However, in their main study, there were not any significant differences in cortisol levels between the e-collar treatment group and the control groups. They cited that this may have been possible due to differences in trainers between studies. Only one of the three trainers in the preliminary study followed the recommended approach by UK e-collar manufacturers, which includes pairing the shock with a pre-warning cue, which gives the dog the opportunity to avoid the shock by improving its behavior. The trainers in the main study were experienced trainers that were nominated by the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association and utilized their recommended approach. The authors mentioned that another reason for the significant increase in salivary cortisol in the preliminary study may have been due to arousal resulting from exposure to the sheep that were present in addition to an increase in exercise during the training sessions. However, in the preliminary study, they observed behavioral changes in the dogs including sudden lowered posture and tail position and increase in vocalizations that they stated were consistent with pain and/or aversion. It can be discerned by this study that if shock collars are not used by experienced trainers in accordance to e-collar manufacturers’ best practices, dogs could be experiencing negative welfare. Nonetheless, the group of dogs that were trained by experienced trainers still displayed higher incidences of panting and yelping, with higher frequencies of vocalizations associated with the higher intensity settings on the shock collars. Thus, there is the possibility that even when used “correctly,” e-collars are still a threat to dog welfare.
Overall (2007), a veterinary behaviorist well-known in the reward-based training community for her “Relaxation Protocol,” states her opposition to aversive tools such as shock collars, prong collars and choke chains, describing that when used on her patients, they become “more pathologic” (p. 103). She goes on to discuss research on the physical effects of these tools, including cervical instability, degenerative arthritis, laryngeal nerve paralysis and an increase in intraocular pressure that may be injurious to vision.
Grohmann, Dickomeit, Schmidt & Kramer (2013) reported on a German shepherd dog who suffered severe brain damage and was later euthanized after his owner utilized positive punishment with a choke chain during a training session. The owner suspended the dog in the air by his leash and collar, which is a common form of positive punishment. Other injuries resulting from punishment-based methods such as the use of choke chains and prong collars include laryngeal, esophageal, thyroidal, and tracheal damage (Brammeier et al., 2006). Punishment involving beating can result in bruising, broken bones and damage to internal organs.
Coppola, Grandin and Enns (2006) demonstrated that human interaction can lower cortisol salivary cortisol levels in shelter dogs. With this in mind, as well as the aforementioned research, it is evident the great extent in which humans can have on canine stress as well as their physical health. However, more peer-reviewed reports like that of the German shepherd dog in conjunction with additional research is necessary to determine which training methods have positive effects on the physical health of dogs, thus creating positive welfare.
Do they live a normal life?
When discussing welfare issues, the idea of an animal living a “normal” life refers to the naturalness of their lives and whether or not they are able to perform the natural behaviors they have evolved to perform in their current environment. Oftentimes, in order to determine what is natural for an individual (usually captive) animal, we look at their wild counterpart. Thus, distinguishing what is natural or normal for dogs can be difficult due to the conflict over what species we should consider their wild counterpart: wolves or free-ranging dogs.
I argue that there may be a welfare concern in putting naturalness where it’s not, specifically in comparing dogs to wolves. First, it should be noted that the species of wolf that dogs evolved from is now extinct, and modern wolves are genetically distinct from this ancient species (Freedman et al., 2014). Additionally, domestic dogs, even those lacking human socialization, are more likely to form attachment bonds to humans than hand-reared wolves (Topál et al., 2005). This is likely the result of genetic changes that occurred during the evolution and domestication of dogs coupled with the mutually beneficial relationship that continues to occur between humans and dogs to this day. Correspondingly, dogs have evolved abilities that wolves do not possess. These unique abilities allow them to understand human communicative social cues such as following our gaze and pointing, in addition to distinguishing our facial expressions and vocalizations (Nagasawa, Mogi & Kikusui, 2009; Virányi et al., 2008; Nagasawa, Murai, Mogi & Kikusui, 2011; Andics, Gácsi, Faragó, Kis & Miklósi, 2014).
One common concept that was originally derived from old research on wolf behavior that has been translated to dog behavior is the existence of dominance. Dominance has become a controversial subject evident by years of conflicting research and disagreements amongst scientists, trainers and dog owners alike. In a review of various research by Bradshaw, Blackwell and Casey (2009), they argued that terms like “dominance” and “submission” are often used incorrectly due to the assumption that, because dogs descended from wolves, their social relationships are the same. However, contradictory to the dominance theory, naturally occurring wolf packs find that cohesive rather than aggressive behavior is essential for stability. In the wild, wolf packs are led by the mated pair, also referred to as the “alpha” male and female, and are accompanied by their offspring from previous years. Conversely, in packs of free-ranging dogs, multiple females are courted by multiple males, and their social structure is kin-based but does not mirror that of wolves. Additionally, in studies on groups of neutered dogs, there is no clear-cut dominance hierarchy. Finally, when examining the social relationship between humans and dogs, Bradshaw et al. (2009) argued that “...there is no reason to suppose that “trying to achieve status” is characteristic of dog-human interactions either” (p. 143). Dogs differentiate humans from other dogs (Payne et al., 2015). In a neuroimaging study examining how dogs’ brains process odors, it was demonstrated that dogs could discriminate between the odors of themselves, a familiar human, a stranger, a familiar dog and a strange dog. Only when the dog was exposed to the odor of a familiar human did they present a reward-response (Berns, Brooks & Spivak, 2015).
Contradictorily, trainers and dog owners continue to use the concept of dominance to label a dog with a specific characteristic or personality trait. Bradshaw et al. (2009), however, argued that the term dominance refers to something that occurs within the current relationship between two individuals and is not a specific characteristic or personality trait:
“…The use of the expression ‘‘dominant dog’’ is meaningless, since ‘‘dominance’’ can apply only to a relationship between individuals. Furthermore, the use of such terminology can lead to the application of training practices that can create anxiety in dogs about interactions with their owners” (p. 136).
One example of the incorrect use and understanding of dominance in dogs is rooted in a common training technique called the “alpha roll,” a form of positive punishment which consists of rolling a dog onto it’s back and holding it down until they “submit.” In Herron, Shofer and Reisner (2009), they found that many owners who attempted this and other physically manipulative techniques like it reported that their dogs responded in aggression. When dogs choose to roll onto their backs, it is often an appeasement behavior, and they are hoping to avoid a threat. However, if the threat (the owner holding them down) persists, the dog may respond with defensive aggression.
If we are to determine which training methods are most appropriate when training and modifying dog behavior, we must reference research done on domestic dogs rather than wolves. The most accurate way to determine how humans should treat and train their dogs is to look to research examining companion dogs and their relationship with humans. Even research on free-ranging dogs may lack applicability because forming bonds with humans and looking to us for information and guidance is what our companion dogs have evolved to do. Sharing our homes and our lives with us is what’s natural for them. Consequently, in order to allow dogs to do what they’ve adapted to do, we should choose training methods that work to improve the human-canine bond. Greenebaum (2010) argues that:
“The "traditional" dominance-based method of training endorses obedience by using a human-centric approach that places dogs in a subordinate position in order to maintain a space in the family. The "reward-based" behavior modification method promotes a dog-centric approach that highlights companionship over dominance and promotes a balance of human and dog desires and needs” (p. 129).
When determining what is natural for our dogs and how naturalness could create positive welfare, another approach could be to specify and tap into the behaviors that we’ve bred into them during training. Artificial selection in domestic dogs has resulted in a number of morphological and behavioral differences between breeds (Svartberg, 2006). Svartberg cited multiple studies dating from 1958 to 2001 that demonstrated breed differences in behavior, such as emotionality and social behaviors. However, Svartberg’s results did not demonstrate any significant differences in behavior between breeds and hypothesized that this may be due to the modern dog not serving the original functions of its breed. For example, of the three Terrier breeds in the study, none were hunting dogs.
Further research is necessary in order to verify if modern dogs would benefit from tapping into their original, “natural” functions during training sessions (i.e. scent work, herding trials, etc.). However, more often than not, it seems that we are utilizing certain training methods to train natural behaviors out of dogs. Christiansen, Bakken & Braastad (2001) discussed how canine predatory behavior towards sheep was decreased through the use of electronic shock collars. They determined that the dogs’ welfare was not threatened due to the absence of observed anxiety and negative behavior changes. Future studies should objectively determine whether reducing predatory behaviors in dogs reduces welfare by suppressing their natural behavior.
Do they feel well (mentally)?
One of the most important measures in determining whether or not an animal is experiencing positive welfare is by examining their emotional state, often referred to as affect. Payne et al. (2015) discussed the human-canine bond as a symbiotic relationship in which the affective benefits to dogs resulting from attachment or otherwise should be considered. I argue that due to this attachment bond, dogs’ emotional states may be heavily influenced by human action. Payne et al. (2015) also discussed how the “use of positive reinforcement and affiliative interactions are likely to produce a positive affective state in a dog, leading to more favorable behavioral responses, such as obedience during training” (p. 72).
One study by Blackwell, Twells, Seawright and Casey (2008) surveyed 192 dog owners on what training methods they used in addition to what undesirable behaviors their dogs displayed. Dogs who were trained using positive reinforcement alone were less likely to be fearful or aggressive. Dogs who were trained using punishment-based techniques were associated with a higher number of undesirable behaviors, which the researchers suggested may be a result of dogs associating punishment with either their handler or the context in which it occurs, leading to fear and anxiety. Blackwell et al. (2008) also discussed that dogs may be affected by inconsistencies in training methods, as dogs who were trained using both positive reinforcement and negative punishment were more likely to be aggressive, which is often associated with anxiety. The researchers were thorough in their examination of other influences that may have affected the occurrence of undesirable behaviors and also recognized that how they collected their sample (owners who were taking their dogs for walks or visited a veterinary hospital in a limited number of geographical locations) may have skewed their results.
Another questionnaire-based study also examined the relative effectiveness of various training methods and their effects upon canine behavior (Hiby, Rooney & Bradshaw, 2004). They surveyed 364 people, and while three-quarters of respondents used some form of reward, the majority also utilized punishment. The study also found a correlation between punishment-based training and an increased incidence of behavioral issues, particularly separation-related problems and overexcitement, both of which may be rooted in anxiety. Dogs trained with reward-based methods were more likely to be obedient, balanced dogs.
A similar study looked at differences in behavior between larger and smaller dogs and found that those differences were less directly related to size but were greatly impacted by inconsistencies in owner behavior and which training methods they utilized (Arhant, Bubna-Littitz, Bartels, Futschik & Troxler, 2011). This study found that more frequent use of punishment during training was correlated with increased excitability and aggression in both small and large dogs. They also determined that small dogs were reported to be less obedient by their owners and that using positive punishment with smaller dogs was associated with increased fear and anxiety. This may be due to the differences in behavior of small dog owners versus large dog owners—the small dog owners were reported to be most inconsistent in their behavior and engaged less in training and play activities with their dogs. This study analyzed a large sample size of 1236 questionnaires to obtain their results, but it would be interesting to compare the results with an experimental, observational study. The fear and anxiety caused by punishment-based methods inform us of the dogs’ affective states as well their welfare.
According to Boissy et al. (2007), social behavior and play are rewarding experiences for many animals that result in positive affect. Play can also be used as an indicator for good welfare because the “occurrence of play behavior or typical signs of satisfaction indicate that the animal is not deprived of important sources of pleasure and that other needs are being met” (p. 382). Play and social behaviors are also natural behaviors for dogs.
Rooney and Cowan (2011) tested how various training methods affect canine learning ability as well as owner-dog interactions. Dogs trained with more punishment-based methods were less interactive and playful with their owners in addition to being less likely to approach and interact with a stranger. They also performed poorly in novel training tasks compared to the dogs trained with reward-based methods. This suggests that these dogs were not only experiencing negative affect but also negative welfare. Data in this study was collected via the direct observation of 53 dog owners and their dogs. While a smaller sample size compared to the previous studies, I believe their use of direct observation provides stronger conclusions compared to the studies that relied on owner’s reports in the form of completed questionnaires.
Hasegawa, Ohtani & Ohta (2014) suggested that for effective training, owners must be able to read their dogs’ emotional and motivational states. Dogs that are concentrating and highly motivated are enabled to learn, and as Rooney and Cowan (2011) suggested, training that uses more rewards may increase dogs’ motivation and desire to learn because they may learn to anticipate receiving rewards.
Thus, by diminishing the negative emotional experiences dogs are experiencing and increasing their positive emotional experiences through appropriate methods and tools, we can work towards creating positive welfare with dog training.
Physical health, naturalness and affect are important measures of animal welfare and represent important facets that formulate the livelihood of nonhuman animals. Whenever possible, it is important to consider the individual animal rather than the species or population as even “members of the same species often have unique perspectives, preferences and needs” (Whitham & Wielebnowski, 2013). When utilizing these measures to determine the welfare of an individual animal, we can ensure that we are making the best choices in how we care for that animal. If all three criteria are being met, it’s hard to argue that the animal isn’t experiencing positive welfare.
Based on the aforementioned studies on various training methods, I argue that using positive reinforcement and reward-based training methods can create positive welfare for domestic dogs through meeting and exceeding the three criteria. Reward-based training methods do not diminish the physical health of dogs as they do not cause physical pain, injury or chronic stress. Reward-based training does not support unnatural dominance or wolf pack theories which utilize punishment-based methods. Reward-based training encourages positive emotional states; dogs trained with positive reinforcement and reward-based training methods are less stressed, fearful or anxious, are more obedient and have less undesirable behaviors. Similarly, dogs trained with rewards are more motivated to learn. Reward-based methods also increase confidence as well as play behaviors, a very important indicator of positive affect. However, more research is required on how reward-based training can create positive welfare.
While there is a large body of research on negative welfare, continued research on positive welfare is necessary and will provide more information as how to we can create positive welfare for animals and the importance of doing so. I predict positive welfare studies will focus heavily on positive affect, and as evident by the influence of training methods on the affective states of dogs, this research could encourage significant welfare improvements in the animal industry. However, studying affect comes with a particular set of limitations and challenges due to our inability to fully understand how nonhuman animals perceive the world, including their emotional lives. Whitham and Wielebnowski (2013) discussed how in zoos it is becoming more common to utilize keeper assessments as insight into the affective states and other facets of individual animals that may affect their welfare. However, humans struggle to even interpret the behavior of our companion animals (Tami & Gallagher, 2009).
Much of the current and past research on dog welfare and training methods seems heavy with bias. Consequently, I recognize my own limitations in looking at the research objectively due to my own inherent bias that’s developed through my experience as an animal guardian in addition to working in the companion animal industry. I hope to see future studies more objectively assess positive welfare in dogs.
Many of the studies I found were questionnaire-based studies (Blackwell et al., 2008; Hiby et al., 2004; Arhant et al., 2010), and when respondents are dog owners, this may decrease the likelihood of accurate interpretations of dog behavior. Rooney & Cowan (2011) provides a good model for future studies in their direct observation of the interactions between owners and their dogs.
Dog trainers should stay informed of the current research on dog behavior, welfare and the dog-human relationship and adjust their training protocols accordingly. I believe that future research on dog behavior as well as the human-canine bond can tell us how we can utilize the unique intraspecific communication between humans and dogs in reward-based training and create positive welfare.
Both animal guardians and animal professionals alike still struggle with interpreting dog behavior (Tami & Gallagher, 2009), thus, it is important to make scientific findings accessible to lay people in addition to encouraging academics and animal professionals to educate the public. Similarly, educating professionals who work with and handle dogs (dog trainers, veterinary professionals, groomers, etc.) specifically on the welfare implications of utilizing punishment-based training methods is paramount.
Animal professionals must be consistent and in agreement regarding how they can create positive welfare for dogs. This includes modifying their own practices in their respective professions to promote positive welfare through appropriate handling. Additionally, animal professionals should encourage the importance of training and socialization to animal guardians. Bennett & Rohlf (2007) reported that “welfare is likely to be considerably improved if they are sufficiently well mannered and sociable to engage in shared activities with their owners” (p. 83).
Veterinarians are likely the most important individuals in the animal industry that should be educated on dog behavior, training and welfare. Roshier and McBride (2013) discussed the lack of confidence by veterinarians to even assess behavior, which could result in behavior issues going unmanaged and ignored. Veterinarians should seek out continuing education to become more familiar with the behavior of the species they are working with. Herron et al. (2009) suggested that veterinarians should be advising owners about the risks associated with punishment-based training methods, and I couldn’t agree more. Veterinarians can utilize their influence and education to offer guidance and resources to owners so that they make not only safe decisions but decisions that promote positive welfare while training their dogs or seeking a dog trainer.
Additionally, I believe shelters and rescues are great resources and can provide substantial education to their communities. Some humane societies have started offering free workshops to new adopters to provide education on some of the basics of training and behavior (Humane Society of Boulder Valley, 2015).
Workshops, seminars and webinars are great ways animal professionals and academics can educate the public, providing science-based information about dog behavior and training. While more research is necessary, when examining how various dog training methods impact the three welfare criteria, I believe we have sufficient information to shift away from methods that cause negative welfare and promote methods that create positive welfare for dogs.
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