Journal Article: Skip the Training Classes?

Title: The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs

Authors: Emily J. Blackwell, Caroline Twells, Anne Seawright, Rachel A. Casey

Published: September-October 2008 in Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

General overview:

The researchers handed out 250 surveys to people walking their dogs or visiting veterinary facilities in several locations in the U.K, and 192 completed surveys were returned. The surveys asked for demographic information about the household as well as dog training methods that the owners used and potentially undesirable behaviors that their dog(s) displayed. The researchers found no significant association between attendance in formal training classes and total number of undesirable behaviors reported by the owner. This study also found that type of training method was significantly related to undesirable behavior scores, while the breed, sex of the dog, number of children in the home and previous experience of the owner was not associated with the number of reported undesirable behaviors.

My comments:

Overall, I thought that this research was fascinating but the presentation of the methods and findings was messy at times. I know there is always a word count limit in academic journals but that’s no excuse to pump so much information into an article that you can’t fully explain what you’re presenting – just split it into two papers!

Okay, getting past my troubles with the writing, I thought the survey seemed fairly well done. There was a high response rate and the authors acknowledged potential issues with their sampling techniques. Within the survey, the authors listed out all potentially undesirable behaviors they could think of (which were grouped into the following categories: Control, Separation, Aggression, Fear/Avoidance, Attention-seeking, Compulsive and Reactions to the following: other dogs in and outside the home, unfamiliar and familiar people, and being “told off”). The authors then asked which behaviors the owners actually felt were undesirable, which allowed for differences in owners’ perceptions of “bad” dog behavior.

I will complain that the authors did not define what they meant by “aggression” in the paper, which could be problematic if they also did not define what consisted “aggression” in their survey. “Aggression” can be subjective: when your dog barks at another dog, do you feel your dog is being aggressive or fearful or trying to get attention or something else entirely?

Despite these issues (which essentially all surveys are wont to have), the results are super interesting. The authors highlight the lack of correlation between attendance to formal training lessons and total number of undesirable behaviors displayed by the dog, and that nearly all owners did some sort of training with their dog. The authors felt that this may have been because of the availability of dog-training help in books or online. This finding didn’t hold true for puppy socialization classes, as dogs who experienced puppy classes were far less likely to be reactive to dogs outside the home.

Very few (18%) owners sought help for undesirable behaviors while 98% of dogs exhibited some type of problematic behavior. Now, the majority of the owners surveyed had previous experience with a dog, so perhaps they had sought outside help with another dog in the past. Regardless, this finding really highlights the lack of conversation between veterinarians, animal behaviorists and trainers about behavior problems that could lead to a dog being euthanized or surrendered to a shelter.

The super concerning finding (to me) was that nearly 3/4 of all owners used some type of positive punishment. If you’ve read my post on science-based vs. dominance-based training, you’ll know that behaviorists and researchers are increasingly in agreement that positive punishment (such as yelling, hitting, electric collars, noise distractions like cans of pennies, etc.) have no place in humane, effective dog training. If more owners sought outside help for behavior concerns, perhaps fewer owners would resort to ineffective, inhumane training methods. 

The authors found that owners who used positive punishment reported more undesirable behaviors from their dogs and, conversely, owners who used positive reinforcement only reported significantly less undesirable behaviors. This could be explained by several different causes: 1) as the authors speculate, perhaps owners with dogs that exhibit a large number of undesirable behaviors “resort to” positive punishment more often; 2) dogs who are subjected to positive punishment develop more undesirable behaviors for the reasons I talked about in this post; 3) a large proportion of the survey sample reported using positive punishment, so it could be a mere sampling issue.

So, overall, I’d say DON’T SKIP THE FORMAL TRAINING CLASSESEthical, well-informed dog trainers can help eliminate the use of positive punishment, which will increase training effectiveness as well as the quality of life for the dog, and decrease aggression, fear and other undesirable behaviors displayed by the dog. Furthermore, having a relationship with a certified animal behaviorist is, in my opinion, as important as having a relationship with a veterinarian.

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