Confrontational Behavior Modification Techniques and the Risk to Owners

I have expressed my concern about confrontational behavior modification techniques in earlier blogs: the use of “positive punishment” or dominance and pack theory-based techniques, especially in the hands of untrained users, has been shown to be ineffective and to produce negative side effects.  Hiby and colleagues demonstrated that positive reinforcement techniques produced a significantly better response to obedience tasks than did positive punishment techniques.  Blackwell and colleagues showed that dogs trained using positive reinforcement methods were less likely to exhibit later behavior problems while dogs trained using punishment were more likely to exhibit later fear-related behaviors.  These are just some examples: there is an expanding literature on the significantly greater effectiveness of positive reinforcement techniques as well as the lack of effectiveness of aversive or confrontational methods, methods which are related to incorrect ideas about the role of dominance and pack theory in dogs.

 

But in addition to the lack of effectiveness of confrontational techniques, I have expressed concerns about increased risks to owners.  This can be seen regularly on a popular dog training program on television, where aggressive responses by dogs being exposed to confrontational techniques are seen.  And these responses are exhibited towards both the trainer and towards bystanders like owners and family members.  These aggressive responses are a result of either inappropriate use of dominance challenges, like “alpha rolling” and “dominance downs” or the result of purely fear-based responses to punishment.  I see these responses in my own cases frequently, in dogs which have experienced confrontational methods of behavior modification.

 

But it’s not just my observations: in the January (online) issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science (vol. 117 (2009) pg 47–54), Meghan Herron, Frances Shofer, and Ilana Reisner publish the results of a study which examined the risk towards owners of owner-executed behavior modification techniques in the form of dog aggression responses.  The retrospective survey technique determined the type of behavior modification attempted by owners of dogs brought to the University of Pennsylvania Behavior Service, as well as where the owner had learned the method, the effectiveness of the method in the owner’s eyes, and the rate of aggressive responses in the dog.

 

The study included 140 dogs, 90 purebred and 40 mixed breeds, and 41 breeds were represented with no breed representing more than 6% of the sample.  Presenting complaints, which could be multiple, included aggression to familiar people (43%), aggression to unfamiliar people (48%),  aggression to other dogs (40%), separation anxiety (20%), specific fears and anxieties (32%), and a small number of other issues.

 

The most commonly used confrontational techniques were leash correction (75%), prong or pinch collars (38%), and the use of muzzles (38%).  Aggressive responses on the part of the dog was noted at rates ranging from 43% (for hit or kicking the dog) to 3% for kneeing the dog for jumping, and include rates like 11% for choke or prong collars, 38% for forced release of objects, 31% for alpha rolling, 29% for dominance downs, and 26% for grabbing jowls or scruff.  Even indirect confrontational techniques elicited aggressive responses from dogs in 30% (stare down), 20% (spray bottle), and 41% (growl at dog) of cases.  In contrast, postive reinforcement techniques elicited aggressive responses towards the owners in 0% (clicker training, Look at Me training, pheromones, and increased exercise) to a mere 6%  (trade food for object training) of cases.

 

There is considerable scientific literature which argues against the idea that most behavior issues are a result of dominance issues or a lack of “alpha” status of owners, instead suggesting that most aggression issues result from fear (self-defense) and anxiety-related issues.  It is equally clear from the scientific literature that confrontational methods like alpha-rolling, forced or dominance downs, and pinch collars increase the levels of a dog’s stress, anxiety, and fear; thus it is not surprising that the use of these techniques were reported to be associated with high levels of aggressive response.  Interestingly, the most commonly reported source of these techniques was television, and while the research did not ask for specifics, it can be assumed that many of these techniques were learned from a popular television hosted by Cesar Millan.

 

This study reinforces my own observations that dogs frequently respond aggressively to these confrontational techniques, from fear and anxiety, and that these techniques tend to make these conditions worse, continuing a spiral of deteriorating behavior, often resulting in either attacks on owners, redirected attacks on other humans, dogs, cats and other animals in their environment, or surrender of the unmanageable animal to an adoption facility.  Add to these issues the well-illustrated fact that confrontational methods are not effective, and any reasonable, science-based dog owner should conclude that these techniques have no place in the world of our dogs.  The science of ethology, modern animal behavior, is continuing to drive home this point in hard data.

 

Here are the references to which I refer in my blog:

 

Blackwell, E.J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., Casey, R.A., 2007. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems in a population of domestic dogs. In: Proceedings of the 6th International Veterinary Behaviour Meeting. Fondazione Iniziative Zooprofilattiche e Zootecniche, Brescia, Italy, pp. 51–52.

 

Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S., 2004. Dog training methods—their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Anim. Welfare 13, 63–69.

 

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About hafamilyseattle

I am a professor of animal behavior at the University of Washington, specializing in social behavior with a focus on primates, killer whales, crows, and companion animals (dogs and cats). For fun, I love to fish saltwater (spinning, fly), snorkel, and travel with my wife Renee and son Andrew.
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