Dogs with Behaviour Issues Can Respond with Aggression to Aversive Training Techniques

For dogs with problem behaviours, the use of aversive techniques can lead to an aggressive response. Part V of the series positive reinforcement and dog training. 

Science shows rewards are the best way to train even for dogs with behaviour problems
Photo: SipaPhoto (Shutterstock)

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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In this week’s edition of the series, we take another look at the use of punishment. However, while previous posts have looked at ordinary dog owners, this week the focus is on people who are having problems with their dogs. This is from a study by Meghan Herron and colleagues in the US.

People who had a referral to an animal behaviourist were asked to complete a questionnaire. It asked about dog training techniques, whether the technique had worked, who had suggested it, and whether any aggressive behaviour resulted.

The questionnaire was completed prior to the first meeting with the behaviourist, and the dog owners were there for a range of problems including aggression to people or other animals, house-soiling, separation anxiety, and other common problems. In total, 140 people took part.

The results showed that aversive training techniques elicited an aggressive response in many cases.

At least 25% of the dogs gave an aggressive response to the following: alpha roll (rolling the dog over on its back and holding it down), dominance down (forcing the dog onto its side and holding it there), muzzling the dog, using force to take something from the dog’s mouth, hitting or kicking the dog, and grabbing the dog’s jowls.

Use of a choke or prong collar got an aggressive response from 11% of the dogs, and use of a shock collar got an aggressive response from 7% of the dogs. Less aversive techniques such as growling at the dog, staring it down, or yelling no, also sometimes got an aggressive response (from 41%, 30% and 15% respectively). Yes you read it right – some owners growl at their dog.

"Ultimately, reward-based training is less stressful or painful for the dog and, hence, safer for the owner."


The training techniques were not all negative. Most of the owners also said they did some reward-based training, and these techniques were rated as successful. For example, the use of food rewards was rated as having a positive effect on behaviour by 86% of the dog owners, making it the most successful of the techniques studied. In addition, reward-based methods did not lead to aggressive responses from the dog. 

You might be thinking that these were aggressive dogs, so it’s no wonder they sometimes responded aggressively, but remember they were attending the behaviourist for a range of problems, not just aggression. When the researchers looked just at the dogs that were there because they were aggressive to people they knew, they found they were much more likely to have an aggressive response to an alpha roll, and to yelling no, than the other dogs in the study.

The idea to use these techniques was most often reported as coming from the owner themselves, or from a trainer. Most of the owners reported that the techniques had either a positive or no effect. Surprisingly, even when they said their dogs were aggressive in response, a subset of owners did not indicate this was a negative effect.  

The main conclusion from this study is that the use of punishment in dog training can lead to unwanted, even dangerous, consequences. The authors say that, 
“Ultimately, reward-based training is less stressful or painful for the dog, and, hence, safer for the owner.” 

Whereas the studies looked at earlier in the series focused more on effectiveness and obedience, this one focused specifically on the risks to the owner. When it comes to aversive methods, it seems that ‘don’t try this at home’ is very sensible advice.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Next week, I'll look at another study of training methods and the effects on future training sessions.

Dogs with behaviour issues can respond with aggression to aversive training
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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S., and Reisner, I. R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(1-2), 47-54. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011

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