But It Worked for My Dog!!

Worked for who?
For whom did it work, again?

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.

A Parable

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.

Dog Trainers

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.

Dog Owners

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 a 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. But the initial reinforcer was the lessening of the pressure. The food may have reinforced something afterward, and perhaps helped support the generally positive response my dogs have to training. But leash pressure is aversive, and using it to train employs negative reinforcement (if there is a behavior change and the dog learns to respond to the pressure).

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 of that training, 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 what if I were to recommend that protocol?  There would be people reading about it who had dogs who might suffer more from such an exercise, dogs who perhaps don’t have the huge positive reinforcement history with their owners that mine do. People who have 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’s 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.

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Graphic credit: The sad dog cartoon is free clipart from clipartpanda.com. Thanks! 

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

31 thoughts on “But It Worked for My Dog!!

  1. i also find this is so true when people defend spanking – as in ‘I was spanked, and i turned out fine’… so the problem of our enculturation of adversives is very deep into our personal psyches as well.

    i love that you use yourself as an example, i am not proud of my some of my early days as a trainer when i look back on them, but i am filled with deep understanding and compassion that we can and are moving forward toward equity and compassion in all things.

    Five weeks ago we welcomed into our home a little 5 pound 3 year old loving ‘unsocialized’ chihuahua mix – who has great curiosity, but gets flooded easily at first. Watching her think and solve in safe environments is such a joy! and she has grown so much in the past month. but i am rather tired of people telling me that i ‘simply’ take her everywhere with me so she ‘gets socialized’ and not seeing how much of an adversive that would be, as she has no history of intentional R+ training — only the experience of physical manipulation and isolation. Another re-homed dog, with a different history and underpinning might ‘do just fine’ on ‘the carry them everywhere’ idea…but it may simply result in a suppression of certain behaviors and mental processes that would have unknown side effects.

    For me, all i can go on is paying close attention to my actions, her communication, and build our mutual language together.

    The only way we can move past defending our past, is with gentleness and humility and forgiveness. Thank you so much for this post.

    1. Sounds like the little chihuahua mix was lucky and found the right place! I love what you say about socialization. Flooding almost seems to be the norm, sometimes. Thanks for the lovely comment.

  2. Great post, Eileen! This is such an important topic. I don’t know how many times I come across people who absolutely refuse to listen and stick their fingers in their ears while also screaming, “But it worked for MY dog!!!” It can be very frustrating at times.

    1. I know, it’s so frustrating. It seems like people don’t like to hear different points of view.

  3. Brilliant post Eileen.

    Hectors are common in the world of alternative medicine too. Science explains the placebo effect but Hector says science doesn’t know everything and it worked for him. That’s fine for a self-limiting condition such as a cold but please don’t use it for your dog’s arthritis.

    Sorry, I’ve gone a little bit off topic.


  4. Great as usual. Soon I won’t even have to talk to people I disagree with–I’ll just send links to your posts. 😛

    You know, this is kind of one of the reasons I started blogging–I get so tired of hearing about how aversives worked for people. I like putting little stories out into the internet that say, you know what worked for me and my dog? Cheese. And science.

    Oh, and Nala also has terrible grammar. She never remembers to capitalize or punctuate. 😀

    1. I am so glad you are out there blogging that!

      I actually started writing these kinds of posts with at least the partial intention of people citing them when whatever old saw is being referred to comes around. It tickles me to see them used that way.

      Keep blogging!

      1. I too love using these posts to explain things to other people 🙂 Forever countering other people’s arguments starts to make me frustrated and angry (which never helps your communication skills!), so I prefer to send them these posts to explain for me! I also think it helps because the person reading it has time and space to think, and (hopefully) start to change their mind without feeling so confronted, like in a direct discussion. It’s then easier to chat to them about their thoughts on the article/post afterwards too. Hard part is getting them to actually read it lol.

        1. Thanks so much for that feedback, Hayley! I have always hoped that the fact that they aren’t directed at an individual would help a little. Love hearing that you send the posts to people.

  5. Eileen — Our dog is a case that aversives definitely DIDN’T work for. (For the record, I should mention that he was identified as fearful — wihtout the implications of that being explained — by the shelter when we adopted him at 18 months, so he has always been a rehab case as a powerful adult dog). Our first trainer, who passionately proclaimed his total distaste for a major TV Trainer Who Shall Remain Nameless, was still nonetheless convinced that the only way to control such a big dog as ours (Cane Corso) was by training with a choke chain — “Just to alert the dog, not to hurt him”. The result was a downward spiral of aggression leading to desocialization leading to more reactivity because we weren’t able to teach him we were OK with things, etc. When you have a 42 kg (~95 lb) dog with strong jaws and enormous, curved fangs, this is not a situation you want to be in. We took a long time to find a new trainer because we wanted one that was truly a positive methods trainer and then started the painstaking work of undoing the damage. It has taken years. He has made massive progress, but there’s still work to do. We’ve made mistakes along the way, but it’s so fun watching him be curious about new things instead of feeling threatened by them. To take loose inspiration from your previous post (i.e. I’m NOT talking up doing set-ups with aversives, just borrowing your metaphor), we have been trying to make positive associations with real-life “fans” and to teach him how to operate the remote control.

    1. Hi Kristen and thanks for sharing this great story. So glad you found the right trainer!

  6. Eileen, maybe this metaphor could help people understand better: Russian Roulette might work out fine 5 out of 6 times, but the outcome that 6th time makes it pretty clear it’s a bad idea. Do you really want to play Russian Roulette with the well-being of your dog?

  7. Wanted to comment-I’ve been reading your blog and my dog is much happier. She’s a sweet, calm, very well-mannered lab. She was closely bonded with the Rottie we lost to cancer this year; I was and am still heartbroken. She was becoming less and less affectionate and outgoing.

    Reading your blog (the photos and videos are so helpful!) prompted me to step back and recognize that she feels more fear and stress now–and I wasn’t helping her.

    I’ve started using treats and play to reward her for all the little things she does routinely everyday…she’s very well-behaved so I’m not trying to change what she does but trying to change her mood. Only been a few days but she seems happier, more relaxed and more engaged. So am I. Any thoughts, comments on routine and surprise R+ type things to keep improving our spirits?

    1. Sue, how very kind of you to share this! I’m so sorry about your Rottie.

      Here is a video of the easiest enrichment game I know. My dogs are all thrilled when I will simply lay out their meals (separately) for them to find. Sniffing for Breakfast After they got skilled at it I started doing it outside sometimes, but am not doing it right now in the summer because the ants are even faster than the dogs at finding things!

      Also, for what it’s worth, all three of my dogs are happier when I play with them regularly. As much as they enjoy training for food, some play seems to make them happier and make me more interesting!

      Since you mentioned surprise, here’s one more. I’m sorry I can’t remember whom to credit this to. If you are going to go on a walk or you can even do this in your yard: hide a fantastic treat, such as part of a hamburger, in a tree ahead of time. Do some training, and when your dog does something great, say “Yes!” or whatever your marker is, and pull the treat down and give it to her. Besides being such a nice surprise, it also teaches your dog that you don’t have to have treats on your person to be able to give her something awesome. (You have to do it quickly though; if you linger too long near the tree you may lose your dog’s attention when she smells the hamburger!)

      Good luck and thanks so much for writing.

      1. Hey Eileen. That was me, I think, that told you the “hamburger-in-tree” trick BUT I got it from Kathy Sdao’s book, Plenty in Life is Free.

        Also, I frequently refer clients to your dog body language posts. It is the best source of accessible-to-the-public dog body language info I know of. You provide a great service.

  8. Thank you again Eileen, these posts are so good to share, spot on with the science plus an enjoyable read.

  9. Thanks for this post. I have a 14 year old rescue. Rescued her 13.5 years ago and she is the best thing that ever happened to me. I trained her so long ago….and she turned out beautifully, luckily. I used finger snapping instead of a clicker because she responded really well to that sound, I praised her like there was no tomorrow and remained really patient and consistent. For tricks, she would do things on her own….like roll onto her back all the time. I started naming her actions as she did them naturally, and that caught on with her. Now she can roll over, play dead, high 5, speak, dance. Every time I pull out her dinner, she gets so excited that she does every trick she knows, one after the other, without my saying a single thing. lol. She pulls them all out at once.

    Anyway, my lesson learned (thanks to you) was the alfa roll. Cassie (my rescue) had agression issues when I got her 13.5 years ago. If someone snuck up on her, she would bite or try to nip. She also didn’t do well with other dogs when we got her. When she would behave agressively, I would gently roll her onto her back (only if I caught her in the act). It’s hard to say if this is what worked with her or if socialization and being around more people gradually is what got her through it. But I learned a lot from reading your blog and tips. I will never use this method again. Back then, it was actually recommended to me by a trainer! Luckily it did not result in something negative for her, but it could have.

    Cassie is an incredibly gentle soul who, I think, needed to learn to trust again. Not sure what her circumstances were in the first 6 months of her life, but she is the most gentle trustworthy, nurturing and loving dog I know today.

    We’re in the process of trying to adopt a little girl through A.R.F. now. Specifically Zorra. A new addition to the fur family, and it was through that process that I discovered your site and read all of your tips on training etc….If we do get selected (crossing fingers!!!), I would LOVE to attend your sessions…but we’re all the way out in Whitby, east of Toronto. So I don’t know how we could do this. If you have a location in Toronto, please let me know!!!


    1. Thank you for this wonderful story. I’m glad there weren’t any residual effects of the alpha roll. (It sounds like you weren’t rough with her at all, which I’m sure helped.) I hope you get the new pup!

      I’m mainly a blogger, and do occasional online presentations, but nothing in person. I’m very flattered you asked, though! Thanks for making my day.

      1. Funny Things “Alpha Rolls”. I was ‘taught’ to use them — as a non violent method. None of my dog ever worried about them — they thought that is was a good time to roll over for a tummy scratch!
        I gave up using them well before they got a bad reputation, simply because they didn’t “work”!
        On the other hand, my S-I-L was having trouble with a Minipoodle and a Club instructor decided to demonstrate how to get “the submissive down” (aka nothing more really than a forced down). The Instructor got bitten on the face for her troubles, ad the poor dog got put down 🙁

  10. Very good article. I’ve to admit I used aversives on my dogs because I didn’t know better, and I regret it because they only got worse. Luckily I was able to find more information about dog training and I discovered a whole new world with positive training.
    Now I have to work very hard with my girl to undone all the side-effects, sadly my boy had to be put down for health issues and I feel very bad for not being able to help him as he deserved. My girl has a lot of irrational fears and he reacts (barking) with very low stimuli. Since we work on it her stress level has considerably lowered and he has improved a lot, but we still have a long way to go.
    Now I’ve have a puppy and I’m setting him up for success from the beginning.

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