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Posted on Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 9:40 a.m.

Study indicates that confrontational or punishment-based dog training linked to aggression and other behavior problems in canines

By Lorrie Shaw


Lorrie Shaw | Contributor

"By far the most common behavior problem we treat in dogs is aggression,” indicates Meghan Herron, a University of Pennsylvania veterinary researcher.

Sadly, it's one of the most cited reasons for a dog owner to make the decision to relinquish a pet. In some cases, if a dog is deemed behaviorally unsound and they cannot be rehabilitated, euthanization is necessary.

I field countless phone calls and emails per year from people who are reaching out for help to address their pet's problem behavior — which most often is aggression or fear-based — and are seeking a referral to a reputable behaviorist or trainer.

I find that in the majority of these cases, the wrong resources have been tapped: books written by unqualified people (lest we forget the television shows) offering training or rehabilitation advice, self-professed trainers who are either unskilled in understanding canine behavior and/or use techniques that actually do more harm than good.

As it's been said: "...the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

I think most people genuinely want what's best for their pets. Sometimes, with all of the information and opinions out there, it can be challenging to know what is helpful and what's downright dangerous.

The good news is that aggressive behavior in dogs is more easily prevented than resolved.

Reputable canine professionals know that using positive reinforcement methods and to train dogs from the start elicits the favorable outcome that everyone is looking for. They also understand the importance of relationship building and trust when it comes to a dog and their humans (as opposed to the "pack leader" mindset).

But is the public-at-large getting the message?

To some degree, those of us who are in the trenches so to speak, see that this isn't the case.

Herron and her colleagues cite in their 2009 study that what they had suspected was true: dogs who are exposed to confrontational or punishment-based training techniques are more likely to exhibit aggressive or fear-based behavior responses.

The study was conducted using surveys from pet owners who made appointments at the school to address their dog's behavioral issues.

The alpha roll is just one thing the researchers cited as something that should never be used in the process of dog training or obedience classes. Sadly, I have found that some local trainers incorporate this concept as part of their "curriculum" and implore people to use it on their weeks-old puppies and older dogs to either stave off aggressive behavior or correct it.

The technique, where a dog is essentially flipped over on its back and is held in that position, usually by the throat is not only counterproductive, but a dangerous thing to do: the inherent risk of being harmed by a dog — well-balanced or not — who is suddenly thrust into that situation certainly is imminent.

The survey asked how the unwanted behaviors were addressed, what response the dog elicited, and where the training technique used by the owner was learned from.

The bottom line is that unwanted behaviors in canines are best prevented than corrected. How can this be achieved? By empowering yourself. Most dog owners who get to a point where they seek help feel inept and deflated — not a good place to be.

  • Know that much of dog training is actually "human training." Most unwanted behaviors in canines are a result of a inconsistencies or shortcomings on the human's part, regardless of the breed — along with inadequate socialization. In the training process, dogs do best with consistency as well as predictability and a calm, friendly approach. When pet isn't responding favorably, stop and ask, "What am I doing to influence this behavior?"
  • Before hiring the services of a dog trainer, understand that the field of canine training is unregulated. This means a bit more work on your part; check the professional's credentials and ask a lot of questions about their philosophy on training and what methods they use. Don't be afraid to request references from their past clients that you can actually talk to and visit with one-on-one. If you don't feel comfortable with the trainer, there's probably a good a reason why. Click here for a bit more on the topic.
  • Avoid the use of a training program that utilizes forceful leash corrections, choke or pinch collars and I can't emphasize enough — the use of shock collars — in the process.
Click here for more on the study and its findings.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.



Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 2:36 p.m.

I see new dog owners making terrible mistakes with their dogs out of frustration. For some reason they seem to think the dog should automatically know how to behave. When I win the Lotto, ha, I'll pass out dog training books. Patricia McConnell's especially. Love your dog, forgive the doggie mistakes and reward for good behavior (that's usually when new dog owners ignore their dog because the dog isn't doing anything wrong!) and your dog will want to please you.

Yash Adhia

Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 10:06 p.m.

@Billy: please read this article - It has been shown scientifically that the alpha theory has been inappropriately applied for dogs. Yes - I agree with that you don't want to be so naive that the dog takes undue advantage of you. But, in dog world, someone who regularly feeds the dog, gives it shelter, socializes with them and gives them the right direction, is considered as the "boss" or the so-called "alpha", and the dog will eventually obey you with the above reinforcement factors. Whilst I appreciate that you are wary of not hurting the dog using your theory, it is still not the best way in my opinion. Positive re-inforcement is likely to yield the same or better results.

Lorrie Shaw

Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 1:43 p.m.

Billy, In reviewing the article that Yash Adhia passed along, I have to say that it's complete, informative and really fleshes out a bit of the history of canine training. The concept of avoiding confrontational or punishment-based training methods like the alpha roll has been substantiated by handfuls of the best behaviorists and trainers, including Karen Overall, Patricia McConnell, Ian Dunbar (including certified trainers and behaviorists that I know personally) -- Pat Miller isn't the only one professional -- and there hasn't been just one study supporting positive reinforcement methods, not by a long shot. Yes, this thinking totally contradicts -- and challenges -- years and years of previously held ideas about how dogs learn, how they respond and what works best to teach them to live in our very human world. The comparisons of dogs to wolves... it doen't wash, as we've learned. The term "dominance"? Grossly misused and misunderstood. The need for physical force to train dogs and methods that one very popular television star promotes (I will not refer to them as a trainer and certainly not as a behaviorist) are confrontational and punishment-based. They are antiquated, dangerous and detrimental to dogs -- but they certainly make for good television, don't they? Here's more on that: Positive reinforcement isn't flashy; it's rather dull in comparison to punishment-based methods, actually. It's repetitive, it requires us to be present with not just the dog that we're trying to engage with, but ourselves as well. It takes effort, thought and constant checking and rechecking to see if things are going well. As far as "neutrality", I'm not sure that there is any way to achieve that, unless one believes that using methods that have been established as harmful or dangerous is an option. I value your interaction, as always.


Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 12:45 a.m.

I WHOLEHEARTEDLY disagree. You are citing ONE single solitary study...which contradicts years and years of other studies. That link you just links to an article written by a woman WHO'S ENTIRE CAREER IS STAKED ON THIS IDEA. I'm sorry, but you need to cite some NEUTRAL sources for these claims. The absolute LAST person you should be using to back up your assertions, is someone who is very clearly BIASED.


Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 9:01 p.m.

I like to say that it's easy for me to train my dog, but very difficult to train myself. The one thing I'm satisfied with is our work on the recall command. My Fozzie Bear, even if he knows I'm upset, will always come when called because I always reward him for doing so. We're still working on a few other basics (sit, stay, wash the dishes) but overall I'm thrilled with *my* training so far.

Lorrie Shaw

Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 1:46 p.m.

RunsWithScissors, It sounds like you've worked hard to forge a relationship with Fozzie Bear, and that is what it's all about! Enjoy the weekend!

Susan Karp

Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 7:48 p.m.

Billy-Did you not read the article? You need a refresher course in positive reinforcement dog training methods....


Thu, Apr 18, 2013 : 2:50 p.m.

Best way to discipline or correct behavior in a dog isn't to hit it. The best method is to hold it to the floor by it's neck, thus restricting it's movement...and speak to it in a loud, strong, and commanding voice. Dogs that misbehave do so because YOU are not the alpha. Doing this will make you so. You don't even need to cause the dog pain. You're not trying to HURT the dog, you're simply "showing the dog who's boss." need to have been doing all this since the dog was a puppy. That whole thing about can't teach an old dog new tricks....ENTIRELY accurate. It's a LOT harder to correct a learned behavior that's persisted for years.


Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 5:32 p.m.

I guess you didn't bother to read the artcicle


Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 3:36 p.m.

I've taught my old dogs new tricks for years. If they trust you, they want to engage.