Suggesting or Endorsing Aversive Training Methods

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Many Facebook groups and other discussion groups for positive reinforcement based training have a rule against the promotion of aversive training methods. Yet time and time again, participants will suggest the use of aversives.

Some people who post such things may be doing so on purpose, trying to sneak them in. But many honestly do not understand why their comments are not acceptable. They will firmly insist that they have not suggested or endorsed an aversive method. So this article seeks to explain what constitutes a suggestion or endorsement of an aversive method and explains why such suggestions are not acceptable.

Paul Chance, in Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defines aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

The stimuli can be as painful as shock or as mild as the breeze from a fan. It is not acceptable in these groups to suggest that the stimuli be used to increase or decrease behavior.

So here are several examples of types of comments that do suggest, endorse, or promote the use of aversive methods, whether the writer realizes it or not. At the end I’ll explain why most groups do not let even the mildest suggestion of using an aversive stand.

I Don’t Do It Personally But It Works

“Although I’d never use them myself I don’t think prongs do that much damage.”

“I only used the ecollar a few times and I am not advocating for them since that’s against the rules.”

“I’m a positive trainer and I don’t use any kinds of tools but I don’t see the harm in using a spray bottle–at least it’s better than shocking the dog.”

Even if you don’t do it personally, these comments excuse and promote the use of aversives. 

Sometimes Aversives Are Necessary

“I’m a positive trainer but I was glad when they put a prong on that dog that was lunging at the other dogs at the training club.”

“Sometimes the only thing that will work with an aggressive dog is a shock collar.”

“If it’s a choice between the dog dying in traffic or having an ecollar, the ecollar isn’t so bad.”

Claiming aversives are sometimes necessary is clearly supporting them. 

That’s The [Insert Training Method] Culture

“But in IPO you can expect to see a shock collar on every dog; that’s the world they live in so I have to do it too.”

Saying that everyone in a certain milieu uses them gives other people tacit permission to do so as well.

It’s Not Really Aversive (Confusion about Learning Theory)

“Yes the rider has spurs on but it’s not aversive since she doesn’t use them.”

“My dog sees his chain/prong/shock collar as positive because he knows it means he is going out.”

“A properly fitted prong is not aversive.”

We understand that claiming something isn’t aversive when it is demonstrably so may be born out of confusion. But no matter the motive, it still encourages other people to try it.

The Dog Decides

“The prong is not an aversive tool, it is a tool that was designed to be aversive but the dog decides in the end whether or not a tool is aversive.

“Because it’s force doesn’t mean it’s compulsion. The dog decides.”

The dog decides. Yes it does. And if the tool increases or decreases behavior in the way it was intended, the dog “decided” it WAS aversive. Here’s a whole post on what it means when we say “The Dog Decides.”

No Method Works for all Dogs

“This isn’t a one size fits all situation–I’m 98% positive but I go with what gives the best results.”

“Trying to ban training tools for all dogs because some people misuse them or don’t like them is stupid. Different dogs learn differently.”

Saying that no one method works for all dogs is an obfuscation and excuse to use aversives, plain and simple.

Veiled Flooding and Negative Reinforcement

“Hold the dog until he stops being naughty and then let him loose. There’s no pain or fear in that so it’s not aversive. ”

“Make the dog stay out in the rain until he pees. That’s not force.”

Using restraint to keep an animal in an unpleasant situation until it complies is aversive. It makes use of the animal’s desire to escape to get behavior. 

What’s Wrong with Saying These Things?

When you tell a story about the supposed success of an aversive training method or otherwise condone the use of an aversive technique, you implicitly give other people permission to try it. As positive reinforcement-based trainers we don’t give out that “permission.” These types of suggestions are usually posted in discussion threads where people are explicitly asking for training advice. But the purpose of the group is to provide methods that go **beyond** pain, force, coercion, startling, flooding, and pressure. Most groups are also interested in teaching people to recognize force-based techniques when they see them or hear them described. If a trainer who claims lots of experience claims that something is not really aversive (and it is), and that comment is left standing, the purpose of the group has been betrayed.

There are (unfortunately) many, many other groups where such methods may be suggested and discussed.

Moderators are aware that some aversive techniques are generally harder on animals than others. But no one can predict the effect of any technique on an individual dog, and there is no reason to condone aversive methods when positive reinforcement based methods are so obviously and widely successful. Hence there is no sensible place to draw the line on aversives except that none may be suggested.

 Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

This article may be reprinted in its entirety, linked to, or generated and stored as a PDF for the following purpose only:  to be used in positive reinforcement-based discussion groups to explain why aversive methods are not promoted. No other usage is permitted without permission from Eileen Anderson.

PDF version: Suggesting or Endorsing Aversive Training Methods

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