In dog training, an aversive is something you use to stop a dog's unwanted behavior. It includes things a dog finds distasteful or uncomfortable, such as a bitter apple spray, a shock collar, or a shaker can. These methods shouldn't be used in place of other training, but are most effective when paired with obedience training.
Before using aversives, it's best to consider your options with great care. While they may be effective in some situations, there are a number of problems associated with their use.
There are many different things that can be used as aversives. Before you can use (or avoid using) them, it's important to understand what's viewed as an aversive. They are usually related to a dog's senses:
- Taste: These aversives are typically used to prevent a dog from chewing. They include bitter apple sprays, pepper, vinegar, or anything else you can apply to an object to make it distasteful to your dog.
- Touch: Aversives in this category are unpleasant for your dog to feel. This includes the shock from a mat to keep dogs off the furniture or a shock collar to keep them in the yard. A spray bottle of water, sticky surfaces (e.g., double-sided tape), and slippery surfaces like aluminum foil are also commonly used as deterrents.
- Sound: These aversives create noises that dogs find disturbing. Things such as shaker cans, air horns, vacuum cleaners, and whistles fall into this category.
Pay Attention to Your Dog's Reaction
When it comes to aversives, the effectiveness will depend greatly on the dog. One dog may stop in its tracks at the sound of a shaker can full of pennies while another may not even blink. Some dogs may stop chewing the table leg at the first taste of bitter apple, and others have been known to enjoy the taste, thus making them more likely to chew the item.
When using aversives, pay attention to your dog's reaction. You want to make sure they're actually serving the purpose for which you intended them.
Don't Overuse Aversives
Sometimes aversives become less effective the more you use them. For instance, if you spray your dog with water when it jumps on the counter, it may be startled enough to jump off. After a few sprays, however, the dog may become used to it and the spray will no longer have any effect.
If you use an aversive, do so sparingly. Do your best to use other methods to correct the behavior, such as a firm "no" when the dog jumps on the counter. Reward the dog—even if it's just praise—when it does what you ask and it will learn what is acceptable behavior if you're consistent.
Be Careful of Your Association With Aversives
Another problem is that you are often in control of the aversive, so it only happens when you're around. For instance, your dog may stop counter surfing when you spray it with the spray bottle, but it will soon learn that it only gets sprayed when you're in the room. Here you are not training the dog not to counter surf, you are only teaching it not to counter surf when you're around.
Try a different approach instead. In the counter surfing example, you'll want to be proactive rather than reactive. Keep the counters clear of food temptations and teach your dog to keep its paws on the floor. You can also send your dog to its "place" when you're cooking and avoid feeding the dog table scraps so it doesn't learn to love people food.
Don't Use Aversives With Fearful Dogs
Fearful dogs usually don't react well to aversives, so they should be avoided with dogs that tend to be timid or who scare easily. A loud noise that might simply startle one dog off the kitchen counter can make a fearful dog terrified to ever enter the kitchen again. In this case, the aversive is actually too effective. It can break down your dog's trust in you and potentially cause other behavioral issues that are more difficult to deal with.
With these dogs, it's important to focus your training attention on positive reinforcement techniques only. Not only is it a more gentle approach, but it will also help build your bond as the dog becomes more trusting of you.
Avoid Building Aggression
Research studies have confirmed what many dog trainers have believed for years: Dogs who are punished are more likely to react with aggression. This is the case with certain aversives. If you give your dog a leash correction or hit it, for instance, the dog may growl, snap, or bite in response.
This can become a learned behavior and the dog may act out at the slightest hint of aggression toward it. Even if the person's intention was completely innocent—a child excited to see a "puppy," for instance—the dog may perceive it as a threat. Dog owners should strive for the opposite effect and do everything possible to stop aggressive behavior.
Oftentimes, the solution is to avoid punishing bad behavior with an aversive and instead redirect the dog's attention to a positive experience. For instance, rather than sprinkling hot pepper flakes on a piece of furniture that your dog's chewing, offer a treat-filled toy to chew on and occupy its time.
Problems and Proofing Behavior
In many cases, aversives can be considered inhumane because they're harmful to the dog. There is much debate about the use of shock collars because some people believe the shock causes dogs pain. Other questionable aversives include hitting, leash corrections, alpha rolls, and the use of choke or prong collars.
Before using any aversive, be sure to consider whether it will have any harmful effects on your dog. Something like bitter apple spray may well be very effective and save your furniture. However, relying on a shock collar for training has the potential to turn a friendly dog into a timid or aggressive one.
It's important to look at alternative options, which may be more effective. For instance, positive reinforcement is recommended over punishment because it teaches dogs what you actually want them to do without all the negative side effects. Going through a training class or working with a veterinary behaviorist privately are other options.
There are also multi-functional e-collars available. While most of these devices also have the shock option, many dog owners find that they never have to use it. Instead, they use the collar's harmless vibrate and beep functions as a communication tool to aid in normal obedience training. When used with the right approach, e-collars can be effective and safe.
Keep in mind that raising well-behaved dogs takes time and patience. If you stick with it, your pup can truly become your best friend and will do anything you ask because dogs want to please their people.