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Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training Is Best

A new training program from Canada's BC SPCA is a model for all to follow.

Dog training in Canada is an unregulated industry with no regulatory body.

"Our hope is that programs like AnimalKind will draw attention to the evidence for humane dog training, and help move the dog training profession towards using more evidence-based methods."

A few days ago, I received a most enthusiastic email from Dr. Sara Dubois, the chief scientific officer for the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA) and University of British Columbia Adjunct Professor, about a new dog training program called AnimalKind Dog Training. The description reads, "You love your dog. Reward-based training methods are shown to be more effective and better for your dog. AnimalKind is the BC SPCA’s animal welfare accreditation and referral program for animal-related businesses. AnimalKind has standards (PDF) for dog training, and can help you find a good dog trainer. AnimalKind also accredits pest control companies."

Although critics say the science behind reward-based training is lacking, this surely isn't so. Both a comprehensive report from the BC SPCA called "Review of dog training methods: welfare, learning ability, and current standards" (available online for free) and a webinar on the science behind the standards clearly show that scientific research supports their and others' conclusions that reward-based training is the best way to train dogs. The BC SPCA's review of dog training methods and their summary of dog training standards should be required reading for anyone who chooses to work in the area of dog training/teaching. Unfortunately, dog training in Canada is an unregulated industry, as it is in the United States. (See "Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon" and "Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It.")

I wanted to know more about AnimalKind dog training, so I asked Dr. Dubois if she could answer a few questions. She deferred to Dr. Karen van Haaften, the BC SPCA’s senior manager of behavior and welfare and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Dr. van Haaften answered the questions I sent except for number 6. Our interview went as follows.

Why did you establish AnimalKind Dog Training? How did your backgrounds move you in this direction?

“The goal of AnimalKind is to create a community of animal-related businesses that are committed to using science-based, humane standards, and to help consumers find companies that support good animal welfare.” (Sara Dubois)

Working with an effective, humane dog trainer can help many dogs and relationships between dogs and their owners. Evidence on which training methods are most humane & effective is growing, but the dog-owning public is not always aware of the findings. Additionally, the dog training industry in North America is unregulated, and although several high-quality dog training schools and certification programs exist, members of the public are often confused about which certifications indicate humane, evidence-based training expertise.

The AnimalKind team is made up of animal welfare scientists, professional dog trainers, and a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Behavior concerns are a leading cause of dog relinquishment to animal shelters, and we (the BC SPCA) get hundreds of requests for dog trainer referrals every year. Until now, we haven't had a way to objectively evaluate the quality of dog training businesses.

What are the basic guidelines for the methods you use?

When training or handling animals, the BC SPCA advocates the use of force-free, humane training techniques utilizing evidence-based learning theories which foster trust and build positive human-animal relationships.

Aversive training tools and methods have been shown in many studies to be associated with poor welfare consequences and undesirable behavioral outcomes for the dog (increased fear-based behavior, including aggression). In contrast, rewards-based training methods are associated with better obedience, lower rates of aggression and other fear-based behaviors, and increased attention to owner during training.

Full details on our position on methods used to train animals are available here, and our literature review on dog training methods can be seen here.

How do you assess each dog and their human who come to you to solve a given problem or problems? Of course, each dog is an individual and requires personal attention.

Based on the individual dog's temperament and history, skilled trainers are able to determine a comprehensive behavior plan that may involve environmental management and training new behaviors. Trainers can also help dog owners determine the cause of undesirable behaviors, which can be addressed by removing the reinforcer for the undesirable behavior, and making an alternative behavior consistently more rewarding.

An example: let's say a dog is jumping on people for attention. You could remove the reinforcer for the jumping behavior (turn away and ignore the dog whenever they jump on you), and train an alternative behavior (for example, stand calmly with 4 feet on the floor), and reward the dog with attention or treats whenever they perform that behavior. Over time, the dog will learn not to engage in the jumping behavior and instead stand calmly for attention.

How much emphasis do you put on working with the human companion, as so many "dog problems" are really just as much "human problems"?

Good dog trainers need excellent communication skills. This is why our standards require trainers to demonstrate not only theoretical knowledge of dog behavior and learning science, but also be proficient in the practical skills of training and client communication.

Why do you think that some people remain resistant to reward-based training, including the use of food?

This is multi-factorial. Research has shown many dog owners do not reach out to professionals for advice on dog training methodology. Even if they do reach out to dog trainers, the profession is unregulated, and many trainers are still using and promoting outdated methods. In addition, cultural factors such as family history or celebrity trainers influence how owners interact with their dogs. The evidence on negative welfare and behavioral consequences of training dogs using aversive tools and methods is relatively recent, and it may take time for the general public to become aware of the risks.

What are some of your current and future projects?

AnimalKind accreditation programs launched in March 2018 to initially respond to the need to help the public navigate the unregulated “pest" control industry and find humane wildlife and rodent control operators the BC SPCA could recommend based on current evidence and practices in the field. We currently have two accredited companies in this space which otherwise struggles to define “humane” appropriately, since it is often a marketing term used by companies that still use harmful methods.

In the future, given that other pet service industries are also unregulated, and the public frequently contacts the BC SPCA for referrals, we will be creating evidence-based standards for doggie daycares, kennels and boarding facilities. We look forward to recommending companies that are committed to humane and transparent practices!

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

Our hope is that programs like AnimalKind will draw attention to the evidence for humane dog training, and help move the dog training profession towards using more evidence-based methods.

Thank you Karen and Sara for taking the time to answer my questions. Your program surely is a model that can clearly help dogs and their humans, and I hope it receives a global audience. Humans who choose to bring dogs (or other companion animals) into their homes and hearts are obligated to give them the very best lives possible. (See Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible.) I found your "Review of dog training methods: welfare, learning ability, and current standards" to be an incredibly important read, one that should put to rest ideas that aversive conditioning, including the use of shock collars, work well in the long term. (See "Is It Time to Ban Shock Collars for Dogs In All Situations?" and "What and Who Dogs Want and Need: Love, Not Shocks.") I hope that everyone who works in the dog training field will read it. For those who don't or won't, I've provided some snippets in Note 1. And, as I mentioned above, your summary of dog training standards should be required reading for anyone who chooses to work in the area of dog training/teaching. Dog who have trouble fitting in the world of dogs or an increasingly human-dominated world need all the help they can get, and your program will help make it a win-win for all involved, the dogs and their humans.

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Here is a brief overview of the BC SPCA's report titled "Review of dog training methods: welfare, learning ability, and current standards" by Dr. I. J. Makowska. Concerning comparisons between reward-based vs. aversive-based methods and dog welfare (Page 6) we learn that "two empirical studies found that training with aversive-based techniques led to more stress-related behaviours in the dogs compared to training with reward-based techniques, Stress-related behaviours persisted even after the dogs were trained and the aversive stimulus was no longer used, suggesting that the verbal cues themselves had become aversive, 5 in 5 surveys found that more frequent reported use of aversive-based techniques, whether alone or in combination with reward-based techniques, was associated with more frequent reporting of aggression and other problem behaviors, and More frequent use of R+ [reward-based positive reinforcement] alone was associated with less frequent reporting of aggression and other problem behaviors." Concerning dog-human relationships we learn that "Dogs trained with R+ were more likely to gaze at their guardians during training than dogs trained with R-, but dogs trained with R+ may have simply been looking to their guardians for treats, Dogs whose guardians reported using P+, P- or R- were less likely to interact with their guardian and with a stranger during a play session than dogs of guardians who reported using R+, and with respect to training success, "More frequent reported use of P+, R- or P- was associated with lower obedience and learning ability and More frequent reported use of R+ was associated with better obedience and learning ability. The summary of research conducted on the use of shock collars shows "3 in 3 empirical studies reported yelping and other vocalizations in response to shock, 2 in 2 empirical studies found more immediate stress-related behaviors in dogs trained with vs. without a shock collar (e.g. lowered ears, lip licking, lifting of front paw), 2 in 2 empirical studies reported long-term negative effects in dogs trained with vs. without a shock collar (increased alertness; persistent stress-related behaviors around the handler), and 2 in 3 surveys found lower success in training by guardians who used shock vs. other reward- or aversive-based methods; the third found no difference."

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