This was originally published for veterinarians in Advances in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery.

It is much longer than my normal posts here, but please bear with me. It is as important as any topic we've yet discussed. Let me know what you think and what your experiences training dogs have been.

Recommending Reward-Based Dog Training to Veterinary Clients

Shawn Finch, DVM

To help the group get past the dragon guarding the treasure at Gringotts Bank in the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, the goblin Griphook handed Ron a noise maker and explained, “it’s been trained to expect pain when it hears this noise.”

Hermione immediately responded, “that’s barbaric!”

No matter the species, we intuitively recognize reward-based training as more humane than punishment-based training.

Reward-based training may include using treats, toys, praise and petting.

Punishment-based training may include using yelling or other loud noises, alpha rolls, choke collars, pinch collars, electric collars and physical correction.

Veterinary teams are intentional about treating patients gently. Marty Becker, DVM started Fear Free practices, reward-based programs intended to promote a positive experience for every patient, and these are being implemented in many veterinary hospitals. Imagine how much good could be done if what we practice ourselves in hospital were expanded to include recommending reward-based training to clients.

Veterinarians tend to eagerly embrace cutting edge and scientifically backed medical protocols and surgical advances. We love a challenge, but we also love information that we can master. Behavior medicine can seem less concrete than we are comfortable with. However, there is much rock-solid information in veterinary behavior medicine that we need to know. Embracing advances in behavior medicine as enthusiastically as we do advances in other areas of our profession will have a profoundly positive effect on our careers, our teams, our clients and our patients.

The most important issue to be resolved recently in the field of animal behavior is the unequivocal conclusion that reward-based training of dogs is more effective, more humane and safer than punishment-based training, both in the long and short term.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released an updated “Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals” that includes the recommendation that “animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counter conditioning,” and advises veterinary professionals to refer clients only to trainers who follow these principles.(1)

Reward-based training of dogs has been shown to be more consistently effective at resulting in obedience than punishment-based training.(2) Reward-based training is less stressful to dogs than punishment-based training.(3) Dogs trained with reward-based training are calmer and more attentive and learn new tasks better than dogs trained with punishment.(3,4)

Dogs who have been trained using punishment tend to be more fearful and less playful than dogs trained using rewards.(2)

Training using shock collars has been shown to cause immediate stress, fear and pain. Long term effects of shock collar training include continued stress during training and when active training is not occurring.(5)

Dogs undergoing punishment-based training are more likely to show aggression than dogs trained with reward-based training. In one survey, over 25% of dogs trained with punishment were reported to immediately show signs of aggression towards their trainers when being corrected.(4)

Aggression can be a primary threat, as other animals and people can be injured. It can also be a secondary threat, as the animal showing aggression may at the very least be less included in family activities and at worst, may need to be euthanized.

Often, clients will guess their pet had been abused before they had them based on fear-related behaviors. As veterinary team members, we hear this often enough to know that it is unlikely that all of those pets have been with animal abusers prior to living with their current families – thank goodness! Fear-related behaviors are probably more often the result of not being completely socialized as puppies than the result of abuse. However, another reason pets may develop fear-related behaviors is that punishment-based training had been used in the past. This was articulated well by a favorite client about her new dog, “I don’t think he was abused. I do think he may have been over-corrected though.”

Veterinary teams need to educate our well-intentioned clients who have the entirely appropriate goal of having a well-behaved dog. People use punishment-based methods to train their dogs, not because they are mean people, but because that is what they have learned, it is what has worked for them in the past and they have had dogs turn out well when they have used these methods.

We as veterinary professionals know reward-based methods are ideal because it is what current science is telling us is most effective in teaching dogs to be obedient. We also know that dogs trained with reward-based methods tend to be less stressed, calmer, more attentive, better at learning new tasks, less fearful and more playful. Aggression is a problem less often in dogs trained with reward-based methods than in dogs trained with punishment-based methods.

Veterinarians have the responsibility to do everything in our power to assure animals are well cared for. We need to continue do what we have always done so well - be kind, consider our patient’s well-being above all and give our best recommendations based on the most up to date scientific evidence that we have available.


1 American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior “Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals.” AVSABonline American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2016. <>

2 Hiby EF, NJ Rooney and JWS Bradshaw. “Dog Training Methods: Their Use, Effectiveness and Interaction with Behavior and Welfare.” Animal Welfare 13 [2004]: 63-69.

3 Deldalle S and F Gaunet. “Effects of 2 Training Methods on Stress-Related Behaviors of the Dog (Canis familiaris) and on the Dog-Owner Relationship.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 9 [2013]: 58-65.

4 Herron, ME, FS Shofer and IR Reisner. “Survey of the Use and Outcome of Confrontational and Non-confrontational Training Methods in Client-Owned Dogs Showing Undesired Behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 117. Issues 1-2 [2009]: 47-54.

5 Schilder, M and J Van der Borg. “Training Dogs with the Help of the Shock Collar: Short and Long Term Behavioural Effects.” Applied Animal Behavioral Science [2004] 319-344.


Post from one year ago today...

December 6, 2015