Monday, January 19, 2015

Clever Alternatives to Using Aversive Punishment in Dog Training

Hey everyone! I hope you are all doing well! Today I decided to write about some alternatives to using aversive punishment in dog training. If you've read any of my previous posts you will know that I am a huge advocate for using Positive Reinforcement and Force Free Methods.

I would like to introduce you to the Progressive Reinforcement Manifesto by Emily Larlham. I do my best to try and follow it and I did get permission from Emily to share it with you.

Here are the key points to the Manifesto:
  • Training by rewarding desirable behaviors so they will be more likely to occur in the future, while preventing reinforcement of behaviors that are undesirable.
  • Interrupting and preventing undesirable behaviors without physical or psychological intimidation, as well as rewarding an alternate response (training a behavior you find desirable in it’s place).
  •  Taking an animal’s emotional state and stress levels into account.
  • Socializing and teaching an animal to cope with his environment using reinforcement.
  • Using a marker to train, whether it be a clicker, some other noise-maker, your voice or touch, or a visual marker.  Or, on the other hand, not using a marker, and instead for example reinforcing an animal by feeding a treat directly to his mouth.
  • Employing humane, effective, respectful training based on the latest scientific evidence.
Progressive Reinforcement Does Not Mean:
  • The intentional use of physical or psychological intimidation.
  • Intentionally disregarding an animal’s stress levels or signals.
  • Holding selfish or uncompassionate goals for your training.

What is an aversive

An aversive is basically anything your dog finds punishing. It can vary from dog to dog but some examples could be: poking, hitting, kicking, jerking the leash, shaking a can filled with pennies or rocks, shocking them, squirting them with water (or other harsh things like vinegar or lemon juice) or even raising your voice (for my dogs, me raising my voice is very aversive). The list could go on, unfortunately. 

In Emily's Manifesto she talks about why we should refrain from using aversives and I highly recommend reading it.

If there's a way to get a behavior out of your dog or even get a behavior to stop without using intimidation or force why would you still choose to use it? It's something that really bothers me and boggles my mind. I think it's a really excellent way of ruining your relationship with your dog. It also creates fear and in most cases additional behavioral problems. There is always fallout when you use aversives, it may not appear right away but it will likely show up at some point.

In example, I used to groom a sheltie named Zeke. He was a really nice dog until you turned the water on him. As soon as the water turned on he turned into cujo. Lashing out, screaming and biting, he even bit one of my co-workers through a muzzle and drew blood. It was a very serious situation. After speaking to his owner, I found out that they had been using the squirt bottle and water hose to discipline him. He was TERRIFIED of the water and grooming him was HIS nightmare. I wish there was a happy ending here but there isn't. He was later euthanized for biting a younger family member when they tried to correct him.

Another example of fallout is dogs that are walked with painful training tools. If they get jerked every time they see another dog what happens is DOG = Pain. So the dog will start having reactivity and lash out in attempt to make the other dog go away so the pain doesn't happen. It's probably an oversimplification and I could go on longer about this but I won't in this post.

YouTube: What not to do to your best friend and why - Emily Larlham

Photo is borrowed  and belongs to: Big Cat Rescue

If we can train tigers, lions, bears and other zoo animals to do voluntary blood draws and other behaviors without the use of force and aversives, why can't we do the same with our dogs? If you tried to force a tiger into doing something he didn't want to do you'd probably be dead. We are lucky our dogs are more cooperative and forgiving.


What is Dominance Theory?


  1. That wolf pack hierarchy and social order is comprised of an 'Alpha' pair of wolves who maintain the pack hierarchy through physical dominance and even outright aggression to keep the rest of the pack subservient.
  2. That, because dogs are descended from wolves, they will have the same 'Alpha' pack hierarchy and social order as wolves, and share the same behavioural traits.

Based on the combination of these two beliefs, Dominance Theory suggests that, in order to have a successful human-canine relationship, the human must assert his/her dominance or 'alpha' status over the family dog in order to keep the dog subservient and 'in line' within the human's family structure.

In example, Cesar Millan believes in dominance theory. He believes that he must be the pack leader and that any time a dog does something it's not supposed to that the dog is being "dominant". In many of the episodes he describes dogs as"excited-dominant" or "calm submissive", etc. Basically he explains away any behavioral problem by calling the dog dominant. He then uses aversive punishment to control the dogs, like poking them, kicking them, rolling them on their backs, etc.

To read more about Dominance Theory, click on the link above. I also have some great resources about why dominance theory is false on my training page, so be sure to check that out!

I wanted to make sure that I had clear definitions of what an aversive is and what dominance theory is because there was some confusion on this from another blogger recently. Dominance is not synonymous with Aversive.

So how do we go about getting rid of aversives in our lives and training with our dogs?  

One of the best ways is to use management. When I encounter some sort of behavioral problem in my dogs or someone else's the first thing I think about is how can I prevent this behavior from happening or being reinforced? Is there something I can do so the dog won't be able to practice that? The more they practice something the better they get at it. I've found that since I've used so much management with my dogs from the beginning and have set them up for success, they don't even think about doing some of the things that other people's dogs do. I'm proud to say we have never had an incident of counter surfing and neither of my dogs have ever gotten into the trash. 

I never ignore behavioral problems! That is one huge misconception in the positive reinforcement world!! That PR trainers ignore bad behavior and then wait to reward the good behavior. There are some situations where you can ignore behavior, like if the dog is not going to harm himself or others and it's just something annoying but most of the time ignoring doesn't give the dog any feedback or tell them what they should be doing. Management, training alternate behaviors and redirection are the best ways to go about working with problem behaviors.   


Examples of Management:

One of the "naughty" things my dogs do is get into the kitty litter box. So the easiest way to deal with that is to put the litter boxes where the dogs don't have access. When we are not home our dogs are in a "dog safe room" without access to the litter boxes. When we are home we supervise and make sure they don't get into them. I could also use a baby gate, as well. If a dog goes towards the area where our boxes are we re-direct them by calling them away and asking them to do something else.

Phoenix and Zoe hanging out in the "dog proof" room (aka: our bedroom) 

Keeping them in a dog safe room when we are unable to supervise is another great way of keeping them from getting into anything while we are gone, too! You could also use crates, as well and sometimes we do!

Keeping your valuables put away is another form of management! We keep our house picked up and our expensive items out of reach. We also provide appropriate toys and chewies for them.

If you don't want your dog to counter surf, don't leave food out or give them access to the kitchen. When we are cooking the dogs are not allowed in the kitchen. They either lay on their beds or wait at the threshold. I've found that training a default leave it to be extremely helpful in this situation, too. I can set a plate of food next to my dogs, get up and walk away and it will still be there when I get back, untouched. I have a friend (who shall remain nameless) who complained about her dog counter surfing all the time, then later I saw a video on facebook where they were feeding her treats off of it! Not only was the dog self reinforcing by counter surfing, they were also reinforcing it! They thought it was funny. I will admit that I was mildly horrified when I saw the clip. Consistency is so important in dog training. You can't be mad at the dog for counter surfing sometimes and then feed the dog off the counter at other times.

Decide what your rules are going to be and stick with them!

This video was taken at the inlaw's house. They did know they were being watched even though I was in the bathroom with my phone poking out but it doesn't matter. I could leave the room and leave the camera running. They won't touch food that we don't give to them or ask them to leave alone. In the video you can see some stress signals happening from Phoenix. Zoe has some mild resource guarding so Phoenix was worried about it. Notice, I did not use a stern voice or anything. Just a normal toned "leave it" was all that was needed. There is no intimidation here.

To learn more about how to teach "Leave It" check out the many videos that Emily Larlham has on her YouTube channel. I would suggest starting with this one: How To Teach Leave It Without Intimidation. Even though that particular video is old, it's still very good!

Speaking of resource guarding, if you have a dog that does resource guard from other dogs or humans there's a lot of management and training to be done. I would recommend checking out the book "Mine" by Jean Donaldson. That book is excellent! My dog only resource guards with the other animals in the house and it is mild to moderate depending on the item. Luckily the other dog and cats respect her space for the most part. Generally, she will only guard high value food items so those are fed in the crate. You can also see a bit of mild guarding in the video above but it was only a look and a tongue flick. The other dog listened immediately and actually jumped off the bed to avoid conflict.

Training an alternate behavior is another great way to get rid of behaviors you don't want.

In example, the dog jumps on guests at the door teach them to sit or down. Or you could have them run to their beds. When we have someone at the door, I've taught them to back up to the carpet and sit. It's a great way to keep them from jumping on guests and door dashing! Two potential behavioral problems killed with one stone. You could also put them on a leash before you open the door as well for better control.

If your dog is fearful of strangers, you might just want to put them in a dog safe room or crate when guests are over. That way the dog is not stressed out and you don't have to worry about your guest getting bitten. We may not be able to control our guests but we can control our dogs and ourselves. Sometimes having them put away and safe is the best option for everyone. In this case I would also recommend getting a PR/FF Pro Trainer to help you work with your dog's issues. The removal should not be a punishment! I would give my dog a stuffed kong in her crate when we had a (dog) guest over that she didn't like. She was perfectly happy and it was never aversive.

Another really important thing to think about is will this behavior be "cute" later? Don't reinforce things you don't want!! Your little puppy jumping on you might be cute now but when he's big it won't be! Teach the puppy to keep four on the floor! Only reward when all four feet are touching the ground.

I have a very brilliant trainer friend who got rid of her dog's problem jumping by teaching him the cue for down was patting her legs or belly! She was having a problem where family, friends and strangers were encouraging her dog to jump on them by patting themselves and asking him up. So she taught him when people do that they want him to lay down and problem solved!! The dog doesn't jump up on people anymore and it was very perplexing to the people!! I'm sure it was also highly entertaining! How clever is that?

Phoenix is the one in the bed on the leash.

When I first got Phoenix she was obsessed with my cats. She would constantly be hunting for cats and trying to chase them. I used a combination of management and training to help with this. For the management portion I kept her either crated, tethered or in a safe room (sometimes putting the cats away in a safe room, too) to prevent the chasing behavior. For the training part I did set ups. I fed her treats when a cat would appear, then later fed her and the cats treats together. Then she learned her "leave it" and we also did impulse control training so she learned to control herself around cats. Now she sleeps with them, cleans their ears and they even play. She is completely cat safe. Sure, I could of punished her for chasing my cats but why would I want her to think cats = bad? If a cat equals something horrible or scary happening, how would that encourage her to have a good relationship with them? Not to mention her relationship with me!! Instead Phoenix learned that cats = best things ever!



I use redirection a lot. I use a "positive" or "cheerful" interrupter, get my dog's attention and then ask them to do something else. I have a couple of different cues that I use. One is a kissy noise and I also use Uh Oh! 

YouTube - How to Get Your Dog to Stop Unwanted Behavior - Emily Larlham

Any time your dog is doing something that you don't want them to do you can use the interrupter and then redirect them to something else. I used this with Phoenix and her cat hunting as well. When she would zero in on them I would just make my kissy noise to get her to break eye contact and then we went on with what we were doing.

Another example of redirection would be if one of my dogs was barking at the sliding glass door. I can use my positive interrupter, get their attention and then have them do something else. A lot of the time I will tell them "Great job!" for alerting me to something outside and then I have them go do something else. That could be a quick game of fetch or tug or I will have them go to their beds and chill. If you have a dog that is constantly looking outside and barking, you could use management, too by putting a sticky privacy film on the glass so they can't see out, they even have really pretty decorative ones! Or you could prevent them from having access to that room/area.

I also use it when play gets out of hand. Both of my dogs can get a little rowdy at times and play too roughly. When that happens I redirect them. First I interrupt the behavior and then I will give them each their own toy or get them doing something else. Sometimes I have them lay down and take a break. Once they are calm, I will allow them to continue playing.


Waiting them out.

I mentioned before that I hardly ever ignore unwanted behavior but there are times when it can be really useful. Dogs are smart and they can figure things out on their own pretty quickly if you set them up for success. I have a friend who was working with her dog's demand barking. Her dog really wanted the BALL and was barking her head off. My friend waited for a brief second of quiet and threw the ball. She continued to wait her dog her out every time she brought the ball back. Whenever she was quiet, my friend would throw the ball. Very quickly the light bulb went on and the dog figured out that quiet = ball thrown. No aversives necessary and it didn't take very long, either! By the time she was done her dog was sitting and waiting without being cued to do that either!

The above also worked for another trainer friend of mine who rescued a pug and the dog would not stop barking in his crate. He wanted OUT and RIGHT NOW!!! He hardly stopped to even take a breath and it was driving her crazy. She sat next to the crate and waited. The dog paused long enough to take a deep breath, CLICK and TREAT. He paused long enough to eat the treat, another click and treat then he looked at his owner with a cocked pug head and she said you could see him thinking about what just happened. He did start barking again but the next pause was much faster and another click and treat. Eventually she was able to teach him to be quiet in his crate and it happened very quickly. 


Exercise and Mental Stimulation

Sometimes dogs do exhibit problem behaviors because they are under exercised and bored. I'm not one of those people who think "A Tired Dog is A Good Dog". I believe that exercise and training go hand in hand. Dogs need exercise and mental stimulation! Exercise is very important but it's not the only thing you should do.

About 7 or 8 years ago, one of my friends who was not dog saavy adopted a border collie pit bull mix.. Oh man... worst breed combo ever and he was her very first dog, too. She was a cat person. Back then Cesar Millan was just coming onto the scene and was very popular and he was always advocating for exercise, exercise, exercise! Basically run your dog into the ground so the dog will be good!! My friend did that. She would jog with her dog for miles on end. Guess what happend!?! Go on guess! The dog ended up just building up muscle and extra stamina and needed to run even further. She didn't do much training with him, just run, run, run. My friend was exhausted. No matter how far she ran, he was never tired or calm. Eventually she found an excellent PR trainer and believe me back then they were much harder to find and that trainer explained what was happening to her. She was giving him lots of exercise but she wasn't working his brain. In fact, a lot of the time he was getting overstimulated. He needed to learn how to control his impulses and he needed a job where he could use his brain, too! Once that got worked out things went much better! 

There's a huge amount of resources on Training Impulse Control on the dog forum I belong to. I would recommend checking it out. In my opinion, impulse control training is one of the most important things you can teach your dog and it's one of the first things I work on and continue to work on throughout their lives.

I also find that using Puzzle Toys are a great way to stimulate your dogs brain. I've reviewed a bunch and my dogs love using them! 


Premack Principle and Prey Drive

What is the Premack Principle? “The observation that high-probability behavior reinforces low-probability behavior.” High probability behaviors are what the dog wants and low probability behavior is what you want. 

Here is an excellent article about the Premack Principle: What's Premack Got To Do With Dog Training?

For example, my inlaw's used Premack on my husband when he was a kid. They had a rule that he must clean his room before his friend could come over. "Can Donald come over?" "Did you clean your room?" "Nope" "Clean your room and then your friend can come over". Eventually my husband would clean his room before he asked if his friend could visit. The high probability behavior reinforced the low probability behavior. 

I've been using premack on my dogs for the past few years. Especially because Zoe has a very high prey drive. When she gets into her hunting mode she doesn't hear, see or think about anything else but the prey animal she wants to kill. A lot of my training was at the dog park that was fenced so she was completely safe. She would be at the fence watching the squirrels. I would stand next to her and call her name and reward for a split second of eye contact, she would get a food treat (premack doesn't always include the use of food but I chose to use it) and then she was able to immediately go back to watching squirrels. Rinse and Repeat. I slowly worked her up to longer periods of eye contact, then I added behaviors such as sit or down and then she was allowed to go back to her squirrels. Every time she was allowed to go back to doing what she wanted to do. Eventually (after a month) I was able to call her off of a squirrel running loose in the dog park. She did a complete 180 and came right back. I immediately released her back to the squirrel. 

I know that this training is not always possible because you want to keep your dog safe. If you don't have a fenced area to practice in, I would recommend using a long line and running after the prey with your dog. We used to do this in the forest outside of the dog park in the area that wasn't fenced. In addition to that, like I mentioned above I also did impulse control training and taught leave it as well because you can't always use premack. 

I was having a discussion on facebook about aversives recently (it actually inspired the writing of this post) and one of my friends accused me of "not having high drive dogs". It's actually the most common thing I've heard said that high drive dogs have to be punished and that PR doesn't work on them. That you have to use a combination of both. 

YouTube - Training High Drive Dogs - Emily Larlham

It actually kind of bothered me but honestly this friend doesn't know that much about my dogs, their training or myself. The assumption that they are not high drive was probably because they are so calm and easy to live with but again it was an assumption without knowing that much about what I've gone through with them. To quote a trainer friend of mine: "Drives are basically just too much seeking circuit. If anything, drives make it so much easier to train". 

In other words, you just have to take that drive and channel it into what you want. I've spent a lot of time training and working with my girls. Working with Zoe on her prey drive by using premack and impulse control training. When Phoenix came home, she was not an easy dog to live with at all. We used to do 3+ hours a day of exercise and training and she was still bouncing off the walls. Eventually I figured out that I needed to select for calm behaviors and I spent a lot of time capturing them. She was "jackpotted" treats any time she would lay down and relax on her own. The first 6 months to a year were very tough and exhausting. With training, some time and patients things are great now!! You get what you reinforceZoe still isn't 100% perfect when it comes to prey animals but really there's no such thing as perfect. Phoenix can still be hyper sometimes, too but they are dogs! 

I truly believe that positive reinforcement training works on every dog, high drive, low drive. It doesn't matter. It just takes a little bit of knowledge and a bit of outsmarting our dogs. You can accomplish anything! Be clever, figure out how you can make behavior happen or not happen. There's no need for aversives. 

I also think that sometimes dogs have behavioral problems that might be too much for their owner to handle by themselves and when that happens, please do find a dog trainer who is dedicated to using force free methods to help you! Don't wait until the problem gets out of hand. Get help now. There are resources to help you find a trainer on my training page.


The Last Piece of the Puzzle

Is You. You can choose not to use aversives whenever possible. I will admit that I'm not always perfect. Far from it actually! I've made lots of mistakes with my dogs, I've punished them and I seriously regret it. We are all human and we get frustrated or mad. Every one of us. When I feel like that I put my dogs away and we stop doing what we're doing. I work on controlling myself all the time and I try not to use punishment. If I even see that something I'm doing is causing my dog stress, we stop. It's just not worth it to me. My sensitive dogs remember everything and I want us to have the best relationship possible!

As always, if you have any questions please feel free to leave them in the comments below or email me. I would be happy to help if I can. If I don't know the answer I probably know someone who does and can point you in the right direction. 

I also wanted to say a special Thank You to Emily Larlham for allowing me to share the manifesto and for being an amazing role model! Thanks so much, Emily!! 


  1. I am a behaviour analyst who works with individuals with developmental disabilities. Because I practice ABA (applied behaviour analysis) I have spent the greater part of 12 years learning about reinforcement. As many of the first scientific studies in any field use animals (generally rats and pigeons in this case), I totally see the value in using reinforcement in all species. Thanks for talking about this!

    1. Oh wow!! That's so awesome!! I bet you've learned a ton!!

  2. Excellent post Lauren! If a dog could write a training wish list, it would be very similar to this. "Don't want me to do that? Give me something else to do!" I decided on my positive reinforcement training rules and methods by putting myself in the place of my dogs. Do I respond or learn when being poked or shoved? No. So why would my dogs? Do I think better after exercise? Definitely yes. If trainers just saw the similarities between us and our dogs instead of the differences, everyone would use only positive reinforcement training methods!

    1. Thanks Bethany!! I was so nervous about publishing it! It took me two days to write.

  3. A great post - I think taking time to understand dog behaviours works hand in hand with training. We can't effectively and kindly train if we don't have that basic understanding can we. Alas, there's a long way to go I think in raising awareness - I do see so often people glorifying the Cesar theory. Head.Wall.Bang.

  4. Such a great post, Lauren. Management is SO important when training and maintaining a happy household. We have an endless supply of baby gates that we can use whenever necessary. My giants could step right over them, but they have a great understanding of boundaries (also they are babies and afraid of them). We also practice leave-it all the time. It's a life-saving skill, but also a key part of therapy dog training. Dogs have to be able to walk around dropped food and not take a treat given to them. I've always felt that people who use aversives don't care about their relationship with their dog.

    1. Thank you!! :D I definitely agree about "leave it"! It's one of the most important things you can ever teach!

  5. This is an amazing post, Lauren!! You spelled it out so clearly. I love it! Do you mind if I link to it on my training page?

    The water thing kills me. :( On a mini aussie FB group I'm on, someone was complaining that their 8 week old puppy, that they'd just brought home the previous day, was loud in his crate. Literally every person chimed in with "spray him! One squirt and they're golden!". Makes me sick, especially having a puppy of the same age to compare to. Thankfully, Linc's had that little thing called...oh, what is it...positive crate training!!

    1. Thank you!! Link away!! I'd be honored to have a link on your training page!!

      That is absolutely awful about the mini aussie! :( It makes me so sad.. That's a a baby dog!! People wonder why their dogs have behavioral problems later. Ugh..

  6. Hey awesome article! There is so many useful messages in this post :)

  7. This is an incredible post, full of useful information. You obviously spend a huge amount of time thinking about how to train your dogs and then actually doing it!

    I do understand the kind of personality 2browndawgs is describing. Our dog R is from field champion lines, and he can work himself into a frenzy unlike any dog I've ever known before. He does very unexpected things in response to something as mundane as receiving a treat for a trick. He's a challenge to train using only positive reinforcement but it is possible to teach most things that way. We use "time outs" with him sometimes - to cut off the frenzy that's building. It can even happen *during* a training session when his brain goes on the fritz and he's so obsessed with getting the reward that he can't think straight to figure out what behavior will bring him the reward. Anyway, I just wanted to say that there are "field Labs" who are very hard to control, although it is possible to use positive reinforcement as long as you keep them below that "drive threshold" when they go crazy!

    Isn't it funny that I have two such opposite dogs. Shyla is a "field Lab" too but she got the shy and fearful genes (she could never compete in field trials although she might be able to be a good hunting companion if we had a hunter in the family!). When I take both of my dogs out into the city together, it is tough because their reactions to the world are SO different. But, the "threshold" idea works for both - keeping them beyond their threshold distance from the exciting things that might make them react badly (Shyla with fear, and R with insane excitement).

    Anyway, I love this post!

    1. Thank you!! :D I definitely get what you are saying about R! Phoenix will get like that, too. She gets WAY too excited about whatever reward is going to happen and I have to be really careful about how I work with her. If you watch some of my training videos on YT you can see the difference of how I work them. Zoe gets all the high pitched "YAY" (I have to work really hard to keep her from getting bored, unless I have an extremely high value treat) and Phoenix I use my calmest clearest voice. If Phoenix gets too hyped up in her training she is unable to learn and we have to stop anyways. :D

  8. This is a fantastic post, Lauren.

    There are so many stories I could tell with Bain so far, who can be quite stubborn every now and then as the description of the Dogo Argentino states.

    Bain knows not to go after food if dropped on the floor or left out on the counter, but I won't leave the living room with my plate full of food in there with him. My boyfriend did that once, and of course Bain ate it, lol. I won't set him up for failure, so I'll get him to come upstairs with me instead.

    1. Thanks April!! That's an awesome use of management! I think it's great you set him up for success!

  9. This was an amazing post!!!!!!!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

    1. Thanks Jenna!! I was nervous about posting it but I'm glad I did!

  10. Fantastic post! I couldn't agree with you more, positive reinforcement and redirecting are much more affective then spraying with a squirt bottle or using a prong collar. I love the list, and I felt the same posting about Goose and his fear or people I was nervous too.


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