Monday, May 20, 2013

New (to me) survey: Dog aggression and owner aggression

I posted not long ago about how Alpha rolling was both not my style and also not a safely recommended training technique. A study in 2009 by the University of Pennsylvania veterinary researchers linked an exacerbation of aggressive dog behavior with punitive and confrontational training techniques, entitled "Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors" by Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer and Ilana R. Reisner. Basically, if you're aggressive your dog will be too. Of course, Patricia McConnell beat me to posting about the study, but in a way, I'm glad. She's somebody I've heard of, read a lot, and am confident recommending her advice to people.

(Picture of Elka "paws up", taught through positive reinforcement techniques, to prevent this post from being a wall of text)


In the study, the results were that punitive methods resulted in "aggressive response in at least a quarter of the dogs on which they were attempted". In the comments in my other post, some people mentioned having used Alpha rolls, and their dogs were better for it.  There are individual differences in people, and in dogs, that make some techniques more useful than others. There are situational differences as well. I don't have a crystal ball, and I'm not a veterinary behaviorist (Though as stated, Patricia McConnell is. And Dr. Meghan E. Herron is). I'm not even a professional dog trainer. Maybe that makes me more dangerous? I'm a dog owner with a psychology degree and a blog. On the Internet, anybody can be an expert, so you do have to be careful who you listen to. Make good choices for yourself, and for your dog.

But, the study, lead by Dr. Meghan E. Herron, received back from owners a total of 140 surveys; 90 purebreds and 50 mixed breeds were the "participants". Not a big sample size, but these are owners self reporting to the survey questions, one would assume (hope) honestly. I actually emailed Dr. Herron to see if I might read the survey owners received, and to my pleasant surprise, she shared it with me. So thank you again, Dr. Herron!

The questionnaire, as one would hope, really covers the bases. Familiar people, unfamiliar  people, children, varying situations, that kind of thing. There are very good descriptors the owners could select from in the different sections, describing their dog's body language and behavior. Among "indirect confrontation" in the questionnaire was "force exposure" which, if I'm assuming correctly, is also what one would refer to as "flooding". My understanding is that in dogs, flooding will frequently cause them to shut down; while this seems like an extinction of the behavior, it's typically a temporary state, and results in a more fervent resurgence. Flooding is a technique I've seen Cesar Millan use, and I'm extremely uncomfortable with the way it seems to make dogs feel. Lots of stress, there: head turns, tongue flips, roaching of the back, etc. To me, it's so much more rewarding to work around the problem, working the dog under threshold, using "Look at That", that kind of thing. Maybe it takes longer, but to me, it seems far less damaging and much more like genuine learning and problem solving.

Also of interest in the study is the source of behavioral treatment information. I.e., where the owner learned about/heard of the method, including friends, books, Internet, television, and the vet. I'm sorry to say that it would seem at least one vet recommended "rubbing his nose in it" for a house soiling, but not a single vet of the surveyed participants recommended a neck jab or "Dominance down" (separate from the "Alpha Roll", which some vets did recommend. Argh. [My own "Argh", not reflected in the study]).

I admit my bias happily (I'm not the one who conducted the study, after all, so my opinions do not color the statistical results) when I say that I'm pleased to see the reported positive results in the "reward based" category of the study. Things like "Look at me" and "sit for everything" were owner reported to have a positive effect on behavior. These sorts of self control exercises with clear criteria are methods I especially like, as they make both the dog and the owner think, not react. I feel that they teach the dog that thinking is an option, and that we're hear to give them direction in situations that have left them uncomfortable or feeling unsure.

I cannot claim to never yell at Elka, or use "No" in a particular way, but I do try. I try to redirect to a behavior I want instead, rather than the one being presented. But there are times I'm aggravated already, or short of patience, and she's whining in just the right way, and I'll yell. And then I'll see the tongue flip, the yawn, the look away, and I'll feel immediately guilty. I also try to keep in mind the notion of constantly reinforcing behaviors I do like; when she voluntarily goes to her bed, tells me "Out", sits for her leash. She's four now, and still learning, and I'm still learning with her. It's been a fascinating experience, truly.


A quote on the study from Patricia McConnell (linked above) that I like (and articulates things so very well):
the study is not so much about “reinforcement” and “punishment,” as about what happens when you threaten your dog, or forcefully and physically respond to misbehavior. Please be clear that I am not saying that if one of us occasionally raises our voice to our dog, or has a moment of humanity and loses our temper, we are going to destroy our dogs forever. Neither am I saying that aversives are always bad: aversive events are part and parcel of life, and we all need to know how to handle them, dogs included. However, as many of us have observed for years, using force and confrontation as a primary method of dog training often backfires and creates some of the very problems it is trying to solve.

Despite my having this blog and handing out my advice, whether it's wanted or not, I do recommend dog owners seek help when necessary from trained professionals, rather than turning to the Internet. If you feel your dog has behavioral issues which make life uncomfortable, or even make things dangerous for the dog or those around him or her, a board certified veterinary behaviorist is really the best option. For the United States, you can perform a search to Find a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist on the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists web site. Anybody can call him or herself a behaviorist, much like anybody can call him or herself a dog trainer. It's important, for your sake and your dog's, to work with a true professional.

Edited to add: 2BrownDawgs pointed out, rightfully, that there is in fact a difference between a "survey" and a "study". This was, even according to the title, a survey. I've changed my post title to reflect that.

13 comments:

  1. I have read the same studies and pieces you referenced. Maybe I am a little more definitive on this issue than most (having dogs that are extremely sensitive to body movements and loud voices), but I believe there is no reason to ever use force on a dog when a positive and non-painful option is available. I think people choose aggressive methods for two reasons - it's easy and convenient and they like to feel powerful over their pet.

    I love the challenge of thinking how I can use positive reinforcement to get my dog to perform a trick or to redirect a behavior. It takes more brain power to train a dog. It's a shame people prefer not to think and use force instead.

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    1. Frankly? I'm just not good enough to not lose my temper sometimes. I try, very hard, and I've learned so much just having Elka, and can only hope to continue improving. I do agree, I love the challenge of figuring out how to shape or redirect a behavior, rather than trying force; anything Elka knows is from that sort of training, not yelling.

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  2. Thanks for calling out this study Jen, I will have to put it on my reading list. I am a work in progress, just like my dogs, so any help I can get to be better at working with my dogs and helping them be better canine citizens is worth the read. I Love Patricia McConnell, so I'm sure this will be interesting.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! I also love Patricia McConnell, so I don't mind that she beat me out on posting about it ;)

      Yes, I think we're all in the learning process together!

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  3. i love love love everything about this. i kid you not, just yesterday i found myself in a screaming match with a man twice my age who was yelling at me that i should have desmond on a choke chain instead of a harness. i don't normally get into confrontations with people on the street or other dog owners, but this guy just caught me on the wrong day. i wish i had been able to print this out, make it into a paper airplane, and launch it at his forehead.

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    1. Or tie it around a rock, perhaps?

      That's one thing that bugs me. When people EVANGELIZE choking your dog. Like, why has this become the norm? How has it?

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  4. I'm with you on the "I try, but sometimes I lose my temper" boat. One day I yelled at Silas for barking out the window, and then I burst into hysterical sobs because I was screaming at my already-frightened dog. He was, of course, desperately confused by the whole situation.

    Moral: you will never cry over the fact that you gave your dog a cookie.

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    1. "Moral: you will never cry over the fact that you gave your dog a cookie."


      YES!

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  5. I have read it three times. Was it a study or a survey? Two very different things. Questions asked to participants is a survey are hardly scientific. I also do not see how anyone could say definitively that the owner's behavior caused the dog's behavior issues. Perhaps the dog's issues would have been far worse without owner intervention?

    Well you know that use both positive and negative reinforcement for our dogs' training. E-collar and choke chains are just tools and not methods. It isn't about losing one's temper. Losing one's temper is not training. Training is about reinforcing an already learned behavior, whether you use a training tool or not.

    If someone is losing their temper while training, best to take a break. I think Patricia McConnell is sort of mixing this all up and I am not sure why. I also think that she is really reaching for the conclusions she draws, (ie using a "study" to support her opinion).

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    1. It was a survey, not a study, so thank you for calling my attention to that. The survey, as I've (I feel correctly) said in the post was very detailed, though self reporting. It was also done by people already working with a veterinary behaviorist, for what that's worth.

      E collars and choke chains are something that I do try not to vilify outright; I think that a lot of people implement them improperly and without enough knowledge and without working with a trainer. I also think that there is a proper way to use them, and as a tool they can be fabulous for a number of behaviors.

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  6. Sometimes it's difficult to stay calm, but we achieve so much more that way.

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  7. I'm not a big fan of alpha rolls or any aggressive, hands-on work with a dog. But I have observed something with Honey's breeders.

    They suggest turning a dog on her back so she doesn't become dominant. However, they are very gentle people so their "alpha roll" is more like a belly tickle. And their Golden Retrievers are extremely sweet so they don't need much coaxing to show their bellies.

    While I don't think their version of dominance training is doing any good, based on my observations, it's not doing any harm either. Unfortunately, I don't think that's the case for many dogs and their people. And it appears the survey backs this up.

    Thanks for a great post. I can't wait to read McConnell's post on this survey too.

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  8. The issue (as I see it) is finding a good trainer.

    We brought Sampson to training class at 10 weeks old, this was the very first class either one of us attended, (and I wouldn't do something I didn't agree with)but it was definitely not a positive training class and at the time I didn't know any different.

    Thankfully I have a fairly well-adjusted boy who at times can be a bit excited greeting others as that is the way it was taught from the time he was a pup.

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