The Sneaky Aversive

by Emma Judson

From time to time I find people sharing ideas or methods that appear benign, that seem like they can’t cause pain or distress, how can they be aversive, how can they be damaging?

There are some awful methods and techniques out there that, should you not have an understanding of learning theory or dog behaviour, or just a partial understanding, might not appear as they really are. I don’t normally like to talk about the things I don’t do, I’d rather focus on what I do instead. It is by far the more positive way to be. However, some things require explanation and it’s impossible to do that without discussion. So here goes…

‘Hand feed him every morsel – make him earn every bite’

This is often advised for a multitude of issues: from a fearful dog who has no bond at all with a new owner; to a dog who guards food for fear of it being taken away; to puppies who know nothing about the world yet, and probably much more.

But what is really happening when you insist a dog takes everything from your hand, is never free to just shove their nozzle in a bowl and eat at their own pace, unbothered by a human? This one often appears totally harmless. The dog is being given food. Is that not one of the major techniques of positive reinforcement based training? Yes.. but. Just imagine for a moment that you had to ask someone nicely, politely, for every single bite of food. Imagine they made you perform some task for each of the 37 bites of food that made up your dinner. Do you not think you would be even a little bit frustrated? I think I’d be absolutely furious, frustrated, annoyed, stressed out, and miserable. Now, what if the person controlling that food was someone you did not know but were terrified of? Does that make the situation better or worse? Every mouthful you desperately need means you have to force yourself to go near the strange scary person. I think that actually sounds intensely stressful.

How about for training? Well, if the tasks required are easy, the dog knows them well, and the opportunities to earn the food are frequent, some dogs might not really mind all that much.

Some others would still be hugely stressed by this. Can you tell which dog is which before you start? I know I couldn’t, and I don’t want to risk getting it wrong, so not the method for me.

But what if the dog doesn’t truly understand what they are being asked to do? What if the opportunities to earn the food are scarce? What if the tasks are very difficult? It’s easy to see how that situation could be very stressful and unpleasant indeed.

I have heard of people taking this idea to extremes; forcing dogs to work not just for food, but for water as well. I hope I don’t have to explain just how barbaric that is! Far from building a dog who looks to the owner with trust and respect, this method can increase stress and frustration, and cause or exacerbate anxiety around food. This can increases the risk of an aggressive response, and a bite.

So, what is an aversive?

It is anything that the subject dislikes and will seek to avoid. It is that simple. Our intent and our experience is really not relevant here. It does not matter if we find a water spray a little startling, but ultimately harmless. It matters that the dog does not like it. It does not matter that the canned air spray, the water bottle, the rolled up newspaper cannot do serious physical damage. The psychological implications most certainly are harmful.

If your dog will avoid doing something, or avoid you, or avoid the sight of the water bottle, or air spray, etc, then they find the technique aversive. The subject determines what they do or do not find aversive, not us. I have even met a dog for whom food became aversive in certain contexts. It was a simple trick to achieve as well. The owner simply paired food with an unpleasant experience until the dog predicted the unpleasant experience on seeing the food, and would try to hide. What people all too often do, as this lady did, was to use food to lure the dog, and then do something he really hated (held him close and hugged him, which is another thing people assume are nice because we mean them nicely). In a very short amount of time, the dog was hiding at the sight of chicken. Eventually, as she would not stop, because ‘how can chicken be aversive’ and ‘I don’t mean him any harm’, he would run when he smelt chicken cooking!

This is why we say to be extremely careful when counter conditioning. We must always follow the scary or unpleasant experience we wish to change the dogs emotional response to, with the reinforcer. Trigger -> reinforcer.

But I don’t mean to punish, just to correct. It isn’t harsh!
What we intend really does not matter. One of my dogs finds the idea of a kiss absolutely abhorrent, whereas the other three adore kisses and ask for them. The fact that the meaning behind a kiss is only ever a demonstration of affection, is completely irrelevant. A punishment is that which decreases the frequency of a behaviour. It is not defined as ‘something you think is punishing’. A ‘correction’ doesn’t actually have a definition as far as learning theory goes, because it is a meaningless lay term. The word itself is defined in the dictionary as: ‘a change made to something in order to correct or improve it, or the action of making such a change’. However, when a correction is given in dog training terms, it is almost always a collar jerk, a shock from an electric collar, a slap, or some direct aversive action that does not serve to teach the dog what he or she should do. It is merely to stop the dog doing that. In other words, a positive punishment!

We see a number of products advertised as being non-harmful; aimed at punishing behaviour out of dogs. Compressed air-sprays, ultra-sonic sound units, collars that eject compressed air or citronella sprays into the dogs nose, even some brands of shock collar claim that the shock is harmless.

These claims are all meant to deceive you, the owner.

They aren’t harmless, but they are unlikely to result immediately in open wounds or obvious physical injury. The psychological damage they can do, and the physical damage they can do over time is enormous. In some cases it can be impossible to undo.

Human law has slowly come round to recognising that psychological abuse, shouting, belittling, gas-lighting, control and manipulation, is in fact a crime against another person, and is damaging. It is now recognised in UK law, that it is possible for one person to abuse another without ever hitting them, or causing them physical injury. It really is about time the dog world caught up!

Next time you hear of a method that seems great, or see a product that claims to solve problems instantly, or stop unwanted behaviours immediately, take a few minutes to try to work out how, and what effect that might have on your dog.