Damage by Aversive Training Methods & Training Tools

“A personal inference of a specific experiencial observation of aversive training and tools used”



Bono f. Beeler BCCSDip.Can.Bhv.Prac, SpeakingDog K9 Services
18th September 2019
Christchurch New Zealand

This morining I took one of my canine clients, out to Rabbit-Hill to have a good sniffary. There she was, sniffing and investigating the rabbit holes and taking in the world while i watched a gentleman walk a German Shepherd X on a very short lead and a choke chain, following a couple of girls riding their horses, in very close proximity. We talk 1 to 2 meters distance.
His German Shepherd was obviously not coping with the situation as it was pulling and launching at the horses.
The dog owner gave the riders & horses a little more space but kept proceeding to follow them, even though his dog was still not coping. In fact the dog was now pulling so hard it was on his hind legs being chocked by the owner pretty hard causing a hanging sensation. Behind him was another gentleman with a Boxer X, now closing in. As he was overtaking the GSD and his owner, the Boxer clearly tried to curve around the GSD but wasn’t allowed to and physically couldn’t, because it was also on a short lead and a flat collar.
This meant the Boxer X now had no other behaviour patterns left then launching at the German Shepherd who replied by barking. The GSD got chocked again and sternly reprimanded while the Boxer got hit with the back of the leash.

It is worrying to see such techniques still being applied whether by dog trainers or by owners out on walks, because of the impacts it will have on the dogs and the horses experiences and what their brains will memorize, processing these sensory information.
While us humans may believe that our brains evolved as cognitive thinking machines, in natural terms, a brains’ main job is to first ensure survival of itself and the body in which scull it is encapsuled in; in the most energy efficient way to ensure the passing on of variable genetic material by means of reproduction. Sensory information suggesting to endanger the organism will be quickly absorbed as vital information and stored as an e experience to be called upon in future simulations of the world.

Lets start from the beginning and investigate what is actually occurring in this specific scenario:

The German Shepherd follows the horses and the riders, while doing so the dog is pulling and launching for the horses & riders while actively being chocked (positive punishment) [1]
The choker chain pulls tight, which means the dog feels at least discomfort if not pain (now since I’m not a dog or we are not dogs, we cannot claim to surely know the pain intensity; this is why I’m saying that; “the dog feels at least discomfort if not pain”)
Either way, negative feelings arise. The scientific term for these basic feelings of pleasant, unpleasant, aroused & calm is affect. [2] It is well established that all animals experience at least affect.
We also assume that prolonged, continued chocking will have damaging effects on the dogs neck and throat area. [3]
It implies that at this moment the dog is engaging in a multitude of negative sensory experiences while looking at the horses, which means his brain associates the horses in a negative way in relation of what’s happening in the world. The next time the GSD sees a horse while being walked on the short leash and choke chain, he has no option but to use the same behaviour patterns because its brain predicts discomfort and pain in connection with horses in its environment.
he will pull, he will launch, he will bark …
His owner will apply more preassure on the chocker creating a viscous, negative circle of events.
By doing so, the neural connections of these defensive actions grow stronger and stronger which in turn amplify the [unwanted] behaviour patterns. Instead of the wanted outcome, that the GSD stops pulling, launching and barking; using punishment to change behaviour is actually strengthening these defensive actions. By restraining the animal further, eventually, as no other behaviour options lead to escaping or avoiding the situation, will lead to shutting down of all actions which we call “Learned Helplessness”.

As repeated behaviours’ neural connections become stronger, lesser and lesser neurons are needed to simulate negative experienced associations. [4]
In addition,the dogs negative affect [2]- aroused and unpleasant experiences- create an uncertain environment for the dog.
Uncertainty breeds negative feelings (anxiety), emotions (fear, rage) and moods (frustration). [5] [5b]
It doesn’t make for a confident dog but a dog with strong defensive behavioral patterns within the variational paradigm of flight/fight and freeze.
As this vicious circle, of punishing to try and suppress the defensive actions continues, it is now only a question, not of if but when the dog has had enough and proceeds to bite anything that is right in front of the poor dogs snout.

Predicting Future outcomes:
The dogs brain, whenever seeing anything coming close to looking like a horse, will simulate the unpleasant, discomfort of pain, the danger of tissue damage and survival potential, using past experiences and signal to proceed to launch, pull, bark to keep the negative stimuli away.[1] [5] [6] [6b]
If however, the owner keeps punishing, even more forcefully, by tightening the choker chain or even by hitting the dog or worse, the dogs communicative defensive signals are not listened to means, the only behavioural option that the dog has left, to get out of this negative situation, is to proceed to bite or attack if the dog is off lead. If nothing but restraint is offered to the dog, slowly the animal will cease to fight or try and get away. Its body will shut down and arrive at learned helplessness. This may look calm and submissive to an untrained eye, giving the appearance the dog has submitted to his owner / handler. A popular view by some dog trainers who value to beliefs of the dominance hypothesis.

How can we proceed instead:

A) what can we do to avoid negative associations to occur to minimise the dogs need for defensive behaviour patterns?
B) how to address defensive behaviours and change the underlying feelings, emotions and mood to positive asaociations?

A) When we get a dog, but especially when we adopt a puppy, we need to understand how important it is to provide positive sensory experiences, whether that is during socialization or habitualization. We must ensure that the puppy makes positive associations with events and the environment for its brain to learn to cope in efficient ways. This means that the dogs brain can use these experiences to better and more positively predict and simulate [6] it’s world to use better communicative behaviour to interact with other dogs, people, animals, and adapt easily, thus cope with and within the world. A dog will be able to be curious thus use its senses and become more confident.
Letting any organism use all the senses is fundamentally important as the senses are the only way for information to get signaled to the brain. This includes the interoceptive information being sent to the brain from within the body:
Interoception is the scientific term for the physical sensory information coming from the inner organs, nervous system,fascia, muscle tissue, bone, joints ligaments, balance, spatial orientations and so on. [5] [5b]
So imagine yet again, if a dog is getting choked, it’s following and looking at horses while it’s feeling negative. The dogs brain also gets interoceptive information of tissue being damaged in form of pain. This now amplifies the negative experience towards the horse. The dogs brain is actively memorizing that the horse is affecting its survival in a negative way.
The dogs brain and body is alert and in an acute stress response and has to use more energy that is coming in; it’s going over budget. If this continues on a regular basis, the body budget (allostasis) is so overdrawn it will start to shut down; negatively affecting immunity which will lead to illness, allergic reactions, negative mental states which are affecting brain function, cells are starting to die, in turn, creating more “aggressive” outbursts by the dog.

The aim is to avoid this by actively ensuring positve experiences, statistical & observational learning through sensory information gathering, to create better simulations of the external and internal world. Meaning the dog will learn to use different behaviour actions in situations to adapt quicker to a changing environment ending with a greater likelyhood of a positive outcome.

For a dog that has already made those negative associations and who’s brain is now actively predicting that horses mean discomfort or pain, and acts upon predictions, using behaviour patterns such as for example; pulling, launching, barking and the likes, we can certainly start with counterconditioning and desensitization processes. Starting with adding more space between a horse and the dog. However what we really want to achieve is, to teach the dog other behaviour patterns. To use communicative actions such as those outlined in the hypothesis of calming signals,[7] letting the dogs initiate what they can and cannot cope with.
For example, if a dog wants to turn to the side and sniff the ground upon seeing a horse or another animal in the distance, we would reinforce these behaviour pattern to ensure these actions occur more often and thus strengthening the neural pathways of these communicative actions. By ensuring that the dog uses less of the defensive behaviours such as pulling, launching and barking, we influence the strength of those neural pathways, thus weakening the defensive behavioral patterns occurring when in safe proximity to horses.
Further, we can add sensory stimulation like sniffing, where we teach the dog to actively use a different, natural behaviour to take it’s mind of the horse in the distance. This way we are adding a physically calming action which provides the dogs brain with other sensory information that are positive for the dog to concentrate on.
In both situations; A) and B), it is important to observe and learn the dogs communicative signals, so that we aquire the skills to understand what the dog is trying to tell us way before he has to engage, in defensive behaviour which many categorize as aggression.

For the above methods to be successful, a dog owner would have to be open and willing to change his/her own behaviours, the environment and most importantly their belief.[8]
We can certainly try to engage with Dog owners who are not as open to newer scientific understandings, but we have to take into consideration that our teachings are so new to the client that it will actually strengthen their outdated beliefs in using aversive methods and tools to change the dogs behaviours.

To prevent that I suggest a softer approach ,engaging in educating more open individuals and children of school age. Making it socialy unacceptable to use aversive training tools and methods and go as far as to change legislation to stricter laws, forbidding the use of aversive tools and methods, ensuring the animals mental & physical well being, not just on their basic needs, but their natural needs and wants in daily life.

Any behaviour is a natural and normal action by an animal upon external and internal sensory information gathered by the brain, simulating a prediction using past experiences to construct its world; or the lack of them producing a state of experiential blindness. Behaviours are symtoms of the well being of the animal and how adaptable it is to ever changing environments. They must not be trained away or breed out of them, but embraced for us to learn and profoundly understand what and how we must do better.

[1] “Operant Behaviour”, B F Skinner, 1963, 18 (8); 503

[2] “Core Affect, Prototypical Emotional Episodes, and other things called Emotion: Dissecting the Elephant” J. Russell; Lisa Feldman Barrett, 1999, Vol 76, No 5, 805-819 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

[3] “Did you ever stop to think what happens under the collar?” Els Vidth, Freedoz.be

[4] “Cascades” Lisa Feldman Berrett, https://youtu.be/B-SJ5iSGddc

[5] “The Theory of Constructed Emotion: an active inference account of interception and categorization” Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2017, 1-23 Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

[5b] “Constructing non-human animal emotion” Eliza Bliss-Moreau, 2017, 17; 184-188 Current Opinion in Psychology

[6] “Redefining the role of Limbic Areas in critical processing” Lorena Chanes, Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2016, Trends Cogn. Sci

[6b] “Embodied Decisions and the Predictive Brain” Christopher D Burr, 2016, University of Bristol

[7] “Calming Signals the art of survival” Turid Rugaas, 2013

[8] “Processing Narratives Concerning Protected Values; a cross-cultural investigation of neural correlates” J. T. Kaplan et al, 2017, 27 (2); 1428-1438, Cerebral Cortex