Aversive tools in dog training are a controversial topic. Certain dog training tools and methods, namely prong collars and e-collars are regularly cited as abusive and unnecessary in dog training, primarily by dog trainers who label themselves as Positive Reinforcement Only or Force Free.
They are banned across many countries in Europe, and a movement to ban these tools is starting to make headway in the US. The state of New York recently turned down a proposal to ban the tools and the City of San Francisco is working on a proposal to ban them.
I used to believe these claims until I had a dog that reached a plateau with positive only methods, resulting in danger to herself and to others. I had to find another way.
Our relationship suffered and I couldn’t stand her. I felt in constant conflict and frustration with her for not listening when I needed her to do so. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I worked with her daily and put in the reps. I couldn’t get any further without doing something different.
When several friends suggested that I look into balanced training, I took a very deep dive into the method and learned that when implemented correctly, it can be life changing. I figured that if they loved their dogs more than anything, then prong collars and e-collars must not be as bad as they say.
These misunderstood tools and methods can absolutely be used without causing harm to the dog. In fact, I have found them to be the most humane way to communicate fairly and effectively with my dog, more so than any other tool and training style.
I have had incredible success using aversive tools with my personal dogs and with my clients’ dogs. When used appropriately, they can be valuable for shaping desired behaviors, keeping dogs and other people safe, and reducing or eliminating reactivity.
This article will make some of you angry and you will not agree with me. That’s ok. My intent isn’t to convince you that my way is the best way to train a dog.
The best way to train a dog is the way that works for both you and your dog, meets your training goals and keeps your dog and others safe.
My hope is that you will read through the article and consider both sides.
As you read, ask yourself whether the claims against the tools are true. Consider your personal experience using different tools and training methods that led you to that decision.
What is an Aversive in Dog Training?
An aversive is an unpleasant stimulus that motivates a behavioral change through negative reinforcement or positive punishment.
It’s important to understand that here, positive and negative don’t mean “good” or “bad,” rather, they mean the addition (positive) or removal (negative) of something to either increase (reinforce) or decrease (punishment) a behavior from occurring again in the future.
The graphic below demonstrates these definitions.
In dog training, trainers will use aversives in order to teach the dog to make choices that result in the desired behaviors owners seek.
Negative Reinforcement Explained
Understanding negative reinforcement can be a little confusing. The best explanation I’ve heard on negative reinforcement is by dog trainer Ivan Balabanov on the Training without Conflict Podcast in the episode titled The Seat Belt Analogy and Negative Reinforcement.
He explains that one of the most common analogies people use to describe negative reinforcement is that of the dinging of a car to encourage people to use a seat belt.
The problem with this analogy, he explains, is that eventually the dinging will stop.The other factor is that the dinging is mostly consistent. It might intensify a bit, but eventually it stops. If someone doesn’t want to use their seat belt, then they’ll just wait until the dinging stops. In this case, the aversive (the dinging) is not enough motivation to get the individual to buckle their seat belt.
To influence behavior change, then the aversive has to be unpleasant enough for that particular subject, in that particular situation to change the behavior that time and also in the future.
A better example, Balabanov explained, could be connecting a sensor to the car that communicates with your insurance company. Go ahead and drive without your seatbelt, but you will be charged more for insurance when you don’t.
So, if we’re only using positive reinforcement with a dog, the only way to influence behavior during a training session is to end the training session and remove the food. The problem with this is that the aversive is that the dog becomes hungry, which can take hours, depending on how much food they’ve already consumed. When we use treats for training, this may never happen. Further, in order for the behavior to change, the correction needs to be more immediate.
By using aversive tools like prong collars and e-collars, we can affect behavioral change in the dog by increasing the level of the aversive to just exceed the motivation in the dog to perform the unwanted behavior.
Now, an important component of using aversives is that the subject must first understand the rules.
Using the car as an example, we understand that the ding means “buckle your seatbelt.” If we didn’t know that’s what it meant, then it would drive us insane.
This is why we first teach dogs the meaning of a command primarily using positive reinforcement and by generalizing the command in various environments. Then we can use an aversive, such as an e-collar, to change the dog’s behavior.
Why Trainers Use Aversives in Dog Training
Trainers use aversive tools with dogs because they offer a way to shape desired behaviors quickly, by providing feedback that is strong enough to discourage unwanted behavior, in a language the dog understands. This is why tools that use tactile pressure like prong collars and e-collars are so effective for modifying behaviors.
Dogs communicate in four different ways, in this order:
- Tactilely (touch)
- Body language
Humans communicate visually and verbally primarily, including to our dogs. This means that our primary method of communicating is the dog’s least effective way to communicate, leaving a lot to be lost in translation.
Aversive tools work well when they are paired with positive reinforcement. There seems to be a fabrication that balanced trainers don’t use positive reinforcement, which is absolutely untrue.
We use it all the time.
A good balanced trainer uses all four quadrants of operant conditioning (hence the term balanced), including a ton of positive reinforcement, especially in the beginning when the dog is first learning obedience commands. Remember, positive reinforcement teaches a dog desired behaviors.
Conversely, a punishment is used in order to stop the likelihood of a behavior from occurring again. That’s it.
Aversive ≠ Abusive
Remember, an aversive is simply something that causes discomfort in order to reinforce or discourage a behavior.
Now, an aversive can be abusive when used incorrectly, but a good trainer is using the tool appropriately.
Antagonists use propaganda and marketing tactics that pull on dog owners’ heart strings to stigmatize certain words like “correct” and “punish,” saving words like “gentle” and “humane” when discussing their preferred methods.
Not only does this create a false narrative about the use of aversives in dog training, but it can put dogs and others in danger by declaring that some methods should never be used.
Punishment does not have to be abusive or instill fear or cause pain, which is a common argument made by opponents. It is simply used as a means of teaching a dog what is and is not appropriate behavior.
The wording is used to intentionally make dog owners feel like they are bad owners for using punishment as part of their dog training method.
I don’t know about you, but I was punished as a child. If I didn’t follow the rules, my parents would ground me or take away privileges. At school, students receive detention for not following the rules. Rules create fair communication between individuals.
Punishment can be applied fairly to teach rules for dogs and for humans alike, provided the rules are first explained, taught, and understood.
Most Trainers Use Aversives and Punishment
Trainers who say they do not use aversive tools or punishment in dog training likely are simply refusing to acknowledge that they are, in fact using an aversive or punishment.
Here are a few examples of aversive techniques and tools used among force free and positive reinforcement dog trainers:
- Ignoring a dog that jumps (negative punishment)
- No pull harnesses – they put pressure on a dog’s shoulders to make pulling uncomfortable (aversive)
- Head harnesses – they put pressure on the dog’s nose, one of the most sensitive area on a dog’s body to deter pulling (aversive)
This is where it’s important to understand the definition and meaning of terms used. Anything can be made to sound good or bad. It’s up to you to do your homework and understand the truth behind the claim.
Any Tool Can be Abusive
You probably use a knife multiple times a day to prepare meals. You probably don’t also use that same knife to murder your family, but it is a murder weapon.
Your hand can make a fist and beat someone to death, or it can give a high five to a friend at the end of a run.
Flat buckle collars can damage tracheas if the dog isn’t taught how to walk without pulling.
Anything used outside from its intended use can be used in an abusive manner if desired.
Aversives are More Efficient Ways to Teach Dogs
In my training, I use tools like prong collars and e-collars to teach the dog to understand the language of pressure/release, because touch is the primary method of communication for dogs. It’s not dissimilar to the way we ask horses to go faster by squeezing their sides, releasing the pressure once they’ve complied.
Because we are teaching the dog in a language that they understand and that makes sense to them, they will learn behaviors more quickly than if we are using our primary method of communication.
This isn’t a shortcut or a quick fix, it’s simply more efficient.
There’s a reason you drive versus walk or bike somewhere, it’s more efficient.
You probably take the elevator instead of the stairs when you have to go to the 15th floor of a building because it’s more efficient.
Why fly across the country when you could take a week to drive there? You guessed it, it’s more efficient.
Using pressure/release, dogs learn how to turn off the pressure of the prong collar or e-collar stimulation by completing the requested command.
The way I teach this is by first using positive reinforcement coupled with prong collar pressure to teach the dog a desired behavior. Once they have generalized the command (meaning they can fulfill the behavior in a variety of environments), then I layer over the e-collar so that I can provide appropriate corrections when necessary.
This method presents a clear understanding to the dog of what is being asked of them, so when they don’t comply with the command the first time I ask, I can use a collar pop or e-collar stim to produce the behavior I requested. I’m not blasting them on high, nor am I using all my force to force them into a position. I’m using as much stimulation as necessary to get the behavior I requested.
Corrections and Punishment are Necessary to Change Behaviors and Create Structure
In sports, players are punished with fouls or giving up the ball for disobeying the rules. It’s the way the game is played.
This quote from the Wikipedia page on aversives describes the intended use quite well:
It is not the level of unpleasantness or intention that matter [sic], but rather the level of effectiveness the unpleasant event has on changing (decreasing) behavior that defines something as aversive.
Here’s a personal example of a punishment that I did not find aversive enough to change my behavior.
In middle school, I had a teacher who would make us write what were called Danforths, paragraphs on certain topics that varied depending on our crime. If we did not complete the paragraphs by the due date, they would double.
I was often assigned to write five Danforths for not having my shirt tucked in (Catholic school). I was assigned them so often that I eventually memorized the paragraphs. I was assigned them so often that I regularly missed my deadline and doubled the amount of paragraphs I had to write.
The reason that I was forced to write Danforths so frequently is because I didn’t like to have my shirt tucked in, but more importantly, because they weren’t enough of a punishment to deter me from tucking in my shirt regularly.
The same holds true for dogs.
Aversives help reduce unwanted behaviors in the long-term by teaching dogs that certain behaviors are not acceptable and can result in negative consequences.
Aversive Tools in Dog Training Can Save Lives
There are times when I need my dog to listen to me no matter what. If I have no way of reinforcing a command, then why would the dog obey the command?
Let’s use recall as an example.
You’re out on a walk with your dog and a child on a skateboard zooms past. Your dog lunges after them and the leash slips from your hand. You call your dog, but they are motivated by one thing–getting to that skateboard because their prey drive has kicked in–and they’re not coming back to you.
Now, the kid is in danger of being attacked by your dog and both are in danger of getting hit by a car.
A trainer who does not use tools like prong collars and e-collars might withhold a treat from a dog if they do not come when called.
Overriding Prey Drive
For a dog with high prey drive, chasing that skateboard is way more valuable to them than a treat, so they will choose to continue to chase the skateboard instead. The aversive for the dog (withholding a treat) is not a high enough punishment to warrant the risk of disobeying the command, which can lead to dangerous, and even fatal, situations.
A trainer who has used an e-collar to train their dog can recall their dog, and if their dog blows them off, then they can follow up with an appropriate e-collar stim, going as high as necessary until the dog decides that the discomfort is not worth the chase.
I am not saying that it is impossible to develop a reliable recall using treats alone, or comply with command, however, there will come a time when the dog values something more than the treat and in that instance, will it cause harm to the dog or someone else?
The question that must be asked, then, is when does the use of a prong or e-collar outweigh the risk of the safety of the dog or another person or animal?
Is it better for a dog to be hit by a car than to feel an intense stim from an e-collar? Or, is it ok for a dog to bite the leg of a child they chase on a skateboard rather than receive an aversive for doing so? How about knocking over a child out of excitement? Is it ok then?
What baffles me is when I hear the opposition suggest euthanasia over using aversive tools like prong collars and e-collars. This is not uncommon among shelters or recommendations from dog trainers who have reached limitations with a challenging dog.
In the dog training world, this is known as death before discomfort.
I personally, would rather tell my dog a stern no once with a high e-collar stim that gets the point across than euthanize them because they won’t take a cookie over chasing a car, bike, or wild animal.
The Science Argument about Aversives in Dog Training
It’s not uncommon for adversaries to declare that balanced training is not science-based or to see “science-based training” used as an accolade on many dog trainer’s websites.
The argument is that studies have shown that when e-collars are used on dogs, the dogs exhibited signs of stress like yelping, lip licking, and panting.
This may be true, however, science can be skewed to produce an outcome that advances a specific agenda.
Few studies, if any, exist that demonstrate the effects of dog training when an e-collar is used properly in conjunction with positive reinforcement training, once a dog has generalized commands.
The studies I’ve seen just slap e-collars on dogs and use them only to tell dogs what not to do, with no prior conditioning to the tool. That is not how a good dog trainer would use an e-collar. This method is called compulsion training and, while still used by some trainers, is considered an outdated method of dog training.
If you want to see the science, then study the tens of thousands of clients that have worked with balanced trainers, particularly those who sought out their help as a last resort because the alternative was euthanizing or rehoming their dog, per the suggestion of their previous trainers.
There’s your unbiased science.
Banning Tools Won’t Make Them Go Away
Whether or not you love or hate the tools, bans won’t work.
A ban on abortions doesn’t stop women from having them or even reduce the number of abortions, they just make them more dangerous.
Prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking alcohol. It reduced consumption temporarily in 1920, but once the Recession ended, levels went back up to ⅔ the amount in 1921.
To bring it back to the dog world, bans on pit bull-type breeds don’t decrease the number of people getting pit bulls, nor does public safety increase, as noted in a study conducted in Denver, a city with a ban on pit-bull type breeds.
In 2005, Ontario banned pit bulls, yet dog bites increased, just not from bully-type breeds, since they were banned. In contrast, Calgary holds owners responsible for their dogs’ behaviors (what a concept!) and the city offers free training classes.
Bans are polarizing and won’t stop owners from using e-collars and prong collars. The focus should be on educating owners about responsible use of the tools under the guidance of a dog trainer.
Education is the Solution
The biggest threat to dogs and dog training is divisiveness and lack of an open mind.
If you are against certain tools or methods, ask yourself why that is. How did you come to that conclusion? Have you used these methods or tools personally? Or, is it just what you’ve heard on social media, so that’s what you believe? Think about whether your training method of choice has actually helped your dog and helped you reach the training goals you have with your pup.
If not, then it’s ok to seek out another method. I used to think differently about dog training and I changed my mind after a lot of research. It’s ok to change your mind.
Here are some resources you can check out to learn more about using aversive tools in dog training:
- Listen to this interview on NPR station KALW in San Francisco between Michael Ellis, a world renowned dog trainer and proponent of the use of aversive tools and Ren Volpe of Shock Free SF debate about the use of tools.
- Robert Cabral’s response to a Psychology Today article titled Does it Matter Whether Dog Training is Positive or Aversive?
- Ivan Balabanov’s YouTube video titled The Real Facts about Science-Based Dog Training
- Ivan Balabanov’s conversation with Susan Garrett – Training without Conflict: Episode Seventeen
- This Facebook live between Kaizen K9 and NePoPo® founders Bart and Michael Bellon.