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The deal with dog training: the good, the bad and the ugly

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Friday, 22 September 2023

There’s been a lot of talk lately about apparent quick-fix dog training methods seen on social media and TV.

With that comes a discussion around what dog training should look like in 2023, and understandably, people want to know what the RSPCA, Australia’s most trusted animal welfare organisation, thinks.

So, we’re here to say, as clearly as possible – the RSPCA supports humane, effective and evidence-based reward-based training and opposes aversive, punishment-based dog training techniques.

Let’s break down why.

What is aversive training?

Aversive training can encompass a few things, but broadly it refers to punishment-based training, where something unpleasant is used to try and stop unwanted behaviour. An example might be pulling tightly with force on a choke or prong collar until a dog stops barking or sits down.

According to the Pet Professionals Guild of Australia (PPGA), these methods use “physical force, intimidation and fear” and are “archaic”.

And they’re exactly right.

The evidence shows that using outdated aversive training methods (methods that use coercion or force and cause short or long lasting pain, discomfort or fear) interferes with learning. They can increase animal fear, distress, and cause injury – all which impact their wellbeing and the animal’s relationship with people.

In other words – it’s cruel, is dangerous for both animals and people, and there are better ways.

What’s should we do instead?

The RSPCA – along with many other animal welfare organisations – supports reward-based training – where the dog is set up to learn successfully and then reinforced when they do the desired behaviour.

This is commonly a food treat, or playing with a favourite toy, paired with verbal praise such as ‘good dog!’.

Reward-based training is enjoyable for the dog, respects their welfare, and positively enhances the relationship between you and them.

It sounds simple, because it is a simple premise. But it also works – and it works well.

There’s a large body of evidence supporting the use of reward-based training as the modern, effective, and humane way of training.

Language matters

Part of the reason that we’re so concerned about these training methods are the way the practitioners often talk about dogs and their behaviours.

Firstly, to simply say that these are ‘difficult’ dogs that ‘behave badly’ demonises them – and reinforces a dangerous perception that these are ‘bad’ dogs.

And secondly, it’s a drastic oversimplification of what is often a more nuanced issue.

Many behaviours which people find undesirable or problematic in dogs – like barking or digging – are actually normal canine behaviours.

That doesn’t mean that we have to just accept these problematic behaviours without question – but we need to look at the underlying reasons behind them. This could be a medical issue, or could be a sign that their mental or physical needs aren’t being met. In fact, this is often the case when it comes to behaviour that humans find problematic.

If it’s a medical issue, people should be made aware of this and encouraged to seek advice from their vet – and if it’s a sign that their needs aren’t being met, it should be a prompt to look at what you can do to meet those needs (our Knowledgebase is a good start!).

What needs to happen?

We urge everyone who might encounter aversive training on TV or social media to think critically about the methods used. If you need help changing your dog’s behaviour, seek the advice of a reputable animal welfare organisation like the RSPCA, as well as your vet or a suitably qualified trainer who uses modern, reward-based training methods.

In the meantime, we urge anyone associated with outdated practitioners and their promotion to realign their support – and to consider the language they use when talking about these behaviours.

All too often as pet owners, it’s easy to consider just the impact on us as humans and whether our pets’ behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in our eyes. In reality, most of the time, if your dog is displaying unwanted behaviour, they’re probably trying to tell you something.

So, we’d all benefit if we spent a bit more time listening to our dogs – and not to trainers whose outdated methods will cause them harm. We have learned so much in the last decade about how dogs learn and the importance of their mental wellbeing to their quality of life. In 2023, we owe it to our dogs to use the humane, effective and evidence-based training methods we know can help them to live with us successfully.

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