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Learning principles and communication: A positive and scientific approach (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2009

Many pet owners are misinformed or naive when it comes to understanding canine behavior and training. Most pets relinquished at shelters are because of a poor pet-owner bond due to undesirable behavior. In addition a poor bond will have a negative impact on the level and amount of veterinary services that the owners are willing to provide. Since the highest relinquishment of dogs and the second highest in cats is between the ages of 6 to 24 months, the initial few puppy and kitten visits provide the best opportunity to provide preventive counseling and training advice. Yet only about 25% of veterinarians routinely inquire about behavior. Many owners continue to inadvertently reinforce undesirable behavior. Alternately they may resort to isolation, yelling at their pets or pulling on choke collars and almost 50% of pet owners still think that pet's nose in a mess might be effective.4 Moreover trainers that advocate dominance and confrontation and that dogs should work to please since food is a bribe are setting back the veterinary behavioral and training communities which have worked to promote and validate the use of learning principles and positive training and the pitfalls of confrontation.

There are many unsubstantiated, illogical and potentially abusive and dangerous approaches to dog training. Most of these are trying to place the dog-human relationship into a pack structure, based on extrapolations from captive wolf behavior, despite the fact recent studies have modified our understanding of behavior in the wild wolf. Numerous recent studies of wild wolves have concluded that the typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group with female primarily responsible for pup care and defense and the male for foraging, food-provisioning and the traveling associated with them. (Also see http://wolf.org/) Not only is the wolf hierarchal model invalid, domestication and selective breeding of dogs for over 15,000 years has led to wide variations in morphology and behavior from the wolf model. Breeds have been selected for distinct behaviors (such as guarding, agility, herding, hunting, retrieving, pointing, and companionship) including many behaviors not seen in wolves including a) puppy attachment to owners b) the ability of dogs to read human communicative gestures c) barking as a form of communication (alerting, hunting, fear) and d) looking at the human face as an affiliative and communication gesture (i.e. to recognize emotional state) rather than evoking aggression or fear. Individual breeds can now be genetically identified and classified into at least 4 different clusters (mastiff, herding, ancient and modern European). In addition, there are genetic differences between dogs, wolves and coyotes in the hypothalamus which may be a result of domestication. With domestication and increased retention of juvenile characteristics, elements of lupine "body language" have been lost. The diversity of physical and behavioral traits may further compromise the ability of different breeds to communicate. Human provisioning and intervention has further reduced the need for visual signals especially submission. Although agonistic interactions may arise over resources, hierarchy is determined separately for each resource. Dog-dog relationships are defined by resource holding potential and learned strategies. Treatment of aggression between dogs in the home is not a matter of supporting a fixed hierarchy, but an ability to identify and prevent problems and the use operant and respondent conditioning to resolve the issues.

When humans communicate with dogs, we do not utilize canine signaling (body postures, facial expressions, tail carriage, piloerection) nor any of the vocal, pheromone or scent communication of dogs. With domestication dogs are increasingly better equipped to react to our signals and emotions. Therefore while a dogs genetic composition and its early development influence learning, dogs communicate with humans using sensory input (auditory, visual, olfactory, and touch), by observing the emotional state of humans and through the same learning principles that apply to all species. Despite this new understanding of canine communication, there has been a recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs into submission as a means of preventing and correcting canine behavior problems. Confrontation and punishment may evoke a flight, fight or freeze response, which is potentially dangerous and counterproductive to a positive relationship. If leash corrections are unsuccessful some trainers escalate to choke, prong or shock devices. The problem with this approach is that even if the undesirable behavior is suppressed the pet may only stop when the devices are used, while further conditioning the fearful association with the stimulus (e.g. dog, person). Punishment including alpha rolls and pinning may lead to fear, escape attempts, and defensive aggression, with compliance most likely a result of fear. Dogs and wolves do not use pinning or force to communicate with other members of the species; they use postures, facial expressions, posturing and physical interactions primarily in play and as appeasement postures to avoid confrontations.

Recent studies have validated that training with positive techniques, consistency and rule structure lead to a significantly higher level of obedience, less training problems and fewer behavior problems, while punishment led to a significantly higher level of training problems and lower obedience scores. Reinforcement training had the lowest avoidance, aggression and attention seeking while punishment training was associated with increased aggression toward unfamiliar people and other dogs and avoidance behaviors. Owners that used confrontational techniques such as hitting, alpha rolls, growling, and grabbing jowls elicited aggression in about 1/4 of dogs. Dogs that were aggressive to people were more likely to show aggression if challenged by an alpha roll or yelling "no".

Veterinarians should therefore identify and utilize trainers who understand and utilize learning theory for training, rather than dominance and confrontational training. (See reading list below) Veterinarians and staff members should offer preventive advice as well as advice on emerging behavior problems. This can be complemented by handouts, pamphlets, DVDs and by providing a list of recommended reading. One important and valuable resource is to have a clinic website that links to those groups, position statements, handouts and support material that guide owners to the best available resources on the net. The AAHA behavior pamphlets and the Lifelearn® handouts ( http://lifelearncliented.com/) have been designed for veterinarians to be able to provide quality behavioral education. Additional handouts can be found in the CD's that accompany the in the Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, and Blackwell's Five Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion Canine & Feline Behavior.