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AVSAB's Position Statement on Humane Dog Training: Analysis | Pupford

December 6th, 2023

Filed under Training

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Recently the AVSAB released a new Position Statement on humane dog training. This is pretty big news for those in the dog training world, since they typically represent the “Gold Standard” by which many organizations and trainers operate.

Today we’re going to break down this new Position Statement, dive into the research behind it, and share what it means for dog parents like you.

And check out this video Zak George on the subject to learn even more.

WHO IS THE AVSAB?

For those who aren’t familiar, let’s take a step back and give a little background on the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB).

As their website states, the AVSAB is “a group of veterinarian and doctorate level animal behaviorists dedicated to improving the lives of animals and people through an understanding of animal behavior.”

They use research to provide science-based position statements to the entire veterinary profession -- and the general public -- to help guide people in improving the quality of life in animals.

Although they focus on animals of all kinds, much of what they uncover and discuss applies to dogs. That’s why the AVSAB is often referred to as the Gold Standard in dog training and behavior methodology.

It’s important to keep in mind that the AVSAB is a science-focused academic group, which is not necessarily the same as those who work hands-on with dogs every day (like veterinarians or dog trainers). But the hope is that those professionals can take the academic findings and use them to educate their practices.

WHAT IS AVSAB'S POSITION STATEMENT ON HUMANE DOG TRAINING?

Recently, AVSAB released an updated position statement on humane dog training. Here’s an excerpt that perfectly summarizes the position:

“Based on current scientific evidence, AVSAB recommends that only reward-based training methods are used for all dog training, including the treatment of behavior problems.”

In other words, aversives (think shock/choke collars, unpleasant noises, squirt bottles, etc.) should not be used under any circumstances. While the AVSAB does acknowledge that those types of tools can be effective in achieving the desired outcome, they urge veterinarians and trainers to utilize the practices that cause the least harm.

The position statement goes on to explain in depth the detrimental effects on animal welfare, training effectiveness, effects on dog-human relationship, and more as they relate to aversive methods. You can read the full position statement here.

If you are a pup parent and would like more reward-based training help, be sure to sign up for the 100% free online video course, 30 Day Perfect Pup. Sign up here!

HOW DID THEY COME TO THEIR CONCLUSION?

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The AVSAB relies on scientific data to draw its conclusions and make its position statements. In this case, they analyzed 21 studies that each encompass multiple studies within them.

While you can find all those studies in the References section of the position statement if you wish to dive deep into any of them, we’ll summarize a few of the key findings:

  • The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs -- A review. This study by Gal Ziv examined the differences between different training methods (positive reinforcement, escape/avoidance, positive punishment, etc.) and their correlation to the dogs’ welfare and behavior towards other dogs and humans. This review of 17 different studies, surveys, and interventions concluded that although aversive training methods can be effective, they jeopardize physical and mental wellbeing of dogs. It’s important to keep in mind that there were a few methodological concerns with some of the reviewed studies, including small sample sizes and potential bias.
  • Training dogs with the help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioral effects. This study by Schilder and van der Borg tested the reactions of 32 German Shepherds to shocks via a shock collar. Compared to the control group who received no shocks, the dogs who were shocked showed reactions that included lower posture, yelps, barks, avoidance, tongue flicking, and aggression that were caused by fear and/or pain. The study then went on to show that the dogs who were shocked by their owner continued to show those signs of stress in the presence of their owner, even when not being shocked -- this suggests that the welfare of dogs is at stake when shock collars are used. However, the sample size here was fairly small and limited to a single breed, so it is less comprehensive than we’d ideally like to see.
  • Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behavior. This 30-question survey was distributed to owners seeking behavior services to their dogs over a one year period, resulting in 145 responses. The key takeaway from their survey was that confrontational methods (hitting, kicking, growling, forcing the release of an item from the dog’s mouth, alpha roll, etc.) tend to elicit aggressive responses from dogs. Just keep in mind, there was no solidified control group or study done here.
  • Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement. This study by China, Mills, and Cooper aimed to test the efficacy of dog training with remote electronic collars vs. with positive reinforcement. In the experiment, 63 dogs with known behavioral issues (ex: poor recall) were assigned to groups that were either e-collar trainers who would use electronic stimuli, e-collar trainers that would use the same practices they normally would but without actually using the e-collar stimuli, and positive reinforcement trainers. They all received 150 minutes of training over five days to improve recall and obedience. The results found that utilizing the e-collar was not more effective than positive reinforcement as Group 2 (no e-collar) had better responses to the cues and shorter response latencies than the e-collar group. However, this was a short-term study and did not follow the dogs to determine any long-term welfare impacts.

While many of these studies drew similar conclusions, ASVAB is aware of some limitations that trended throughout many of them, including:

  • The level of consistency with the people doing the training is unknown
  • The difficulty of creating a controlled experiment that mirrors real-world simulated scenarios
  • The use of working dogs or laboratory dogs rather than companion dogs of many different breeds

While this doesn’t completely discount the science, it’s important to keep those challenges in mind as it helps create a better overall picture of the research.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

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This new statement is a pivot from a previous standard that basically prioritized dog training methods as follows:

  • Address any health, nutrition, or environmental issues that may be causing unwanted behavior
  • Utilize positive reinforcement training methods and classical conditioning
  • Only if the above doesn’t work, use negative reinforcement punishment (taking away a desired stimulus)
  • As a last effort, resort to positive punishment (addition of an unpleasant stimulus)

While this position stresses the importance of addressing health issues and utilizing positive reinforcement before resorting to punishments, adversaries were still listed on the hierarchy (as a last resort).

This new statement, however, removes punishment from dog training altogether. Their position states that aversive training methods have damaging effects on dogs and are not more effective than reward-based training methods. Therefore, only positive reinforcement methods should be used for dog training or the treatment of behavior disorders.

Some trainers, even balanced trainers (who tend to use the least aversive effective method), have found certain aversive tools to be valuable, and this position challenges that. This definitive statement may come as a shock to many trainers, especially those who are currently using such tools for serious behavior situations like extreme aggression.

Related Reading: The Canine Ladder of Aggression

WHAT DOES THE AVSAB'S STATEMENT MEAN FOR DOG TRAINING?

Understandably, this announcement has caused a lot of buzz among dog training professionals, especially those who have used aversive tools throughout their careers. Will they need to immediately pivot to teach dogs what to do rather than punishing them for unwanted behaviors?

This gets particularly complicated in dire situations where dogs are showing extreme behaviors like aggression that are potentially dangerous. AVSAB states “more aggressive behavior concerns such as aggression, anxiety, and fear require a treatment plan that includes environmental management, behavior modification, and in some cases, medication.”

That includes avoiding situations that lead to unwanted behavior to keep everyone safe. While this sounds ideal, as many people who have seen a dog with behavioral issues, that’s easier said than done.

So while dog trainers and other professionals navigate these new recommendations, it’s important that everyone do what they feel is best for their dog and be open-minded.

If you feel like you’ve tried everything and nothing is working, contact a positive reinforcement trainer in your area for one-on-one help and guidance. We can all work together to uncover ways for dogs to learn with fewer welfare concerns.

If you are a pup parent and would like more reward-based training help, be sure to sign up for the 100% free online video course, 30 Day Perfect Pup. Sign up here!

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