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AVERSIVES IN TRAINING

 

AVERSIVE: Any stimulus a dog seeks to avoid or escape.

I am frequently asked whether or not a particular product might work to curb a dog's problem behavior. Some products are especially appealing because they "don't hurt." 

If it works by applying something - a sound, a smell, a sensation - that the dog doesn't like, it's aversive.

THE DOG DECIDES WHAT IS AVERSIVE

Period. No matter what euphemism or catchphrase someone uses it when describing it, if it works by applying something the dog would avoid if it could, it's aversive to the dog. 

It doesn't matter if you've tried it on your arm or neck, if the dog stops what they are doing the moment you use the product, it is aversive to the dog.

Even if it has the words "safe" or "humane" in the title or marketing copy, if the dog tries to get away from it, it is aversive to the dog.

If someone has told you that your dog should be rewarded with affection, but Fluffy pulls away when you reach to pet her, it is aversive to your dog (in that moment - lots of dogs love cuddling at home, but aren't that into it in high-distraction scenarios).

If your dog spends half your walk trying to rub the head collar off on the grass, it is aversive to your dog.

If your dog gleefully bites the water you are spraying at him, that is NOT aversive to your dog.

Regardless of our personal beliefs, the dog decides what is aversive.

AVERSIVES AND PUNISHMENT AREN'T THE SAME

I once came across an article online that claimed to fix any behavior problem using a noisemaker (in this case, pennies taped in a can). In the comments section, a woman wrote, "Works great!" Two months later, she replied to her own comment, "Only worked for a few weeks."

What happened? Well, maybe the dog was barking at the window and the woman rattled her can, which startled the dog and interrupted the barking. After a few weeks, the noise was no longer novel and it didn't lead to any consequences one way or the other, so the dog stopped responding.

By definition, punishment leads to a decrease in the frequency or intensity of behavior. If that isn't happening, the behavior isn't being punished. The dog is just being subjected to an aversive. At best, it's nagging. At worst, it's abuse.

For an example of punishment, my Border Collie, Parker, learned how to open lever door handles when he was 5 months old and started letting himself into any room that wasn't locked. One day, I was in my room when I heard a big CRASH! Followed by a freaked out adolescent puppy fleeing down the hall and into his crate. On investigation, I discovered that he had opened the door to the pantry, which contained the garbage can, as well as lots of other goodies. Unfortunately for Parker, the force with which he opened the door caused all of the mops and brooms to fall over, probably right on top of him. From that day on, he never, ever, tried to open that door again. 

Perfect timing. Perfect intensity. No association to me or my presence. It was aversive and it was punishing. And I couldn't have planned it better if I had tried.

 

You don't have to take my word for it.  Listen to law enforcement trainer, Steve White, discuss the rules of punishment:

 
AVERSIVES CAN LEAD TO GREATER PROBLEMS

Raise your hand if you love the smell of patchouli. No? You're not alone. But there are plenty of people who love it. As a child of the 70's, it's not an unpleasant smell for me and brings back many memories of peasant shirts and Cat Stevens on the turntable.

Now, let's say we're walking down the street together. Each time a blue car passes, you comment that you don't like blue cars, and I respond by spraying you with patchouli oil. Do you start loving blue cars? After all, I've punished you for expressing a negative opinion, so you must have formed a more positive opinion, right? That's not how it works. Chances are, you may start to tense up at the sight of a blue car, now anticipating a blast of oil. Instead of changing your behavior, I've increased your stress around blue cars. 

So, you're thinking about buying a citronella collar to stop your dog from barking all day while you're at work. Citronella collars function by spraying a strongly scented liquid into the face of an animal that has a sense of smell 40 times greater than ours. Sort of along the lines of spraying your kids in the face with a live skunk for running in the house. 

The only time the dog is sprayed with the collar is when he's outside. Because the citronella lingers long after the barking stopped, the dog doesn't make an association between the barking and the aversive. Only that the aversive occurs when you leave him outside. Since barking of this kind is most often a stress-related behavior, the collar just adds more stress to an already unpleasant situation. Even if the dog does make the correlation between the collar and the barking, he hasn't found a way to alleviate the stress of being isolated. Which leads to...

AVERSIVES DON'T TEACH THE DOG WHAT TO DO, INSTEAD

Aversive products function by suppressing behavior. They don't teach behavior. Spraying a burst of air at a dog doesn't teach them what to do, it just teaches them that what they just did results in something unpleasant.

All behavior serves a purpose. Whether the dog is barking, pulling on leash, or jumping on guests, the behavior is driven by something. Barking makes the mail carrier go away. Pulling on the leash gets them to the next tree faster. Jumping on guests gets attention. Suppressing the behavior doesn't change the motivation. 

Training is about replacing those impulses with behavior that we find more appropriate. A can of air won't teach a dog to lie on a mat when guests enter. A citronella collar won't teach a dog to walk at your side while other dogs pass by.

"BUT IT WORKED ON MY DOG"

When people tell me that X aversive "worked" on their dog, I ask how long ago it they used it. I usually get two responses. A) They are still using it, or B) they just started using it. Remember, stopping behavior in the moment is not the same as long-term change. Yes, an aversive may appear to stop barking when it happens, but if the barking doesn't go down in frequency or stop altogether, it may not be as effective as it appears. Only time will tell. 

BEFORE YOU BUY THAT PRODUCT

Ask yourself:

1. Will this change how my dog feels about this situation?
2. Will it teach my dog what I'd like him to do, instead?

If the answer is "No," save your money and look for other options.

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