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What You Teach Your Dog May Be Less Important Than How

Aversive training may have detrimental consequences on your dog’s body and mind.

By Carlo Siracusa, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVB, DECAWBM

It was Monday night, and it was puppy class time! Supposedly, one hour of fun after a hard day at work… but not always. We started our series of classes with a “boring” lecture on how dogs learn, what happens in their brains when we are teaching something, and why the way we do it is so important. No puppies were allowed in this first class; they would have been an irresistible distraction! At the end of the lecture I apologized for keeping people listening to me talking about learning theory and neurophysiology (at 8pm!), when they were expecting to have fun with their puppies! It is at this point that an elegant lady approached me and said: “You don’t need to apologize. I would have loved to get something like this lecture when I had my first child.”

So, what did we discuss that people found so useful for puppies’ education (both canine and human)? We started with an overview on what in our dogs’ body determines and regulates their behavior; not just the brain, but also sensory organs, muscles, bones, hormones and neurotransmitters. Anything that affects this “behavior body system” will affect dog behavior. Your dog might be unwilling to sit on request because his hips are painful, and not because he is stubborn. So, keep calm and think about the underlying reason!

Then we moved to the dog brain, and discussed how the areas that control learning, emotions and stress are, for a large part, very similar to the human’s brain. This means that, in the same way in which we are greatly influenced by our childhood experience and our emotions, our dogs are too. And we pointed out that these changes in behavior always correspond to a change in the brain (or somewhere else in the behavior body system). Any positive or negative experience is likely to leave a long-lasting, if not permanent, impression in our brain. Therefore, the way in which we teach and train our puppies is going to determine what kind of dogs they will be, not just what we teach. If we repeatedly punish them and create negative associations, e.g. tugging on the leash every time they explore and sniff the surrounding environment during walks, we increase the chance that they will be anxious, fearful, aggressive, and unhappy dogs. Even when our punishment-based training has been successful and the dog has stopped the unwanted behavior, it may not be a real success. Our dog’s welfare and quality of life may have been significantly compromised, and his anxiety and stress may have increased. This will probably have a cost in terms of future behavioral and medical problems.

Finally, we discussed the bond between our dogs and us, and how all the teaching and training we do should be based on the real nature of this bond. There is no solid scientific evidence supporting the theory of a hierarchy-based interaction between humans and dogs, while there is a growing body of evidence that what regulates the interaction with our dogs is their attachment and dependence upon us. Cognitive sciences are helping us to understand how dogs rely on our cues before deciding to take action. These cues come mainly from our body language and our voice. If they have a problem to solve, they will probably look at the owner for help. Ultimately, this is what we wanted with domestication: an animal that would understand us and rely on us. We should give directions to our dogs by explaining to them what we want and rewarding them if they respond correctly; not orders that would give a result out of fear, with long-term behavior and welfare consequences.

After all this, we were finally ready to start our puppy classes and have fun. We worked to improve the communication of people with their puppies, while respecting their emotions and their welfare. Everybody was happy, not just the humans!

Carlo Siracusa


Animal Behavior Service, University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA 19104…

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