Amid wave of pandemic pups, animal experts warn aversive training may backfire

The early days of the pandemic brought a surge of pet adoptions across the country, as locked-down Americans sought quarantine companions. Yet, according to the head of Midcoast Humane’s behavior department, the spike in new pet owners has contributed to a troubling trend: a rise in punishment-based training methods that can cause emotional and behavioral problems in animals.

“The normalization of using pain and fear to alter an animal’s behavior is incredibly concerning to me,” said Ben Bricker, behavior and training supervisor at the Brunswick shelter. “We’re seeing a lot more pet owners reaching out to us saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. I have this lovely, wonderful dog, and now it’s attacking children.”

While Bricker advocates for “positive reinforcement,” which involves rewarding a pet for good behavior and reinforcing those actions, a “positive punishment” trainer introduces discomfort in order to discourage an animal from an unwanted behavior. For example, they might activate an electric collar to shock a dog that barks.

Besides causing pain or, Bricker said, positive punishment can backfire by confusing discomfort animals, who may not always understand what behavior sparked the punishment.

“We see so often with invisible fences, dogs used to be friendly, then they get electrocuted for being friendly and moving towards something they want to say hi to,” Bricker said. “Now, they associate children with pain or other dogs with pain, and then they become aggressive. Personally, I don’t understand radio collar technology — I can’t imagine that dogs do.”

One client’s dog Breaker works with has grown to associate beeping sounds with a jolt of pain from the electric fence around his home. Now, the dog evacuates his bladder every time he hears similar noises from his owner’s microwave, PlayStation or Fitbit.

Despite these adverse effects as well as a change in Midcoast Humane’s adoption contract prohibiting the use of adverse training methods, the shelter has recently seen increased signs of training methods that rely on producing discomfort, according to Bricker. While the shelter used to receive unwanted shock collar donations about once a week, Bricker said he’s now seeing them on a daily basis.

This tracks with what Breaker says is a parallel rise in the number of area dog trainers who use positive punishment or “balanced training,” which involves a combination of reward and adverse consequences techniques.

Teri Robinson, owner of Maine Dog Training Company in Brunswick, said she has seen a surge in business since the pandemic began.

“It really did change the landscape of the business for sure,” she said. “My schedule is booked out to October for private lessons.”

Robinson, who has worked with animals for about two decades as a veterinary technician, kennel manager and animal trainer, used only rewards-based training for years, she said. She said she switched to balanced training about seven years ago after an electronic collar helped her make a breakthrough with a particularly difficult dog.

“This is not a fear-based tool,” said Robinson, who argued that the collars’ on low settings are equivalent to little more than a bug bite. “There are good trainers out there doing some great things with e-collars, and there’s some great trainers out there using positive reinforcement. All of us have the same goal: I want to see dogs being homed and be healthy and happy and be the best version of themselves.”

While tools like shock collars and buzz collars can sometimes bring fast results that woo customers eager to train their dogs quickly, they are never truly necessary, according to Dr. Christine Calder, owner of Calder Veterinary Sciences.

“In the right hands, some of these tools can be effective,” said Calder, one of only 100 vets in the country to hold a diploma from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “But you don’t need them. If you know what you’re doing, and you have a good grasp of how animals learn, there’s no need to use punishment in any way, shape or form.”

She cited research, including a 2020 study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, showing reward-based training is more effective than adverse techniques involving electronic collars.

“There’s been a lot of research over the past 10-15 years that looks at training methods,” Calder said. “The evidence points toward positive reinforcement.”

Some pets with anxiety or aggression may need more than a trainer, and positive punishment training methods could cause more severe issues, Calder said. In some situations, an animal behaviorist can help a pet with aggression, anxiety or reactivity issues.

Owners looking for help training their pets should ask prospective trainers to demonstrate their methods in person before hiring them, according to Bricker. And for those who need advice, help is available via the Midcoast Humane Behavior hotline.

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