Positive Reinforcement vs Aversive Training

Feb 9, 2019   Tracey Aston   Training

The most important lesson in training is that training is communication. The second most important lesson is dogs communicate much differently than we do. Dogs communicate through body language and subtle cues, therefore they must be taught our language by using word association and incentives.  If someone screams at you in a foreign language and then gets mad at you for not understanding what they said, it won't change the fact that you don't speak that language. Most pet parents will have stories about their pet learning words and then reacting to those words. . After enough repetition, a pet parent can say “walk” and the pet makes a dash for the door. They don't speak English but they have associated that word with an action. Think of teaching a young child to speak, you show them an apple and then say apple. You point to yourself and say “mama” or “dada.” They learn the words for the apple, mom and dad by associating it with what you are showing them. Yelling apple at a child over and over won't teach them what an apple is but we expect this understanding from our pets.

According to Victoria Stillwell's article Positive Reinforcement,  “Positive-reinforcement teaching techniques use non-confrontational methods to work a dog's brain – rewarding positive behavior, establishing rituals and training actions that are incompatible with negative behavior, and lessening a dog's anger and frustration – all while enabling the dog to feel good inside. If you reinforce a dog's desirable behaviors, there is less of a chance that she will indulge in other behaviors that you do not like. Decision-making is influenced without the use of force, and the dog's trust in the owner is not violated through threatening treatment.”  If a parent offers to pay their child $5 for every A on their report card, they won't have to continually remind the child to study because the child will have an incentive to get the A on their own because of the reward! 

Aversive training or “positive punishment” is associating a negative stimulus with an undesirable or unwanted behavior.  It's punishing a pet for not being trained to do what is expected of it, not communicating properly with the pet.  Aversive training has been linked to stress, fear and aggression in dog's and will break the bond of trust the pet has with its owner. For instance, if a pet is jumping on people, shoving them down or spraying them in the face isn't training them on what to do! Again, imagine the person screaming a foreign language in your face and then shoving you out of the way. Now you're confused, upset, wondering why and how to keep that from happening again but you have no clue what you did wrong or what they want you to do! A pet can be easily trained to sit at the owner's feet by rewarding positive behavior with incentive. Associating the word “sit” with an action and then offering a yummy treat and the sit command allows the dog to know what to do, and the treat is incentive enough to do it!

Notice the difference in the definitions –teaching vs punishment.  In her video from the YouTube series Victoria Stilwell Academy, she mentions “positive is not permissive.”  Positive reinforcement training is just that – training. It's not letting your pet do whatever it wants to do and ending up in danger. A dog doesn't want to be shocked before learning the appropriate behaviors.

Not only is aversive training methods not fair to a pet who hasn't been trained in what is expected of them, it can also cause lasting effects on the pet. According to a study published in the May – June 2017 Journal of Veterinary Behavior, “The results show that using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs. In addition, although positive punishment can be effective, there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement–based training.” 

Punishment is no way to learn, not for us or for our pets. We love our pets and our pets love us, but we speak very different languages. It's up to us as pet parents to take the time to teach them ours, through association and incentives, and train them in the actions we want to see more of from them. What would you want? A lesson in what is expected of you or shoved, choked, sprayed in the face after doing something you weren't ever taught?

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