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Ask the Vet: Reward-Based Training More Effective and Humane Than Aversive Training

Dr. Lee Pickett on

Q: I mentioned to a friend that I am sending Bert, our new dog who is wild and undisciplined, to a training school to learn to settle down and mind his manners. My friend responded that this trainer uses shock collars to train dogs, which she feels is inhumane. What's your opinion?

A: The preponderance of research evidence says your friend is correct. For example, a recent study evaluated positive and negative training methods on the short- and long-term welfare of pet dogs.

Reward-based training with treats and play was compared with aversive training, e.g., yelling, jerking the leash and physically manipulating the dog. The shock collar and other forms of punishment obviously belong in the aversive category.

In the study, 42 dogs enrolled in three dog training schools that use reward-based training, and 50 dogs enrolled in four schools that employ aversive training methods.

Short-term assessment involved videotaping three training sessions to determine whether the dog was mostly relaxed or tense and to identify stress-related behaviors, including turning or moving away, crouching, panting, salivating, licking the lips and yawning. For each dog, six saliva samples were analyzed for the stress hormone cortisol -- three at home, to establish a baseline, and three after training sessions.

Long-term assessment was performed a month after training by teaching the dog to find a sausage in a bowl and then moving empty and sausage-containing bowls around the room and asking the dog to find the sausage. Rapid searching for the sausage signals optimism and self-confidence, while searching slowly indicates pessimism.


Dogs taught using reward-based training moved faster and actually learned more quickly to find the bowl with the sausage. The dogs trained using positive methods also exhibited less tension and significantly fewer stress-related behaviors than the dogs trained using aversive methods. Moreover, cortisol levels of reward-trained dogs remained the same whether at home or school, whereas cortisol levels in aversive-trained dogs increased during training.

Other studies have documented increased fear and aggression in dogs trained using aversive methods.

So my advice is to train Bert yourself at a dog training school that uses only positive methods. It will help him bond to you and reinforce his desire to please you.

Q: My veterinarian doesn't offer Lyme vaccination for my cats, who spend more time outside than my dogs. Is a vaccine available for felines?


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