Three years ago, Valli Fraser-Celin adopted a blonde husky mix puppy she named Husk. Fraser-Celin soon looked for ways to curb Husk’s “crazy” behavior, she said, like stealing food from the kitchen counter and barking incessantly at strangers. Based on advice from a YouTube trainer, Fraser-Celin began using an electronic collar, or e-collar, which gave a bit of a shock when Husk misbehaved, but said she felt “gross” about it.
Fraser-Celin reconsidered her approach after hearing from an animal trainer who taught to a grizzly bear to cooperate with medical treatment using only positive reinforcement. If this massive animal could learn with treats and praise, she thought, why did dog trainers use spike and shock collars? “That was the catalyst for my advocacy,” said Fraser-Celin, who studied African wild dogs for her PhD. and now works as a remote community liaison for the Winnipeg Humane Society and independently advocates for positive reinforcement training on Instagram. “I really think there needs to be regulations that need to be put in place,” she said, “based on the science and the studies that have shown the best way to train dogs.”
Fraser-Celin is not alone. Many researchers, trainers, and veterinary and training professional bodies are campaigning for greater oversight of dog training, which is largely unregulated around the world – although they sometimes disagree on the best course of action and choose to focus on the research that matters to them preferred approach. “Right now, it’s the wild, wild west,” said Anamarie Johnson, a psychology graduate student. Student at Arizona State University with a background in animal behavior and dog training. you recently published a study which analyzed the websites of 100 top-rated dog trainers in the US and found that most gave no indication as to whether the trainer had any relevant training or certification.
“Anyone can identify as a dog trainer – they can set up a social media page, they can offer services to the public, and there are no expectations of their training, continuing education or standards of practice,” said Bradley Phifer, the executive director of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), an organization promoting science-based training standards. People with little or no training in animal behavior could offer owners advice on how to deal with aggression, he added. “There’s a big consumer protection article here: If you don’t have the proper training or experience in the industry or the content, you shouldn’t be advising people on how to prevent dog bites.”
Some experts and organizations are pushing for more regulation of the industry. Two major certification bodies – the CCPDT and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers or APDT – have joined forces under an umbrella organization called the Alliance for Professionalism in Dog Training proposed model legislation which they hope could be adopted from state to state. The legislation would require coaches to be licensed by a state body, create accountability standards and require coaches to engage in continuing education. Phifer said he’s currently working with lawmakers in New Jersey, where regulations for dog trainers were first proposed in 2019, and that the collaborative effort is also progressing in California and Illinois.
But the drive for regulation has exposed a schism in the industry over the use of penalties and rewards. Under the proposed legislation, certification bodies would be required to: a politics that prioritizes positive reinforcement but does not completely exclude punishment—an approach that is generally supported by efficacy and welfare research and is gaining popularity among exercise professionals. While researchers and trainers largely agree that high-punishment approaches are harmful, they are divided on whether blanket bans on aversive tools are productive, given the approach can work in certain circumstances.
Without clearer rules, the large gaps in dog training “pose a potentially very large public safety concern,” Johnson said, because dog owners trust trainers to change the behavior of animals with “sharp, pointy teeth that live in our homes.” . ”
Modern dog training has its roots in the work of the mid-20th-century American psychologist BF Skinner, who proposed four categories for behavior change: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Here, positive and negative do not necessarily mean good or bad. Positive reinforcement adds something a dog likes to reinforce to reinforce a behavior, such as: a treat or toy to sit on cue, while positive punishment adds something aversive, like a tug on a leash, to decrease a behavior. Negative reinforcement removes something the dog dislikes, like stopping a shock collar when a dog obeys a command, while negative punishment removes something desirable, like looking away from a dog jumping for attention.
Many trainers and animal behavior experts say that aversive methods, which include positive punishment and negative reinforcement, are overused. Two major professional organizations representing trainers — the APDT and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants — are now restricting the use of tools like e-collars among their members.
In October of last year, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, which includes both veterinarians and behavioral scientists with PhDs in animal behavior, made a statement: “There is no evidence that aversive training is necessary for dog training or behavior modification”, referring to 21 studies on the effectiveness of reward-based methods and risks of aversive methods. Alexandra Protopopova, an animal welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia, wrote in an email to Undark that the recent research cited in the statement reflects the “undeniable” risks of aversive techniques, adding: “Finally, recent research has also shown that aversive methods do not result in better-trained dogs; This renders traditional aversive dog training methods obsolete.”
The research has raised concerns about the welfare of dogs. In one small study, dogs that were trained with rewards appeared to be more playful and learn a new behavior better than dogs whose owners said they punished them. In another case, dogs were reportedly trained with aversive tools, like the Researchers put it“More pessimistic” than dogs that weren’t, based on their reluctance to approach a bowl of food. Some evidence also suggests that using punishment in training can do this reduce the bond between a dog owner and his dog.
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