25 April 2018

Why Don't More People Use Positive Reinforcement to Train Dogs?

Everyone who has a dog needs to teach them how to behave. But why do many people still use methods that have risks for animal welfare?

How can we encourage more people to use positive reinforcement in dog training - like this woman teaching her cute dog to high-five
Photo: Corey Terrill/Shutterstock

A new paper by myself (Zazie Todd) looks at the barriers to the adoption of humane dog training methods by ordinary people. To understand how people make decisions about dog training, we need to understand people’s attitudes to different methods and what influences them, as well as people’s knowledge and technical ability in using those methods.

Humane dog training methods use positive reinforcement and negative punishment. They are also known as reward-based methods, positive reinforcement, or force free methods, and they basically involve giving or withholding rewards contingent on the dog’s behaviour.

There are many reasons to use humane methods rather than aversive ones (which, technically speaking, are positive punishment and negative reinforcement). The use of reward-based dog training methods is associated with better welfare, and there are some indications it may even produce better results (see the dog training research resources page if you want to delve into the literature). Some behaviour problems are due to fear or stress, but aversive methods do not resolve this (and may even make it worse). Some problems occur because the dog does not have appropriate ways to engage in normal behaviour (e.g. chew toys). And training with positive reinforcement can be a good way to provide cognitive enrichment, which is important because good animal welfare includes positive experiences.

But studies show most ordinary dog owners use a mix of positive reinforcement and positive punishment to train dogs – so-called ‘balanced’ dog training. From an animal welfare perspective, it’s important to understand why many people continue to use aversive methods at least some of the time – and how we can bring about change.

A dog sits for a treat. Why don't more people train dogs with positive reinforcement? Research investigates.

Many different factors will affect people’s attitudes towards training methods and the actual methods they use. The paper considers these factors, and in some cases it draws on the literature related to children and parents’ use of corporal punishment, which has been more extensively studied.

Many people (including some dog trainers) still use the idea of dominance to train dogs. Unfortunately, this frames the dog-owner relationship in antagonistic terms, and so may encourage people to use aversive methods.

There is no regulation of dog trainers, and no requirement for education. This means some people who hire a dog trainer may get out-dated advice. Some trainers may not be clear about the methods they use on their website, which may make it difficult for people to find a reward-based trainer.

Amongst dog trainers who do use reward-based methods, there are a few points of disagreement. One relates to the use of no-reward markers. This is a word or phrase (e.g. “Too bad!” or “Oops”) that signals to the dog the behaviour they did was not the one requested, and hence they didn’t earn a reward. Some dog trainers use them, and some don’t. For most people, errorful learning with prompt feedback is more successful than error-free learning (the exceptions include those with amnesia). But we simply don’t have good data on this for dogs.

Another point of disagreement relates to the use of negative punishment. Negative punishment means withholding a reward so the frequency of a behaviour goes down. One example is withholding rewards when a dog does not perform the right behaviour (which is inevitable some of the time). Another example is the use of ‘time out’. Evidence-based parenting programs teach ‘time out’ as a non-aversive way to improve children’s behaviour. We know there are some common mistakes parents make, and it seems likely dog owners make some of the same mistakes with their dog (for example, using many warning cues instead of just one before implementing the time out).

Why don't more people use positive reinforcement to train dogs? Illustrated by this cute Siberian Husky puppy in a cardboard box
Photo: Anucha Pongpatimeth/Shutterstock

The legality or otherwise of certain methods (such as electronic shock collars, which are banned in a number of countries) will affect perceptions of whether or not it is okay to use them.

The different positions taken by professional bodies, including veterinary associations, dog training associations, animal behaviour associations, groups that train working dogs, rescues and shelters, may also affect people’s perceptions of social norms about dog training. Some organizations have clear position statements on dog training methods. But when some organizations include aversive methods as a ‘last resort’ it may give people the mistaken impression they are sometimes necessary, or that there is not a scientific consensus on the best methods to use.

There’s also an issue of competency, since technical expertise etc. may affect the success of attempts to train with positive reinforcement. We don’t know how dog trainers or owners make decisions when they think positive reinforcement isn’t working; that is, whether they take advice or find someone with more expertise, or whether they decide to use positive punishment instead.

Veterinarians also have an important role to play in referring dog owners to trainers and animal behaviourists. Advice for veterinarians stresses the importance of positive methods, but again some organizations allow for some methods to be used as a ‘last resort’.

Of course, many factors relating to dog owners themselves will also influence their choice of training methods. These include their technical skills and the reinforcement they use (which will affect their success rate), their knowledge of dog training methods, methods they have seen promoted on TV and elsewhere, people’s ability to read their dog’s body language (e.g. to recognize if the dog is fearful), and personality characteristics. Unfortunately the quality of information in dog training books is highly variable and the same likely applies to other sources of information such as TV and the internet.

All of this shows that encouraging more people to use humane dog-training methods is a complex issue. But a model from social psychology known as the reasoned action approach (and its predecessor the theory of planned behaviour) has been quite successful in predicting people’s intentions and behaviours in a wide range of topics – including parents’ attitudes to and use of corporal punishment. This would be a good fit for investigating what influences people’s choice of dog training methods.

I would love to see more research on the best ways to encourage people to use reward-based training methods, and how best to teach them.

What do you think are the main factors that influence people’s choice of dog training methods?

The full paper is available for free download via this link for a limited time. Be sure to download it before 9th June!

Todd, Z. (2018). Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Dog Training Methods. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.  25C(28-34).

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22 April 2018

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium

Two upcoming events in the BC lower mainland, featuring Chirag Patel.

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium 2018

The BC SPCA Animal Behaviour Science Symposium will take place in Burnaby, BC, on 2nd and 3rd June 2018, featuring Chirag Patel, world-renowned behaviour and training consultant, and star of the UK TV show Nightmare Pets SOS.

As well, there will be talks from Karen van Haaften DVM, Kim Monteith, Claudia Richter DVM, Rebecca Ledger PhD - and myself.

I'm really looking forward to it!

And before that, on 31st May, the BC SPCA Pet Behaviour Speaker Series is hosting 10 Things Your Dog Wishes You Knew, featuring Chirag Patel, Dr. Karen van Haaften, and Kim Monteith. This event at The Historic Theatre in Vancouver will include live dog demonstrations.

17 April 2018

Is Scent Enriching for Shelter Dogs?

Research investigates the effects of enrichment using the scent of coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian.

Dogs have excellent noses, like this one belonging to a Shih Tzu dog. Researchers tested the effects of scent enrichment on shelter dogs and found  it reduced signs of stress.
Photo: chaoss/Shutterstock

Animal shelters are stressful environments for dogs, and so anything that helps them to be less stressed is beneficial. Scientists from Hartpury University Centre tested the effects of presenting scent-infused cloths to shelter dogs. The results are promising and suggest scent enrichment may work well for shelter dogs.

Study authors, John Binks and Dr Tamara Montrose, say
“In our study we found that shelter dogs showed reduced vocalisations and movement when exposed to cloths scented with ginger, coconut, vanilla and valerian. In addition, we found that dogs exposed to coconut and ginger slept more. Since excessive vocalisations and activity may indicate stress in kennelled dogs, as well as being behaviours that can be found undesirable by potential adopters, our study suggests that these odours may have application in rescue shelters to reduce stress and enhance adoption.”

Enrichment means adding things to the animal’s environment that are designed to improve welfare, for example by allowing the animal to engage in species-specific behaviour, encourage use of the environment, get more exercise, encourage learning, and decrease boredom and abnormal behaviour. Since shelter dogs spend a large part of their day in kennels, enrichment is important to improve their welfare.

Dogs have impressive noses (and vomeronasal organs) and, as we all know, they spend a lot of time smelling things. The scientists say enrichment works best if it targets an animal’s primary sense, so it is surprising there isn’t more research into scent enrichment for shelter dogs.

The experiment used the smells of coconut, vanilla, ginger and valerian because they are safe for dogs, easily available, and have been found to be beneficial for other animals, such as wombats, sea-lions, Javan gibbons, cats and rats (read about different scents that cats like).

15 dogs took part at a shelter in Gloucestershire, England. Most were medium-sized dogs and two were small.

The dogs were presented with scent on a cloth put in their kennel for a few hours per day. There were two control conditions: an unscented cloth (to provide a comparison for the different smells), and no cloth (to control for the effects of the presence of a new item). The unscented cloth control condition took place before the presentations of smells, and the no cloth condition took place after.

Each condition took place over three days, with a two day gap between them.

Cloths were prepared an hour in advance by adding a few drops of essential oils or fragrance oils, and then kept in a ziplock bag until they were used. The experimenter wore gloves to ensure they did not accidentally transfer any other scents to the cloths. Dogs were given half an hour to get used to the item, and then observed for a two-hour period, the latter half of which was during the shelter’s opening hours for visitors. This was in the middle of the day when feeding and exercise did not happen, so the dogs' behaviour would not be affected by waiting for the next meal.

When the scented cloths were present, dogs vocalized less. Since barking, whining etc. can be signs of stress, this suggests they were less stressed. Dogs also spent more time resting and less time moving when the scents were present. For the ginger and coconut scents, dogs spent more time sleeping.

These results suggest the scent enrichment helped the dogs be less stressed.

There was also an effect of time, in that when the shelter was open to visitors, dogs vocalized more, stood more, and spent less time resting. They were also at the front of their kennel more.

The scents were always presented in the same order. This was so that other dogs taking part would not have their scent contaminated by one of the other smells wafting in to the kennel. This means there is potential for an order effect. However, because the dogs were presented with the controls before and after the different scent conditions, it does seem that the results are due to the scents.

The scent enrichment used in this study would be easy to use at a shelter, although more research is needed with a larger number of dogs. The results are very promising, and suggest the use of these scents can help shelter dogs to be less stressed.

You can follow Dr. Tamara Montrose, one of the authors of the study, on twitter.

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Binks, J., Taylor, S., Wills, A., & Montrose, V. T. (2018). The behavioural effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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