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Do Some Dogs Need Punishment?

AVERSIVE - Anything a dog would seek to escape or avoid.

How often have you heard someone say, "SOME dogs need [insert aversive method]." When I see these statements, all kinds of reasons are given, from breed, to the type of behavior, to saving the life of the dog. The problem is that dog trainers are currently self-regulated (except in a few countries that have developed licensing guidelines). They don't have to prove their knowledge or skills to anyone but themselves. They don't have to know canine body language or how stress affects learning and behavior. They don't have to know multiple ways to change behavior. They don't even have to know how to teach a single simple behavior to open a business. If one relies solely on our personal knowledge or skill to determine that aversives are necessary, the risk for abuse - and behavioral fallout - is high. The Humane Hierarchy, sometimes referred to as Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) approach, is a guideline to help trainers explore all options before considering aversives. "The hierarchy is a cautionary tool to reduce both dogmatic rule following and practice by familiarity or convenience. It offers an ethical checkpoint for consultants to carefully consider the process by which effective outcomes can be most humanely achieved on a case-by-case basis." - Friedman & Fritzler, 2014 Now, the Humane Hierarchy isn't perfect. It still relies on self-assessment. However, it does provide some guidance for the trainer who isn't aware that there are variables beyond reward and punishment. Since I first incorporated the Humane Hierarchy into my practice, and as I learned more about behavior and became more skilled at the variety of ways in which positive reinforcement can be implemented, I haven't needed aversives in my behavior plans. Now, if aversives would *truly* save the life of a dog, I would not rule it out. My chosen training methods are not driven by personal philosophy but what is effective and most humane, based on what I know about learning and behavior (which expands every day). And, based on that knowledge, there has not been a scenario in which aversives were the only or best way to save the dog. When we apply aversives based on breed or behavior, we are not adapting the training to the individual dog, which means we aren't considering (or aware of) all the factors that affect behavior and learning. When we apply aversive tools or methods based solely on our individual knowledge and skill, we are covering up our shortcomings and blaming the dog. When we apply aversives it is because we don't know what else to do. Dogs don't need aversives in training. Humans do. It can be painful to admit that we used aversives unnecessarily or to the detriment of the dog. I did significant damage to a dog that I loved more than anything. I did it to help him. I did it because a professional told me it was the only way. It turns out, it wasn't the only way - it wasn't even the best way. That still hurts, even twenty years later. If you have made that same discovery, you're not alone. Like me, you did the best you could with what you knew at that moment. What is important is that you didn't stay there. You kept learning. Maybe in time to help that dog, maybe not. But you can honor them by continuing to learn and always looking for a better way. And if you still believe that "some dogs need" aversives in training sometimes, take a look at the humane hierarchy. Are there pieces there you haven't considered? How skilled are you at each step? What have you done to expand your knowledge or improve your skills lately? These questions may open up possibilities you hadn't considered before. For decades, dog training has been an ego-driven industry. Everyone striving to set themselves apart as The Best or the most unique, revolutionary, etc. No one would dare admit that they didn't have the answer to everything dog. Modern training, on the other hand, isn't about personality or ego. It's about skilled application of established techniques. Techniques shared by animal trainers worldwide. When modern trainers are stumped, we reach out to one another to talk through difficult cases. We freely share ideas. We ask trusted colleagues to review video of training sessions in hopes that they see something we missed so that we can do it better. This is the difference between personality-based training and professional training. Acknowledging what we don't know is not a sign of weakness. It is the first step toward better training. We can either feed our ego and insist that the only way we know is the only way. Or we can put the dogs first and recognize that we can always learn more and do better.


Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved. Originally appeared on

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