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How Training Methods Affect a Dog's Attachment to Its Owner

Reward versus discipline training affects the bond between dogs and owners.

Crystal Rolfe (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Crystal Rolfe (CC BY 2.0)

There is an ongoing controversy among dog trainers as to which training methods are best. Put simply, the two sides of the argument can be described as contrasting the effectiveness of training based upon discipline, which can include the application of punishment for failure to respond, versus training based totally upon rewards for successful behaviors.

Discipline-based training has a longer history. Around the start of the 20th century, dog training procedures were becoming formalized in Germany. The methods that were then used to train dogs reflected the attitudes of the military at the time and were based upon strict discipline supported by force if necessary. A German army officer, Colonel Konrad Most, wrote the training manual which became the bible for dog trainers around the world. He summarized his philosophy of training when he wrote, “In the absence of compulsion neither human education nor canine training is feasible. Even the most soft-hearted dog-owner cannot get on terms with his idolized favorite without some form of compulsion.” His idea was that one should use force to establish dominance over a dog and then use that dominance to control the animal’s behavior. Hard jerks on a choke collar, hitting or yelling, or the use of electric shock collars are typical of discipline-based training techniques used today.

Reward-based training began to become popular in the 1940s with the publication of a set of books by Blanche Saunders. The general concept is that a dog should not be punished, but rather rewarded with food, praise or play when he obeys commands.

The popularity of reward-based training has increased over time due to findings that the use of punishment in dogs can lead to increased canine aggression. However in recent years there has been a resurgence of discipline-based training due to the popularity of some dog trainers appearing on television, such as Cesar Millan. Episodes of dog-training TV shows often seem to show rapid behavior change when using forceful methods on dogs.

A team of researchers from Portugal, headed by Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro of the University of Porto, were worried at reports that hinted at the fact that punishments used on dogs might affect their emotional attachment to their owners. This would then suggest that the use of discipline-based training might weaken the bond between dog and owner.

To test this they recruited a set of 34 dogs from six different dog training school—three committed to reward-based training, and three which used discipline-based training with various types of force or punishments.

To measure the attachment between the dog and its owner, this team used a variation of what is known as the Strange Situation Test. This is a procedure devised by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to observe the emotional responses and the attachment relationships between children and their caregivers (usually their parents). The situation involves a small, relatively barren room, with a couple of chairs in it. There is a fixed scenario of events in which the child is brought into the room by its caregiver, a stranger enters the room and tries to interact with the child, then the caregiver leaves, and sometimes, shortly afterwards, the stranger then leaves (leaving the child alone in the room), and then after a brief interval the caregiver returns. The interactions are videotaped and scored, and the child's reactions to being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people or alone are recorded. In general it is observed that in such potentially stressful interactions the normal well-attached child treats their caregiver as a "safe haven" and seems to gain confidence and security by having their caregiver close by. With their caregiver nearby these securely emotionally attached children are much more willing to explore the room and play with toys scattered around the floor. These same kinds of responses have been observed in dogs using a variation of this test.

This research team found that the training methods that the dogs have experienced made a difference when the dog was placed in the Strange Situation Test. A history of exposure to positive reward-based training methods seemed to produce a better bond between dog and owner when compared to exposure to more negative or aversive training methods. In the words of the authors:

... evidence for a secure attachment to owners is more consistent in dogs trained with reward-based methods than in dogs trained with aversive-based methods. Dogs trained with reward-based methods played more in the presence of the owner as compared to the stranger, and they greeted and followed the owner more than the stranger.

Thus their conclusion is that dog training methods may play a role in the success of an owner's relationship to his pet. But why is this the case? This answer has to do with the process called classical conditioning. This is a form of automatic learning which, in this case, can produce learned emotional responses. To oversimplify things a little, all we need is to have a sequence of occurrences in which we encounter a stimulus, followed by an event which triggers an emotion. A few repetitions of stimulus — event — emotion and we end up with a situation in which the stimulus itself triggers the emotion because of classical conditioning.

This classical conditioning of emotions provides one reason why reward-based training procedures should work better and establish a stronger bond between a dog and his trainer than punishment-based systems. Every time you give the dog a treat, or some other reward, you set up the event sequence sight of you — treat — pleasant feeling. Even if your timing is off and you are not a very good or knowledgeable trainer, there is no harm being done: Every instance of reward makes it more likely that the dog will feel better about you because you are actually conditioning or training the emotional response sight of you — pleasant feeling.

The flip side of this coin is what happens when you use punishment or harsh corrections. The sight of you, or your hand, or the training leash and collar, immediately followed by pain or discomfort, will ultimately come to be associated with negative feelings and avoidance.

It thus becomes clear that in your attempts to train your dog you are not only teaching a response to obedience commands but also teaching the dog to emotionally respond to you in a particular manner. Thus a reward-based training program will strengthen the dog's attachment to you, while a discipline-based program using force or punishment will ultimately weaken the dog's emotional attachment. This result is what seems to be confirmed by the newest data.

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Ana Catarina Vieira de Castroa, Jennifer Barretta, Liliana de Sousa, I. Anna S. Olsson (2019). Carrots versus sticks: The relationship between training methods and dogowner attachment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 219, 104831