Is effectiveness enough?

Lately I've been feeling burnt out. The reason for this burnout is due to the overwhelming number of clients I have seen recently who were previously instructed to train their dog using punitive or aversive methods, and are now experiencing the fallout from these techniques.

I'm tired of seeing uneducated and inhumane trainers get a front seat on television, where they are able infiltrate the minds of naïve pet owners who truly don't know better. I'm tired of trainers justifying their use of punitive tools and techniques simply because they work.

As a refresh, punishment is anything that decreases the future probability of the behavior that it follows. Alternatively, reinforcement is anything that increase the future probability of the behavior that it follows.

Here is something I will agree with aversive trainers on: punishment works. We cannot argue this point. If punishment didn't work, dog owners wouldn't be using it, and I wouldn't be sitting here pulling my hair out as a result of it's detriment.

The issue is how punishment works to change behavior.

Punishment works to suppress the behavior that it follows, making it appear as if the problem has been solved, but never truly addressing what's going on under the hood; the internal turmoil of the learner. This often leaves the learner continuing to feel stressed, anxious, or scared, but being unable to express it in fair of the punishment that will follow.

What I want to ask is this: does the effectiveness of punishment justify it's use?

Science has proven to us that punishment has a hefty fallout associated with it, including (and not limited to), damaged trust between the learner and teacher, apathy, and increased aggression.

Is it enough that the technique works? Should that be the only criteria used when selecting training tools or methods? Should we turn a blind eye to the repercussions of the training methods we are implementing?

The answer to this should be, no.

We cannot simply consider the effectiveness of the training, but also it's impact on the learner's welfare, and physical well-being, as well as the potential for alternative approaches that better support the learner's welfare during training.

I impatiently wait for the day when punishment and all of it's aversive counterparts are placed on the shelves, where they will collect dust and be forgotten about. When punishing behavior is a startling idea, because it's common knowledge that there are more effective and humane approaches to be used instead.

Until that day comes, I will keep placing one foot in front of the other and do my best to educate pet owners on the choices out there for them.

Happy Clicking,


Vanessa Charbonneau, is the author of Dog Care for Puppies: A guide to Feeding, Playing, Grooming and Behavior. She owns Sit Pretty Pet Services, employing force-free training techniques to work with companion dogs and their owners. Charbonneau lives in Prince George, BC with her husband, two daughters, and one dog.

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