Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training IV: Little Dogs vs Big Dogs

In this week’s edition of the series, we investigate whether small dogs are treated differently than large dogs.

The answer comes from a large-scale study by Christine Arhant and colleagues in Vienna.

Since Viennese dogs must be registered with the city, they posted a questionnaire to a random sample of registered dog-owners. They received 1276 responses from owners of pet dogs that lived in the home with them. For the purposes of this study, 20kg was the cut-off for small dogs; any dog that weighed more than 20kg was considered a large dog. The questionnaire asked about training techniques and dog behaviour, as well as characteristics of the dog. 

Black girl dances with cute little dog, both dressed in pink
One of the nice things about this study is the impressively large sample size. Whereas the previous studies separated out owners who used only positive reinforcement, this study instead looks at the frequency of positive reinforcement and punishment.  There was a third category which the researchers called ‘reward-based responses to unwanted behaviour’ which included comforting, distracting, and time-outs.

About 80% of the owners used punishment, usually in the form of a leash jerk, scolding, or holding the dog’s muzzle. Slapping the dog, an alpha roll, or shaking a can to make an unpleasant noise were used less often. Nonetheless, around 10% of small dog owners and 13% of large dog owners used a scruff shake or alpha roll sometimes, often or very often. Rewards-based training was very common, with 90% of owners using rewards often or very often. 

One great thing about this study is that they asked about consistency. Many of the owners admitted they were not consistent in their behaviour, with about one third of the owners saying they sometimes allowed their dog to do things that were supposedly forbidden. 

There were differences between small and large dogs. Owners of small dogs were significantly more inconsistent than owners of large dogs. Owners of large dogs engaged more often in training and play activities with their dogs. Small dogs were also taken for walks less often than large dogs. Smaller dogs were rated as more aggressive, more anxious and more fearful.

For both small and large dogs, a greater frequency of punishment was associated with more aggression and more exciteability. This relationship was stronger for small dogs. Although the study did not look at the use of only rewards in training, it did find that a higher frequency of rewards was linked to higher scores for obedience, and lower scores for aggression and anxiousness. Not surprisingly, inconsistency of the owner was linked to lower obedience scores.

This study shows that the owners of smaller dogs are less consistent in training, put less emphasis on training and engage in fewer activities with the dog, than the owners of large dogs. Also, smaller dogs are less obedient and more aggressive. It’s possible that small dogs are seen as more like a ‘baby’ and treated differently because they are cute. It’s also possible that small dogs react more badly to negative interactions; because of their size, they might find things threatening that would not trouble a larger dog.

With both small and large dogs, it seems that a greater use of rewards is linked to a more obedient dog, and higher frequency of punishment is linked to problems with aggression and exciteability.

The series continues next week with a study of dogs that already have a behaviour problem.

What size is your dog? Do you ever let it do something that is meant to be forbidden?

Arhant, C., Bubbna-Lititz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science (123), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Photo: OLJ Studio (Shutterstock)

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training III

A study finds people who only use positive reinforcement report their dogs are less attention-seeking, aggressive or fearful.

This is the third part in a series about positive reinforcement and dog training.

A woman tells her little dog no

This week I’m looking at another questionnaire study of ordinary dog owners and the way they train their dogs. The study was conducted by Emily Blackwell and colleagues, and involved 192 dog owners that were recruited from three counties in the UK.

They seem to be typical owners of typical dogs, as the sample included a wide range of breeds, a mix of genders (neutered/spayed/or not), and a range of different ages. Owners were asked whether their dogs had attended training or puppy socialization classes, the methods they had used to train them at home, and about any problem behaviours the dogs might display.

In total 88% of the owners said they had done some training at home. The methods were classified into groups: positive reinforcement (the use of rewards), positive punishment (the use of punishment), and negative reinforcement (e.g. time out, physical restraint).

Most owners used a combination, and 72% used some form of physical punishment as part of their training method. Only 16% of them used only positive reinforcement, which is similar to the proportion of owners in the study by Hiby et al, discussed last week.

The list of potential problem behaviours included 36 behaviours that could be seen as undesirable; owners were asked to say if their dog exhibited the behaviour, and also if it was a problem, since for example some owners might not mind if their dog jumps on them. 

The dogs that had attended puppy socialization classes were less likely to react to dogs outside the house. Interestingly, attendance at training classes was not linked to better behaviour overall. The authors say this may be because owners had previously attended classes and learnt how to train their dogs there. Another explanation, though, could be that it would depend on the methods taught during the class, and this wasn’t tested.

The type of training method was related to the dog’s behaviour. Remember that a small proportion of the owners used only positive reinforcement in training? It turned out their dogs were the least likely to display problem behaviours; they were less likely to show attention-seeking, fear, and aggression.

In addition, when owners used punishment, whether on its own or in tandem with other methods, their dogs were more likely to be rated as aggressive, and more likely to show fear (e.g. avoidance of unfamiliar people or fear of loud noises).  

The authors also looked at where the dogs had come from. Dogs obtained from rescue centres were more likely to show separation-related problems (separation anxiety) than those obtained from breeders. However, they were no more likely to be aggressive, fearful or attention-seeking. This is good news, since it counteracts the negative stereotypes some people have about rescue dogs.

Of course, the results are correlational, and do not prove a causal link. However, the authors think it is possible dogs learn to associate punishment with their owner or the context, rather than with their own behaviour, and hence become fearful or anxious. This in turn would lead them to exhibit more unwanted behaviours. 

Next week, we will look at whether or not people train small dogs differently from large dogs

Blackwell, E.J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R.A. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior,, 3, 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008
Photo: Christian Mueller (

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training II

Training with rewards is linked to more obedient dogs with fewer problem behaviours, according to a survey of owners.

A woman trains an obedient little white dog to sit pretty

This is the second part in a series about positive reinforcement and dog training. You can read the first part here.

This week, we’re looking at study by EF Hiby et al that asked dog owners about their training methods and how effective they were.

The researchers approached people walking their dogs at seven popular dog-walking locations in Southampton and Cambridge, such as Southampton Common and Gog Magog Down.

They asked them to complete a questionnaire about how they had trained their dog on the basic tasks of sit, leave it, come and walk to heel, as well as how they would react to the common issues of house training, chewing, and stealing items such as food. They also asked them to rate their dog’s obedience.

Finally, they were given a list of thirteen problem behaviours and asked to say whether their dog exhibited any of them, such as barking at people or dogs, fear, excitement, and mounting.

The researchers only asked people whose dog was at least one year old, so that they would have had time to train the dog. In total, 364 people took part. The dogs ranged in age from 1 to 15, included purebreds and cross-breeds, and included neutered and entire males, and spayed and intact females.

On average the owners had previously had at least two dogs. So we can say that they were experienced dog owners and the dogs were fairly typical of the pet dog population in the UK.

The owners used their own words to describe the training techniques they used. This is important because it meant they could describe exactly what they did. The training methods were grouped into three types: punishment-based, reward-based, and miscellaneous.

Reward-based training used food, play, praise or other rewards. Punishment-based training included physical punishment such as smacking the dog or tapping the nose, verbal punishment such as shouting or being stern, sending the dog to its bed or outside for a while, and a tug on the leash. From a technical perspective, it’s worth noting that this category includes both positive punishment (smacking and shouting) and negative punishment such as time-outs. The miscellaneous category included using newspaper on the floor for toilet training, giving the dog an alternative object to chew, ignoring the misbehaviour, or using pressure to force the dog into a sit.

About 10% of the owners used only punishment-based training, 20% used only positive-based training, 60% used a mix of both, and the remaining 10% were hard to classify (e.g. because there wasn’t enough information).

Given the range of behaviours that were studied, the results are surprisingly simple: overall, owners that used punishment, whether on its own or in tandem with rewards in training, were more likely to have dogs that exhibited problem behaviours. In addition, the dogs that were trained using reward-based methods only had significantly higher scores for obedience.  

This study is correlational, and there is a proviso that goes with correlational studies – they don’t prove causality. For example, it’s possible that the initial behaviour of the dog influences the owners’ decision to use rewards or punishment. However, what is excellent about this study is that it focusses on ordinary people, the things they want to train their dogs to do, and the kinds of problem behaviours they have to deal with in real life. 

The authors conclude that “Because reward-based methods are associated with higher levels of obedience and fewer problematic behaviours, we suggest that their use is a more effective and welfare-compatible alternative to punishment for the average dog-owner.”

This is an interesting finding, and it might surprise those owners who think it is somehow more ‘balanced’ to use a mix of punishment and rewards.  This study suggests clearly that using only reward-based training methods works better. See my post on how to choose a dog trainer to find someone who will only use these methods.

Next week, I’ll look at another study of dog-training methods used by ordinary people. Will it come to the same conclusion?

If you have any questions about this study, please leave a comment.

Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare Animal Welfare (13), 63-69
Photo: leungchopan (

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training

This week is the start of a series about positive reinforcement in dog training.

Whether you already use positive reinforcement, or you’re yet to be sold on the idea, this series is for you. I’m going to look at studies that investigate different methods of training, and consider what they mean for the average dog owner.

Some time ago, there was a change in the way dogs are trained. Instead of using punishment when dogs did the wrong thing, people started to reward them for doing the right thing – and ignore what they did wrong, or distract them from it.

But in everyday life, you hear people talk about dominance in dogs, even though we know that dominance – as the term is usually used – is a myth. And when you watch TV, some trainers still use punishment. You can watch two different dog programmes and see completely different approaches to the same problem, whether it’s pulling on a leash, begging at table, or growling at skateboards and bicycles. It’s no wonder dog owners get confused.

A very handsome chocolate labrador looking straight into the camera

So, what do we mean by positive reinforcement? Put simply, it’s rewarding the dog for doing what you ask.  

Some people assume this means feeding the dog treats, but in fact the reward can be anything – so long as the dog finds it rewarding. So the reward might be food, affection, praise, or a quick game of tug. If you’ve ever watched agility championships, you’ll have noticed the dogs are often rewarded at the end with a tug toy. (But see the importance of food in dog training).

This series is about training pet dogs. Although we can learn a lot from the way dogs are trained to do specialist jobs – like search-and-rescue, assistance dogs, drug detection, and police and military dogs – they are trained by specialists. It’s a different situation than a dog that is being kept as a companion, and I want to focus on things that are achievable for a normal dog owner. 

So, is it better to use only positive reinforcement? Next week, I’m going to look at one of the first studies to investigate how ordinary people train their dogs, and the factors that influence their success. 

Do you have any questions about the use of positive reinforcement? Leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to include answers somewhere in the series.

Photo; Shutterstock.
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