Would you ever harm your dog? Can you think of a reason that would make you consider hurting your dog? If you are a trainer, do you ever wonder why some of your clients ignore your warnings and switch to non-positive methods?

When I started dog training, I heard horrid stories of old-school training methods (putting a dog’s face in a hole full of water to discourage digging, jerking on the collar to increase “reliability” in heeling, pinching their ears to discourage bad behaviors, and so on). I thought positive training was gaining popularity, and that those times were long gone. Sadly, though, I think more and more dog owners may be shifting to the “dark side” of training. I find that sometimes the same people advocating for dog welfare, posting videos on Facebook of homeless dogs, and signing petitions to stop animal abuse are the same people advocating for e-collar training in other groups. These people preach against preservatives in dog foods, only buy toys and treats made in the USA, fill their phones with photos of their dogs, make their dogs Instafamous, and more. They obviously love their dogs—but if they love them, why are they harming them? And why can’t we convince them that’s what they’re doing?

These are the questions that have always baffled me. I am not the only trainer who has failed to convince a dog owner that their negative training methods are harming their dog. If they have the information, then it cannot be a case of ignorance; maybe it’s a case of convenience? Changing behavior, whether human or dog, takes time and work. Modifying intense emotions or habits takes even more work. Any person can add a pinch, prong on a neck, or shock to a body to scare their dog enough to stop a behavior—hurting an animal takes neither brains nor patience—but why can’t those people see that as abuse? Can convenience alone blind them to reality? I have to believe humans are smarter than that.

But maybe we’re not……

Before we continue, I want to make clear what aversive or punitive training methods are, so we are on the same page. “Positive” dog trainers reward desirable behaviors in order for them to happen again; in the science world this is called positive reinforcement. In aversive training, the focus is on discouraging undesired behaviors by applying an aversive or unpleasant stimulus immediately when those behaviors occur; in the science world this is called positive punishment. (This topic is huge and tangential; for more information about punishment in dog training, please read my earlier posts on Why I Do Not Punish My Dog.) These methods do NOT train a good behavior; they suppress bad behaviors by scaring, stressing, and/or inflicting pain on the dog. Clearly, these techniques do nothing to increase the welfare of the dog.

No one ever gets a dog and says, “I cannot wait to add stress to my dog in order to make it obedient” or “I look forward to hurting this puppy as it grows and misbehaves.” No one in their right mind says that! The problem is, your “right mind” isn’t always making your decisions.

Neuroscientists have found that 90% of our decisions are based on emotion, and we then use logic to justify our emotion-based decisions. What exactly is the emotion driving us to add stress to our dog? Neuroscientists say it’s usually fear. According to neuroscientist Bridget Queenan at the University of California, “You have instincts for fight and for flight, not so much for insight,” she noted in the article, Neuro-logic: How Your Brain Is Keeping You from Changing Your Mind. She adds, “When people are threatened in any way, they retreat from logic” (emphasis added).

This makes complete sense. When we feel safe and happy with our dogs we don’t seek action. However, when our dogs’ behaviors are threatening our comfort and security, that is when we seek help. When we are afraid of something bad happening. This takes many forms. Consider:

  • Some dogs pose a social threat. As one Yelp reviewer wrote about their satisfaction with a non-positive trainer who used an e-collar on her dog, “Nothing was working, we basically thought we would just never have company over again, never go to dog parks, never go to the beach…”
  • Some owners fear what might As another Yelper wrote: “While [the trainer] never crossed the line, […] if it wasn’t for [this trainer], my dog would have been euthanized after a bite was reported by a pittie. The thought makes me tear up to this day!”
  • Other owners also fear eviction or having their dog taken away, as another reviewer wrote in praise of a shock collar: “No amount of training was working for her. We tried it all… it got to the point where neighbors were complaining and threating to report us to the police. The barking absolutely had to stop.” Yet another review read, “We were getting desperate to stop being ‘those neighbors.’”

In review after review, the common theme was fear. Fear drives us to find a solution and desperation drives us to find a fast one. Marketing knows this, which is why they feed into your fears to sell you their services or merchandise. As one aversive trainer bragged on his website, a few of his clients’ dogs had been through obedience classes but it did nothing for them, and unfortunately euthanasia was the destination for many of these dogs–until their owners found him! (Insert eye roll.)

Back to Dr. Queenan: “When people are threatened in any way, they retreat from logic.” So, while emotions can drive us to seek an aversive tool or trainer, they also make us lose sight of our common sense. According to an article by Conversioner, people aren’t always looking for the objective value of a purchase, but more for the feeling that purchase gives them. In our case, these dog owners want to feel safe again. Their emotions lead them to make decisions that their right, logical minds would normally see right through. And once our minds are made up, we start using logic to justify our decision and seek out any and all information that will support it.

When I googled “do shock collars hurt dogs,” one of the first results was:

People ask us all of the time, “Will shock collar training hurt my dog?” … Those types of collars are outdated, inhumane, and no longer produced. However, modern electronic collars do not “shock” at all, they provide a very subtle stimulation that many people equate to “stim” pads that physical therapists use.

When I started to search for shock collars, I cannot tell you the number of times I read the word “HUMANE” capitalized all over the descriptions, and saw words like safe, gentle, and humane. In one collar description, I actually thought no shock at all was given; it took me scrolling through four pages to discover the item delivered a “humane shock.” With words like this flying into your emotion-driven brain, it’s no wonder your mind starts to believe you are doing no harm to your dog. It’s no wonder one review read, “[Our dog] accepted it without objection. No more complaints from the neighbors.” Do you truly believe a dog has “accepted” getting even a mild shock to its neck without objection?

The shocks given (at the lowest level) are being compared (by the people trying to sell you the collar) to “stim” pads or the small shock you might get from static electricity. At one point last winter, I got this type of shock every time I opened my car door. After only a couple of shocks, I found myself hesitating every time I reached for the handle. True, I wasn’t screaming in agony from the shock, but I can’t say I had “no objection” to it!

One problem with aversive training methods is that they often look like an easy shortcut. When people see how fast the unwanted behavior has stopped, a burst of dopamine is secreted, making them feel happy. It’s a huge reward—for the human: “Whew! It stopped! I feel safe again!” Your dog, on the other hand, is now more stressed and less happy (and, of course, stress is likely what led to the unwanted behavior in the first place!).  Unconsciously, you have sought out (and then justified) a method that works for your emotional welfare, not necessarily your dog’s. According to David J. Lieberman, PhD, this is because “the more fearful we are, the more we seek out solid foundations. The more we seek solid foundations, the more we become dependent on dopamine.”

To protect yourself from becoming an unwitting victim of this type of emotion-based decision, I advise you enroll your dog in a positive training school right away, regardless of the dog’s age. If your dog can’t work in a class setting for some reason, work with a private trainer who uses positive methods. Training is about building a relationship, a skill set, a way of communicating with your dog clearly and compassionately. Get to know your dog’s needs and learn how to help him through situations he or she finds challenging. Be proactive—stay ahead of the panic and the emotion-based decisions your amygdala will tempt you to make. Keep your logical brain working, and you’ll be much less likely to fall into the trap of fear-based training methods and trainers.

If you are not sure whether you might already be headed down a training path you don’t want to be on, here is my advice to you:

  1. If you are not sure about your current trainer’s techniques, try to find some of their training videos online (social media, YouTube, website, etc.). Watch the dogs for common signs of stress (dog avoiding eye contact with the trainer, turning its head or body away, tail down, ears back, licking of the nose, stress yawn, stiff muscles, etc.). Observing a dog other than your own helps eliminate the emotional attachment variable. If there is audio and the trainer is explaining the training, mute it so you are only observing the dog and listening to what the dog is telling you through its body language.
  2. Chances are good that if you’re currently using aversive methods your emotional brain is fighting this information. It’s picking at it and trying to find errors because it feels threatened. One thing your brain might be telling you is that I am trying to sell you something, like my services, so you should not listen to me or this article (or anything else that doesn’t support the decision you’ve already made). However, if you are still willing to do some investigating, I would encourage you to share a video of your dog in training with the Facebook group Observation Skills for Dogs. Members of this group strive to provide unbiased feedback of what they see in videos of dog behavior, and their comments can be a great source of objective, third-party information.

I believe many dog owners using aversive methods are good people, with good intentions, who love their dogs but have fallen victim to their emotional brain’s swift decision-making ability. This has made them more vulnerable to marketing scams. I hope this post will encourage more people to make decisions proactively, using our rational brains, and always keeping our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing in mind.