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Does It Matter Whether Dog Training Is Positive or Aversive?

Specific dog training methods have long-term and short-term emotional effects.

Key points

  • There is much controversy about the effectiveness of positive reward-based compared to discipline-based dog training.
  • Dogs whose training involved punishment and compulsion show more tension related behaviors and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • When tested a month after force-based training, dogs still show a more negative, pessimistic, emotional response toward learning new tasks.
Airwaves1/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Source: Airwaves1/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Probably the hottest continuing controversy among dog experts has to do with training methods. While it is the case that positive or "reward-based" training techniques have become more widespread since the 1950s, "discipline-based" training using physical force or some sort of punishment or compulsion has reasserted itself in recent years because of recommendations by certain popular television shows and a few dog trainers who have become trendy with the media.

A 2020 study by a team of Portuguese investigators, headed by Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro from the University of Porto, tried to provide additional data by looking at how training method affects the psychological welfare of dogs being taught basic obedience commands.

Positive vs. Aversive Dog Training

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the first systematic dog training manuals were published. Some of the most influential were written by Konrad Most, a German who trained dogs for the Berlin police force and later for the German army. The dogs were trained much like soldiers of the time, with an emphasis on discipline, and failure to comply was met with punishment—there were even specially designed dog whips.

Since that time, there has been quite a bit of research on the effects of using punishment in training dogs, but most studies have focused on subpopulations of police, military, and laboratory dogs. Over the last 70 years, the introduction of electric shock collars has been touted as the ultimate way to induce dogs to obey. There has been substantial research on the use of shock collars and the negative effects that these cause. (The results of such studies have even stimulated the banning of shock collars in some countries.)

Most pet dog owners, even those who believe in discipline-based teaching methods, do not use electronic devices in their training. However, even without electronic aids, many other aversive, force-based training methods are available—and unfortunately, the effects of these methods have not been well-studied.

By contrast, consider positive training, which involves rewarding a dog with a pleasant stimulus after it shows the desired behavior. Obviously the most common form of reward involves food treats; however, verbal praise, petting the dog, or engaging in a bit of play can also be used by positive dog trainers.

In dog classes, the punishing or confrontational techniques typically used to control dogs can include sharp leash corrections meant to cause discomfort, slapping the dog, applying physical force to pressure a dog into a submissive position, shouting, threatening stares, use of water sprays, grabbing the dog by the scruff of the neck, or physically yanking at the dog to force it into the desired position.

Why Do Some Promote Punishment-Based Dog Training?

In more recent years, the use of such harsh and aversive methods seems to have sprung from the presumption that canine misbehavior is rooted in the dog’s attempt to express social dominance over its owner. Supposedly, a dog's failure to comply with commands has been triggered by a lack of assertiveness or authority on the part of the owner.

Advocates of such theories suggest that dog owners need to establish themselves as the "alpha" or "pack leader," using physical manipulations, threats, and intimidation in order to do so. The application of force is supposed to compel the dog to adopt a less challenging, more compliant, and subordinate attitude.

These ideas persist even though research has suggested that such beliefs (actually based upon data collected on the behavior of captive wolves or wild wolves in packs) are most likely wrong.

What the Study Found About Training Pet Dogs

This new study looked at 92 pet dogs being trained in seven different companion dog training programs within the metropolitan area of Porto, Portugal. Although these dog classes used a variety of different methods, the specific behaviors being trained were fairly standard including teaching the dog to sit, lie down, stay, come when called, and to heel or walk on a loose leash.

Based on videos of the training classes, the programs were divided into those that focused on mainly coercive interactions, those that used exclusively positive methods, or classes with a balanced mix of the two techniques. It is important to note that this study focused on the welfare of the dogs, specifically their emotional responses, and whether these emotional effects extended beyond the actual training sessions—not on the effectiveness of the training per se.

Measuring the Stress Levels Associated with Training

To measure the psychological welfare of the dogs, the animals received both a short-term and a long-term assessment. For the short-term assessment, videos were taken of three of their training sessions to look for stress-related behaviors in the dogs, such as cringing, yelping, lip licking, panting, and so forth.

In addition, saliva samples were taken to determine stress levels during training. Samples were taken from each dog on separate days while relaxing at home (to establish a baseline) and from each dog after training sessions. These measures allowed the investigators to look at the level of cortisol, a hormone in the blood which has been well-accepted as a marker indicating that an individual is under stress.

Most readers will find it unsurprising that the dogs in the aversive training classes showed more frequent stress-related behaviors, particularly panting, yawning, and lip licking. In addition, the dogs that had been subjected to leash jerks, yelling, and other methods of force during their training had significantly increased levels of cortisol compared to those dogs which had a more positive training experience.

Long-Term Effects

The surprise comes from a test used to determine the longer-term effects of stressful training. A full month after the dogs were assessed during their class sessions, 79 of them were brought back and trained for a new task. They were taught to associate the presence of a bowl on one side of a room with a sausage snack, while if the bowl was located on the other side of the room it never contained the treat. (All bowls were rubbed with sausage to ensure the smell didn't give an inadvertent clue.)

Next, the researchers varied the placement of the bowl to ambiguous locations to see how quickly the dogs would approach, looking for the treat. This test is believed to measure optimism or pessimism on the part of the dog, since higher speed in running to the bowl is interpreted to mean that the dog is anticipating a reward, whereas a slower speed signifies that the dog is more doubtful and has a more negative attitude toward the situation.

Many people might find it surprising that a month after training classes there were still effects associated with the training methods used. The more aversive training a given dog had received, the more slowly it approached the bowl. It seems as though a negative emotional pallor has descended upon the dogs which received the aversive and force-based training as compared to their compatriots who received positive training. Those aversively trained dogs simply are not expecting anything good to be coming as a consequence of their behaviors and choices.

As a result of the outcomes of both the long and short-term assessments, the investigators conclude "Our study points to the fact that the [psychological] welfare of companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods appears to be at risk."

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.


Vieira de Castro AC, Fuchs D, Morello GM, Pastur S, de Sousa L, Olsson IAS (2020) Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0225023.

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