Blog - What makes kind people use unkind training methods on their dogs?

Posted Sunday, 24 January 2021

Let me start by saying that I am what is known as a “crossover” dog trainer. This means that when I first started out training my own dog, the methods I used included choke chains and punishment (shouting, yanking on the choke chain). But I quickly learned the hard way. When my dog started to show aggression, I learned these methods were not effective and that they had caused my dog to use aggression. This was the beginning of my journey of discovery into dog training in 1999. 

I often reflect with sadness at the way I treated Amy and wonder what her life might have been like if I had her when I knew what I now know? 

Recently, a large volume of clients have sought further help from me (and other colleagues who use kind methods of training) after using the services of dog trainers who used force; slip leads like cheese wire that work by preventing the dog from breathing if he pulls, or using shock or prong collars to hurt the dog for doing undesirable behaviours, like showing aggression, forcing reactive dogs to stay whilst other dogs approach them and punishing them for any attempts to escape or defend themselves. I have been reflecting and researching why it is that we can be talked into using such unpleasant training methods on our beloved dogs.

I looked into research conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Milgram was trying to gain insight into why it was that people could be persuaded to do unkind things. He conducted an interesting experiment that I will outline briefly because I know you are all busy.

The experiment comprised of:

• A “learner” who was to look at pairs of cards and then have to accurately recall them later. 

• A “teacher” who was to test the learner.

• The experimenter

The teacher was told that the experiment was about memory and that their role was to ask the learner which cards they had seen in order. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher had to press a button that would deliver an electric shock to the learner. The voltage of the shock would increase in increments of 15 volts until reaching 300 volts, a potentially fatal shock. The learner was out of sight of the teacher. The “teacher” participant was paid and told they would be paid whether they finished the experiment or not. 

Unbeknownst to the “teacher” the button was NOT connected to deliver a shock, but the “learner” was a confederate who was to deliberately get answers wrong and was going to pretend to be shocked on the other side of a screen, groaning or screaming when receiving these “shocks.”

If the “teacher’ questioned the experimenter about the safety or ethics of delivering the shocks, they were firmly told they must just follow the instructions and continue. If the teacher asked this four times, or refused, then the experiment would be stopped. Otherwise the experiment would be stopped when the shock reached its highest level, 300 volts. At this point, the “learner” would fall silent behind the partition. 

Before conducting the experiment, opinions were sought as to how many people the experts thought would actually deliver the potentially fatal shock. Estimates of between 3% and 10% were given. 

Once the experiments were complete, it was quite astounding to find that 65% of teachers delivered the “fatal” shocks to the “learners”. 

Milgram suggested that people follow instructions of people in authority. Do they do it because they are frightened of the consequences of NOT doing what they are told? 

This wasn’t apparently the case in Milgram’s experiment. Although it might be considered that the participants didn’t believe that the shocks would kill another human due to ethics (although this was in the 1960s where people tended more to believe researchers and ethical standards were not so high).

So, if 65% of people were prepared to deliver fatal shocks to strangers under the persistent instructions of an experimenter, how might this relate to clients taking instructions from forceful dog trainers to use strong punishment such as prong or pinch collars and E collars on their beloved dogs? I think the reasons are interesting to consider.

Firstly, Milgram’s experiment showed that people acted on instructions from people in authority. So, perhaps the more authoritarian an individual, the more likely a client is to comply. It does appear to be a pattern that trainers using more aversive methods are more authoritarian. 

Is there an element of fear in the individuals who are the owners of dogs that can show aggression? I think there is. I think there are a number of fears for owners of dogs that show aggression:

• Fear their dog will harm someone

• Fear of being embarrassed by their dog’s behaviour

• Fear of reprisals

• Fear that people won’t love their dog as much as they do

• Fear of being a social misfit.

• Fear of loss of perceived standing in the community

• Fear of being seen as an incompetent dog owner

I don’t feel it is right to judge people who act on the instructions of dog trainers who coerce them into using implements that cause pain or fear. These people are desperate to resolve a problem and have so far been unable to. We don’t think straight when we panic. Positive dog trainers’ methods can take longer than shutting down and these trainers tend NOT to be authoritarian. The client does not want to acknowledge this as shutting down their dog; to acknowledge this means they have to face the fact that they have hurt or scared their beloved companion. Some dog owners can easily become defensive and find ways to justify the use of harsh punishment. A state of cognitive dissonance envelopes them. “This is necessary to cure my dog.” “If I can cure my dog then they won’t hurt someone, I won’t be abused by people my dog upsets, I won’t be embarrassed, people will love my dog as much as I do, I won’t be a social misfit, I won’t lose my standing in the community and I won’t be seen as an incompetent dog owner.”

Whether we like to acknowledge this or not, actually these values are important to most of us. I can understand dog owners being seduced into using harsh methods of training if they believe it will stop their dog being aggressive. After all, I was! I trusted my dog trainer as they really seemed an authority on the subject. Remember - 65% of people were prepared to push a button that would deliver a fatal electric charge to a total stranger in an experiment, just because they were told to in an authoritarian way. 

Rather than chastise people for using these methods, we (the dog training and behaviour community) really do need to be more sympathetic of the client and support dog owners to try alternative and ethical ways to treat serious behaviour disorders. In my experience EVERY single client who came to me after using aversive methods of training are already punishing themselves for being seduced by the idea there was a quick fix for their dog and that short-term pain would lead to long term gain. All too often, they arrive 6 months to a year after thinking they had solved the problem only to find it came back bigger than before. 

The evidence says that methods of dog training that cause fear or pain INCREASE risks of dogs showing aggression. 

To cause fear and pain are against DEFRA guidance under the Animal Welfare Act (2006) Five Freedoms (Freedom from pain and fear) in which it is stated that positive reinforcement training is recommended, and that punishment-based training should be avoided as it can cause aggression and causes pain and fear. 

If you have been using harsh methods of training your dog don’t let the embarrassment or guilt felt from using these methods deter you from seeking more help because help is out there. Please just ask your vet to refer you to someone they trust.

If you are a positive reinforcement dog trainer, please be kind to your clients turning to you for help after using harsh methods to train their dog. They don't need your judgement, just your help.


Denise Nuttall B.Sc (Hons), M.Res

Clinical Animal Behaviourist and Animal Training Instructor registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Society

Full member APBC

Full member TCBTS