Aversive corrections are likely to make aggressive dogs worse.
When dog owners with aggressive pets are looking for help, where do they turn? Popular TV shows, the Internet, books, and even some trainers have advocated various forms of corrective intervention that is punitive and aversive. The authors of a study published in the most recent issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science wanted to discover what types of interventions owners of aggressive dogs used most frequently, where they found out about the interventions, and the owner-reported reactions of the dogs to the interventions. The authors were especially interested in whether any of these interventions made the problem worse by resulting in defensive aggression from the dog.
For one year, the authors of the study mailed out surveys to all new clients who had scheduled a behavior appointment for their dogs at the Behavior Service at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The survey listed 30 interventions and asked the clients to indicate whether they had used them to try to alter their dogs’ behavior. These interventions fit into one of four categories: “aversive: direct confrontation,” “aversive: indirect confrontation,” “reward training,” and “neutral.” The survey also asked from what source the owners had learned about the intervention and what the intervention’s effect was on the dog’s behavior—positive, no effect, or negative.
The survey was a more in-depth version of the hospital’s pre-examination behavior questionnaire that was sent to new clients. The authors categorized presenting complaints as aggression to familiar people, aggression to unfamiliar people, aggression to dogs, separation anxiety, specific fears or anxiety, and other. Some dogs fit into more than one of the categories. The authors received a total of 140 surveys.
The direct confrontational techniques of hitting or kicking a dog, forcing open a dog’s mouth so it would release an item, and muzzling a dog resulted in at least one-third of the dogs exhibiting aggressive behavior in return. Growling at the dog or staring at the dog until it looked away, which were considered indirect confrontations, also resulted in at least one-quarter of the dogs exhibiting aggressive behavior toward the owner. In contrast, those owners who used neutral or reward-training interventions such as avoidance or food rewards experienced little to no returned aggression from the dog.
The owners of dogs that were classified as aggressive toward family members were at greater risk of injury when attempting an alpha roll or when yelling “No,” a direct and indirect confrontation intervention, respectively. No relationship was found between aggressive responses to the interventions and age of the dog.
For 27 of the 30 interventions, owners listed the source as either themselves or trainers. This illustrates that pet owners may not be aware of the best place to seek advice for behavior problems. Much lay behavior advice that is popular in the media and with trainers involves trying to establish dominance over the dog so that the dog will see the owner as the leader of the pack. But research has found that most aggressive dogs are actually fearful and act out as a result of their fear, not a need for dominance. Aggressive techniques in fearful dogs only make the fear worse.
Overall, this study’s findings illustrate that many owners are not learning effective methods of training and correcting their dogs. And any situation in which a dog is responding with aggression is dangerous for the owner and other members of the household. Here is where veterinarians and veterinary staff can step up and help. Your intervention in their interventions can prevent potential harm. So in your exam room, be sure to discuss and demonstrate appropriate ways to interact with pets and ask clients whether their pets are having any behavior problems. In extreme cases, you can refer clients to board-certified veterinary behaviorists or reputable trainers.
Source: Herron ME, Shofer FS, Reisner IR. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesirable behaviors. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2009;117:47-54.