Aversive Dog Training: Why You Need To Know The Risks

September 5, 2023

Over the years, through the study of canine behavior, the techniques used in dog training have evolved considerably. What is now considered “modern dog training methods” use positive reinforcement, which are scientifically proven to be both successful for training purposes, and beneficial for the human-dog relationship. On the flip-side are the ‘old school’ methods, based in aversive dog training techniques, which have been proven to carry many potential risks for your dog.

When I trained my dogs in the past I used aversive methods, because that’s what was taught at the time. I cringe now when I think about the methods I used over the years! However, today, I believe in positive reinforcement and have seen the benefits… not only in dogs, but other animals as well.

For those that might be leaning toward, or actually using, aversive techniques, be sure you take the time to make sure you fully understand that there are potential risks of using these methods. Part of my goal here today is to hopefully change at least one person’s mind when it comes to using aversive methods. So, without further ado, let’s look at some examples and explore them a little further so that you can see the potential risks to your dog… yourself… and those around you.

aversive dog training - puppy wearing e-collar

WHAT is aversive dog training?

“Aversives” are stimuli or actions which are used with the intended goal of discouraging undesirable behavior(s) in your dog. Aversive techniques use discomfort, pain, fear, or simply unpleasant consequences to gain their desired outcome. Ultimately, they are to create a negative association between the unwanted behavior and the unpleasant experience (the aversive).

Here are some examples of aversive techniques that are/have been used in dog training:

Physical Corrections:
  • Leash Corrections: A leash correction involves jerking the leash sharply, which can cause pain discomfort, or even harm to your dog… all with the intent of correcting an unwanted behavior, such as pulling.
  • Alpha Rolls: The alpha roll is a technique that involves forcefully rolling your dog onto its back and holding it down to assert dominance and establish the owner as the “alpha” or leader of the pack. This is a part of dominance theory which has been completely debunked with respect to canine behavior.
remote training collars:
  • Shock Collars/E-Collars: Shock collars, also known as electronic or e-collars, are devices that deliver an electric stimulation to your dog through metal contact points on the collar. The intent of these collars is to correct or modify behavior by creating a negative association between the behavior and the ‘shock’ that the collar gives your dog. This is a very common tool used in aversive dog training methods.
Spray Collars:
  • Citronella Collars: Generally thought of as less severe than shock collars, citronella collars are designed to potentially deter unwanted behaviors in dogs, such as excessive barking. Instead of delivering an electric shock, these collars release a burst of citronella spray towards the dog’s nose when it detects barking.
Choke Chains and Prong Collars:
  • Choke chains and prong collars are training tools designed to potentially control and correct a dog’s undesirable behavior. However, both are considered aversive and can easily cause not only pain and discomfort to your dog, but actual physical harm.
Verbal Reprimands:
  • Verbal reprimands, or scolding, are a form of aversive training in which a dog is corrected using spoken words, tone, or other vocal cues to discourage unwanted behavior. While not as physically intrusive as some other aversive methods, verbal reprimands can still be aversive.

the potential risks:

While some trainers may still recommend the use of aversive methods to address behavioral issues, it’s important to be aware of the potential short and long term risks that can be associated with this approach.

Here are a few examples of the potential risks of using aversive dog training techniques:

Lack of trust:
  • Dogs subjected to aversive training methods may lose trust in their guardians or handlers. This breakdown in trust can result in increased stress and a heightened likelihood of defensive aggression.
Fear and Anxiety:
  • The use of aversive dog training measures, such as shock collars, choke chains, or physical corrections can induce fear and anxiety in dogs. In turn, this may lead to a negative association being formed, not only with the training process itself, but also potentially, the trainer. This fear may extend beyond the training context, affecting the dog’s overall confidence and behavior in various situations. Your dog becoming anxious and/or fearful can lead to far more dangerous behaviors as discussed in the next point.
Redirected aggression:
  • Any dog that experiences discomfort or pain during aversive training may, in turn, redirect their aggression towards nearby people, animals, or even inanimate objects. This can happen when the dog associates the negative experience with their immediate surroundings. This can create a very unpredictable and dangerous situation for all!
Learned helplessness:
  • Aversive techniques may cause a dog to become passive or submissive out of fear of punishment. You may see a well trained dog (or so it seems on the surface), but in reality your dog is afraid to be a dog. In some cases, learned helplessness can escalate into aggression as a last resort when the dog feels cornered or threatened.
  • Yes… if you make the choice to use aversive dog training methods, you can increase the risk of the severity of your behavior becoming more severe as you may have seen some benefit in reducing unwanted behaviors. Any short term success that you may see from using an aversive technique reinforces you… and your use of aversives. For example, you jerk your dogs leash and he turns around and pays attention… you see that this worked (at that moment)… so the next time your dog pulls on his leash, you jerk the leash, but your dog doesn’t respond… so you increase the physical correction. This can easily get out of hand and before you know it… even if you don’t intend it to happen… your behavior toward your dog can escalate quickly into abusive territory.
Legal and Ethical Concerns:
  • The use of aversives raises a number of ethical questions about the well-being of any dog or animal where these measures are being used. Using punishment-based techniques may be viewed as degrading or inhumane, especially if they involve physical or psychological harm. There are some areas that have legal restrictions on the use of certain aversive tools, such as shock collars. So, if you use these kinds of techniques, consider the ethical question of “should you be causing distress, pain or harm to your dog during training?”
aversive dog training - dog holding a clicker to promote positive reinforcement methods

CONSIDER Positive Reinforcement:

While aversive dog training may achieve short-term results, the potential negative consequences and ethical concerns of using them must be considered. This is why modern dog trainers advocate for positive reinforcement based training methods. Positive reinforcement focuses on rewarding desired behaviors with treats, praise, or toys, which creates a positive association around a behavior thus encouraging the dog to repeat said behavior (the opposite of aversive measures). It not only helps shape desirable behaviors but helps to build a strong bond between you and your dog through trust and understanding. I feel it’s important to stay informed about various training methods – and be open to making changes if needed – and choose approaches that prioritize the well-being and happiness of my dog… what about you?



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