What happens when someone shares a “success” story about training with aversives? Here’s my response to a commenter who did so on one of my previous posts.
Once there was a woman named Reva who had a serious health condition that needed intervention. Her intexagog was inflamed and could rupture any day. Reva looked up intexagog specialists in the phone book. She found Dr. Bleppo, who had an ad that was both slick and reassuring, and picked him. She made an appointment. He was a likable guy and radiated competence. He said sure, he could fix her intexagog right up and she would be fine again.
Reva scheduled surgery. It seemed to go well. Her intexagog was fine, she was out of pain, and resumed her normal life. She started having mood swings, but didn’t put that together with the surgery. She thought maybe she had always experienced those and just didn’t remember correctly.
Whenever the subject of intexagogitis came up in discussion Reva always recommended the doctor who had operated on her. She heard some murmurings that maybe there were problems with his methods. She always responded, “But my operation was a great success!” Her friend Hector started having trouble with his intexagog, and she gave Dr. Bleppo a glowing reference. Hector contacted Dr. Bleppo on her recommendation.
But a few months after the surgery Reva found out from another specialist that the method Dr. Bleppo had used had an 80% rate of undesirable side effects. These had been well documented for years and the evidence the new doctor gave her was very strong. The side effects ranged greatly in intensity, from things like occasional tingling in the fingers to depression to damage of other body organs to death. They could appear immediately after the surgery or years later, especially if one maintained the after-surgery protocol Dr. Bleppo had recommended. The doctor hadn’t told her of any of this on the front end, just assured her of his experience and told her he could make her well again.
Even though Reva was one of the lucky ones–at this point she had only the mood changes to deal with–she felt betrayed. And now she knew that she might experience some of the other side effects later. She considered filing a complaint with the medical board, since Dr. Bleppo had acted wrongly in not informing her of these side effects and risks, or telling her of alternatives.
Hector had also gotten surgery from Dr. Bleppo, so Reva told him what she had learned. He reacted with hostility when she told him this news. He hadn’t experienced any side effects (yet). Hector continued to talk about what a wonderful, dedicated surgeon Dr. Bleppo was to all who would listen, and would bring up his own successful surgery as proof.
The world of dog training is rife with Dr. Bleppos. We don’t have a regulatory board to go to if they don’t inform us of the possible consequences of their actions, nor if they ruin our dogs with harsh methods. Most of us will move on to another trainer, but we may still not have the necessary information to assess trainers.
Training that depends on aversive methods such as prong or shock collars, intimidation, throwing things, loud noises or sprays of water or more noxious substances, personal pressure, or flooding (not letting the dog escape from a scary, painful, or uncomfortable situation) has risks. The possible fallout from these methods has been known and studied for decades and on many species. My posts 7 Effects of Punishment and Fallout from the Use of Aversives delineate the types of problems that commonly accompany the use of aversives. The latter post includes references to research. But the Trainer Bleppos either don’t know about the problems, they dis the science, or they actively keep this information from their clients.
The world of dog training is also full of Hectors. Many of us have been Hector at some point. When dog owners make a financial and emotional investment in something, we want it to work. Generally, if there is any way possible to see it as working, we will do so. So the Hectors of the dog training world predictably pipe up in any discussion that is critical of aversive methods and give the example of their dog being fine.
Some dogs may be fine, or close to it. Someone with more ability to read dog body language than the person posting would likely see the behavioral responses to the use of aversives, but they might be subtle and the commenter can’t see them. Plus many dogs are very resilient and forgiving of humans. We have bred them to be.
So I can never say to a commenter who relates a punishment success story that her individual experience is wrong and her dog is not fine. Sometimes I will suspect that the commenter lacks the knowledge for a comparative assessment, or the punitive methods used might have been at a low level or she might have a robust dog. But it is not good argument to deny someone’s experience.
What I can say, and am saying now, is that sharing such an experience does not prove the method’s safety and is very damaging. Behind the one dog who seems OK are strewn many dogs who may not recover from damage due to punitive training. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but most of the positive reinforcement based trainers I know go around picking up the pieces for those dogs and their owners. So holding up the token survivor is sadly misleading.
There are some common misunderstandings whenever I bring up the problems with aversive use. I want to address a few before the comments start rolling in, grin. Whenever someone submits a comment on my blog supporting or recommending the use of aversives, I counter it. This is not because I am completely pure in my training, nor because I think aversives don’t work, nor because I think dogs should live completely sheltered lives. It’s because aversive success stories give people permission and encouragement to use aversives. Many people are searching for this permission. I’m not going to provide it here.
On the other hand, I don’t think people should hide such usage. I’m in favor of honesty, and honesty includes delineating the drawbacks and risks of aversive use, especially when describing an apparent success. If something is noxious enough to prompt avoidance, it’s probably noxious enough to create side effects. I addressed this in my last post, Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement, with an example of what might happen when one uses a mildly aversive stimulus repeatedly in a training scenario.
Example: My Own Aversive Use
Here’s an example of how I talk about the implementation of an aversive. As part of loose leash training, I taught all of my dogs to yield to leash pressure with a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. I pulled gently on the leash, and when they responded by lessening the pressure (moving towards the tension), I marked and rewarded with food. The first reinforcer was the lessening of the pressure, and the second was the food. Leash pressure is aversive, and using it to train employs negative reinforcement.
Now, having a dog that will yield to gentle pressure is very handy. And teaching it is not usually likely to prompt a whole lot of redirected aggression or other dramatic side effects (with most dogs). Certainly not as problematical as something that hurts or pinches or applies heavy pressure. But when I look back on the videos I took, I can tell that it was just not fun for my dogs in the way most of our other training was, even though good food treats were involved. This exercise put a damper on their enjoyment of training, and possibly a damper on their relationship with me. Why let that happen if I don’t have to?
So if someone were to recommend that protocol, what about the people reading about it who have dogs who would suffer more from such an exercise, dogs who perhaps don’t have the huge positive reinforcement history with their owners that mine do? What about the fearful dogs who are just now getting used to being handled at all and are sensitive to proximity? There is possible fallout, even with such a mild aversive. So you will never see me tout its success or urge others to try it. Instead, if asked about my own experience, I’ll urge caution and describe the drawbacks.
Not every positive reinforcement method is right for every dog either, of course. And some include aversives accidentally in the way they are applied. Still, that is different from systematically and repeatedly using an unpleasant stimulus to get or suppress behavior.
To My Commenter
I’m glad your dog did OK after you used a trainer from a national franchise. I can tell he is a beloved family member and you care for him very much. I have a suggestion: there are at least two trainers in your area who use positive reinforcement based methods and have pledged never to hurt dogs in the name of training. They can be found by searching for trainers at your location on this list: Membership list of the Pet Professional Guild. Both of them offer fun classes like agility and clicker training. Take your dog to such a class, just for fun. See how he likes it. Hopefully it will be a new and enjoyable experience for both of you.
- But I’ve Seen Stressed Out Dogs in Positive Reinforcement Training Too!
- Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement
- World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge
- 7 Effects of Punishment
- Fallout from the Use of Aversives
- “I Know It Sounds Awful But…”…Evaluating Advice! (From the Dog Sense blog)
Graphic credit: The sad dog cartoon is free clipart from clipartpanda.com. Thanks! (By the way, I know the caption is improper grammar. Keep in mind that it’s a dog talking, grin.)
Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015