When you hear the word “aversive” in the field of dog training your mind will probably go to prong collars, harsh checking or correction, citronella spray, shake bottles, water spray, anti chew spray, training discs and the recently banned (in the UK, yey!) shock collars but there is much more to the story than that.
The dictionary definition of aversive is “causing avoidance of a thing, situation or behaviour by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus”. I definitely agree that all the elements on my list above are aversive and cruel to use. However, there are many more stimuli to consider when training dogs.
You may have heard the phrase “every dog is different” and certainly they all have their own personality, genetic tendencies and backlog of experiences. This may impact on how we choose to train them but it should also be considered when thinking about aversions. You Will Know What Your Dogs Favourite Things Are – some go bonkers for a ball, others it may be playtime with doggy friends or perhaps your dog loves nothing more than a cuddle and fuss. But what about the dog that doesn’t like to be touched very much? What about the dog that cries and howls when they are on their own? Or the dog that gets snappy when at the dogpark and the other dogs can run over to them anytime they want? It is often misunderstood that a dog who struggles in the dogpark or with being handled by people need more socialization, or that the dog that struggles on their own needs to be left more so that they “get used to it”, but does that not fall into the very definition of an aversive in dog training? The answer is yes. They are all being exposed to something that is unpleasant and punishing to them. Snapping, howling and crying, and avoidance are all symptoms of the emotion your dog is feeling. It is much more helpful for your dog and your relationship with them to work on the emotion rather than the symptom.
That does not mean that these dogs cannot learn to be relaxed in these situations, however, this needs to be built up from a much easier level and always guided by the dogs choices.
Kerry - Behaviour Counsellor