Experts release behavior modification guidelines

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San Francisco - The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) urges specialists and general practitioners to drop punishment as a first-line treatment to modify a pet's behavior.

SAN FRANCISCO — The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) urges specialists and general practitioners to drop punishment as a first-line treatment to modify a pet's behavior.

Last month, the group released a nine-point position statement and guidelines titled "Use of punishment for dealing with behavior problems in animals." The objective: to shed light on the controversial dominance-based training featured on programs such as "Dog Whisperer." According to AVSAB officials, the show has led to a resurgence of punishment-based training techniques.

Punishment is a temporary fix that does not necessarily modify the underlying cause of the behavior problem. As a result, it can have a negative long-term effect on animals, AVSAB President Dr. John Ciribassi explains.

Punishment also can interfere with the animal-owner bond. "We can have a problem with the pet not trusting the owner because it is unable to consistently anticipate what the owner is going to do in any given situation," Ciribassi says.

Modification should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors, removing punishment for inappropriate behaviors and addressing the emotional state and environmental conditions of the animal, officials say. Punishment should only be used when positive reinforcement has failed, the guidelines add.

Owners tend to punish inconsistently, and punishment often is a consequence of anger, which leads to its use well after the bad behavior has occurred, AVSAB leaders say.

The position statement outlines nine punishment-based training pitfalls, including:

  • It is difficult to time punishment correctly.

  • Punishment can strengthen the undesirable behavior.

  • Punishment must be intense to be effective, which can lead to physical harm.

  • Regardless of the strength, punishment can cause some animals to become fearful, and this fear can generalize to other contexts.

  • Punishment can facilitate or cause aggressive behavior.

  • Punishment can suppress behaviors, including those that warn of aggression.

  • Punishment can teach the animal to associate the owners, other animals and specific contexts or environments with bad experiences.

  • Punishment often does not address the underlying cause or teach alternate behaviors.

  • Punishment can cause physical harm when administered at high intensities.

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