The Best Type of Training for Your Dog's Mental Health

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to train a dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study of over 90 pet dogs indicates that punishment-based training methods result in higher stress levels and a more pessimistic mindset
  • A growing body of research also suggests aversive training methods are simply not as effective as positive reinforcement training
  • Another study suggests that dogs who receive reward-based training are more relaxed in the presence of their owners
  • Scientific evidence suggests that for the long-term physiological and mental health of dogs, positive reinforcement training methods should replace positive punishment and negative reinforcement as much as possible

Many of you are probably aware that when it comes to the best way to train a dog, opinions vary, and opinion-holders tend to dig in their heels and argue passionately for their preferred method. In fact, there are few topics as hotly debated as this one.

My strong preference, as all of you who visit here regularly know, and the only method I recommend, is positive reinforcement behavior training. Not only is it the kindest, most humane approach, but it’s also — in my experience — more effective and longer lasting than the alternatives, such as positive punishment1 and negative reinforcement training.2 Thankfully, a growing body of scientific evidence is reaching the same conclusion.

Punitive Training Methods Result in Higher Stress Levels in Dogs

A study conducted by an international team of researchers led by biologist Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro of the Universidade do Porto in Portugal is one of the most recent to suggest that aversive-based training has a negative impact on the welfare of our canine companions.3

For the study, the researchers recruited 92 pet dogs from several training schools in Porto, including 42 from 3 schools that use reward-based training (food treats or play), and 50 from 4 schools that use aversive-based training (yelling, physical manipulation of dogs, or leash-jerking). All the dogs were around 2 years old.

Three saliva samples were taken from each dog as he or she relaxed at home to record baseline levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Three more saliva samples were taken from each dog after training.

Each dog was filmed during the first 15 minutes of 3 training sessions, which allowed the researchers to look for signs of stress such as yawning, lip-licking, paw-raising, and yelping. As you might expect, the dogs who received aversive training displayed plenty of stress behaviors — especially yawning and lip-licking – and their saliva showed significantly increased levels of cortisol compared to when they were relaxing at home.

The dogs who received positive reinforcement training showed far fewer stress behaviors and much more normal cortisol levels after the sessions. As veterinarian Dr. Joan Capuzzi Giresi observes in a dvm360 article about the study:

“Videos of training sessions showed a significantly higher frequency of stress-related behaviors — turning the body, moving away, crouching, yawning, salivating and lip-licking — in the aversive group than in the reward group.

Investigators also found a strong positive relationship between the number of stress-related behaviors a particular dog exhibited and the number of aversive stimuli used in that dog’s training school.”4

Aversive Training May Also Create Pessimistic Dogs

In the next phase of the study, the researchers set out to determine the longer-term effects of stress on the dogs using a cognitive bias test. A month after the training sessions, 79 of the original 92 dogs were taught that a bowl located on one side of a room contained a sausage treat. If the bowl was placed on the other side of the room, however, it held no treat, even though it smelled like sausage.

The researchers then conducted three trials placing an empty bowl in different locations — near the location that had held the bowl with the treat, near the location of the sausage-scented empty bowl, and exactly between the two — so they could evaluate how quickly the dogs approached it in search of a treat.

The faster a dog moved toward the bowl, the more optimistic the researchers considered him to be; dogs slower to approach the bowl were viewed as more pessimistic about finding a treat.

While there were no statistically significant differences in approach time between the two groups of dogs when it came to the empty bowl placed near the treat-holding bowl and the no-treat bowl, there was a marked difference for the centrally placed bowl. Dogs from the aversive group took longer to approach that bowl than dogs from the reward group.

Results also showed that the more aversive training a dog had received, the more slowly he approached the bowl, and in addition, the positive reinforcement training dogs learned the overall task faster than the aversive-trained dogs.

Researchers have used similar cognitive bias tests to evaluate the mental health of animals and determined that pessimistic displays of behavior correlate with separation anxiety and other mental health problems.5

Earlier Study Concludes Aversive Training Is Less Effective Than Reward-Based Training

A 2017 review of 17 studies looked at the effects of different training methods on dogs and concluded that aversive training methods are in no way more effective than positive reinforcement methods.6

Studies included in the review used surveys, observational studies, and interventions to examine the differences between training methods (e.g., positive reinforcement, positive punishment, escape/avoidance, etc.) on a dog's physiology, welfare, and behavior toward humans and other dogs.

The results show that using aversive training methods can endanger both the physical and mental health of dogs.

The study author concluded that people working with or handling dogs should rely on positive reinforcement methods and avoid using positive punishment and negative reinforcement as much as possible.

Effect of Training Methods on Dog-Owner Attachment

Another just-published study by the same Portugal-based research team, again led by de Castro, looked at the way in which different training methods affect dog-owner attachment.7

A total of 34 pet dogs were recruited from 3 reward-based and 3 aversive-based training schools and were given a version of the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test (SST). The SST is a tool that measures whether a small child or dog has developed a secure attachment to a caregiver who represents safety and security in strange or threatening environments.

For the study, the presence and absence of the owner and a stranger in a room with the dog was manipulated over different episodes. The researchers evaluated the dogs for attachment-related behaviors, such as contact maintenance, separation distress and secure base effect, as well as following upon separation and greeting upon reunion.

The results showed no significant differences between the dog groups for contact-maintenance and separation distress behaviors. However, dogs trained with reward-based methods, but not dogs trained with aversive-based methods, played more in the presence of their owners than in the presence of the strangers, and they also followed and greeted their owners more than the strangers.

Shouldn’t the Goal Should Be to Train Dogs Without Causing Them Harm?

The takeaway message from the Portugal study is that when we look at both the short- and long-term effects of punitive vs. positive training approaches with dogs, punishment-based methods result in reduced welfare compared to reward-based methods.

Dogs subjected to aversive training display more stress-related behaviors and postures during training, and higher cortisol levels afterward. The longer-term consequences of aversive training are dogs with a more pessimistic mindset. In addition, the more frequently punishment is used in training, the greater the negative impact.

Given these results, it’s seems obvious that aversive training methods, which are also proving to be less effective than reward-based training, should be avoided to preserve the mental health and quality of life of canine companions.

Because anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, it’s important to screen your trainer in terms of what approach they use prior to engaging them, and call references. Most importantly, if you ever feel like your dog is fearful of the training method being used, stop immediately and find another trainer that builds trust and confidence without creating stress.