Countering The Aversive

Photo (c) CanStock Photo
The notions that dogs are seeking to “dominate” humans or gain rank on them have been firmly debunked by the science community. Photo (c) CanStock Photo

Some pet dog trainers that are either using aversive methods or some that call themselves “balanced”, and use a combination of both aversive approaches and food rewards, may carry the notion that positive reward based trainers are against them personally, or that are looking to have them stop training dogs.

While I can only speak for myself, it is not personal at all. What it boils down to for me, and many others, is the potential fallouts of using shock or choke, and/or physically reprimanding a dog that has me and other at odds with training via fear and pain. Once trainers who use such methods stop the aversive approaches, why would anyone want them to stop training dogs? After all there are lots of dogs that need help.

The other aspect of pet dog training that has many +R trainers agitated is the continuing false notions that dogs are “dominating” humans or looking to “gain rank” on humans when they resist or are not as compliant as humans would like.

David L. Mech, who was one of the proponents of the “dominance” theory, came out quite a few years ago and said he and his research team got it wrong.

Ray Coppinger has said many times in interviews that dogs are not “pack” animals like elephants are. Sure, dogs pack up for procreation, prey acquisition, and play, but dogs are not classified as pack animals, they are social animals, as most animals are.

It is these two-misguided notions, 1 – that fear and pain is needed to “train” and 2 – that dogs are “dominating” humans when resistant, that keep causing humans to imprint behavior issues such as increased fear and aggression, and have an adversarial relationship with dogs. It bears repeating dog’s at social maturity have the cognition of a three-year-old child, for life.

What many positive trainers are have issues with, in my opinion, is the aversive approach and the falsehoods of dominance theory. If trainers using aversive methods traded in their approaches and domi-nonsense assessments of dogs, +R trainers would most likely have a more open and inviting attitude. Until then,  expect some form of division. This is for me, and others, purely about what is best for dogs, not just a difference in methodology. While I know that there will always be people that use aversive methods, professionals and dog guardians alike, and there will always be people that view dogs as “stubborn” and “dominant”, we can make great headway in changing the culture if we can get mandatory educational requirements for veterinarians.

Where the war will be won is with the veterinarians and the veterinary behaviorists. It is these two camps that can and should be turning on the pressure for a force free pet dog training industry.

As is widely known, veterinarians do not obtain any behavior or dog training education while in vet school. This must change.

Here are some alternatives to having behaviorists on the faculty, though that would be a welcomed addition.

• As veterinarians attend school for 4 years, that is more than enough time to have a visiting behaviorist or two teach a 6 – 8 week course in the third and fourth years of the veterinarians education.
• There are a few distance courses that should be required, and I am almost positive that there could even be an expedited crash course with one these courses, as some require a 2-year commitment.
• Dr. Susan Friedman’s course Living and Learning with Animals should be a required course for all veterinarians.
• Vet Techs should also be required to attend a distance course and the Freidman course as Vet Techs do lots of hands on work with dogs.
• The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has some great literature and the late Sophie Yin published a fantastic book and DVD on reducing stress at vet visits. This should be required reading for all veterinarians in school.

Furthermore, all shelter and rescue workers, and groomers, regardless of what they do at the shelter, rescue or grooming salon, should also be required to have some level of education in training and behavior, such as that offered by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. Why? Because the more people know about behavior and legitimate training the better the population of dogs will do, the better understood dogs will be, and there will be less stress.

Once the community is more informed about what is risky and what is a safer approach, I am confident the vast majority of people will understand and make the changes necessary.

The need for all of us in the dog training and dog care community to be “on the same page” is crucial for dogs and their humans, so there is a standard, a common language and universal legitimate understanding of dogs based in behavioral science and the principals of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).

The talent and the experts are already here, and all it takes is for someone at the top of the heap, such as the veterinary behaviorists and vets that are in the know, to make the push for comprehensive education for vets, for dog trainers, for shelter workers et al. The time is now to make that push and have a sea change in the culture of pet dog training, because the abuses passed off as training have gone on long enough, while the false notions of “dominance” have permeated and infected the thinking in even some of the most well-educated.

The only thing that will occur once people working with dogs are required to obtain a legitimate education in behavior and non-punitive methods, is that dogs and consumers will be better served, vets will be even more equipped to do their jobs and refer to legitimate dog trainers with safer training and more accurate knowledge about dogs. After all, is that not the point of why anyone decides to get involved with dogs, to help them and understand them better?'

About Drayton Michaels

Drayton Michaels has been working with dogs professionally for over 16 years. He honed his dog training chops while working as dog walker in both NYC and Seattle. In May of 2007, he received his certification in dog training and behavior consulting from the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers, directed by award-winning author and dog expert, Jean Donaldson and renowned canine behaviorist and trainer, Janis Bradley. In 2013 Drayton completed and the Course Living and Learning with Animals taught by Dr. Susan Friedman. Drayton owns and operates Urban Dawgs and Pit Bull Guru tow positive read based dog training business in Red Bank NJ. Drayton has created and appeared in a number of films advocating for Pit Bulls, such as Beyond The Myth (Netflix) and The Pit Bull Hoax. Additionally Drayton creates dog training media focuses on force free approaches. Check out his training videos at You can reach Drayton at or


  1. I am sure we have a similar world view and similar goals, but there are a few points in this post that are really bothering me.

    Dr. Mech said he was wrong about the term “Alpha,” in terms of wolf packs, because most wild packs of wolves are related families, with the current breeding pair being the individuals he saw as “leaders.” He went on to say Breeding Male or Breeding Female would be more accurate terms. He also mentioned (long since confirmed) some packs having mutiple breeding pairs.

    Dr. Mech still maintains that unrelated captive wolves (a more accurate, though still faulty analog to dogs) do tend to fall into a predictable hierarchical arrangement when it comes to limited resources. If Dr. Mech ever said anything about dogs at all, I would love to see a link or citation. The better argument against pack theory with dogs is that they are different animals than wolves, and that they are dogs and we are humans, and we already control all resources.

    Dr. Coppinger is a very important researcher when it comes to feral and certain kinds of working dogs, but says every chance he gets he is not interested in pets. His observation was that feral dogs form temporary packs but not *necessarily* permanent ones (according to Coppinger himself, there are countless examples of dog packs lasting weeks or months, but they are less frequent than the packs which last hours or days).

    His idea that dogs arent pack animals like elephants is just silly. Elephants are herd animals, not pack animals,. Like many herd animals, they have a group structure, but it is not identical to North American wolves, so that is a doubly silly comparison. Dogs are pack animals, but their packs are different from wolves. WCape hunting dogs form packs different from wolves, too. Also dholes, coyotes… all different.

    Elephants are herd animals, but their herds are different from water buffaloes. It doesnt mean that they arent herd animals. None of this vaguely justifies dominance or pack mentality in dog training — a little ethology and a lot of ABA makes good dog training, but ethology includes knkwing basic nomenclature of the species or subspecies one is working with.

    Finally, in your last blog post, you argued against legislation of dog trainers, and you had some reasons. One of your arguments was that licensure does not promise education; but in the post above, you say veterinarians, a group who are licensed, should be required to take a specific class from a specific person? Or, presumably, lose their license? I would be crazy to bring that argument to a veterinarian. “You should take this class or not be allowed to work. I can do my job with no minimum classes, standards or licenses, but I promise to educate mself. Now may I please have a referral?” That is just wrong. And absurd. If you are going to tell LVTs and Vets what to do, you should at least be willing to demand the same standards from your own colleagues. The AAHA and AVMA already publically endorse R+ methods, and already reject pack and dominance in dog training. That some of their members still do is unfortunate, just as so many of us still do — but putting requirements on others you wont accept yourself? They have a word for that…

    I enjoy your writing, and agree with most of what the PPG stands for, but your last two posts had more passion than logic. Slow down, listen to your peers, and think through the last twenty years; has preaching been effective?

    1. Hi Nick, thanks for responding to my reply to Gerry.

      I suggested Gerry consider looking into Mech. My take away was that alpha and dominance hierarchies should not be attributed to dogs. I still hold that viewpoint. Especially with the general public and the discussion of dogs and training.

      “Temporary packs” that form for prey acquisition and procreation are not “pack animals” as they are classically defined, so yes I stand on the assertion that dogs should not be considered “pack” animal with a capital P.

      I never said that legislation was a bad idea, what I said was that legislation in the current climate of poor educational options for dog trainers makes legislation faulty and will only legitimize pain trainers.

      Yes, Vets and Vet Techs need better education in behavior and even remedial dog training when they’re in school. I never said they should not be licensed if they do not get it. I made recommendations, not ultimatums.

      However, if I give out medical advice to a dog guardian and the dog dies or has a serious medical complication, I could be sued, yet many Vets think nothing of determining the dog has a “behavior issue” or that a choke or shock collar is the answer. Then when I get the dog and they are messed up, what recourse do I have with the Vet that is spewing nonsense and bad advice? Vets and Vet Techs need better education in regards to behavior and dog training, period, or they need to stop giving out faulty advice, and no anonymous poster on a thread will change my mind.

      Preaching? No, getting people to wake up and take up the cause for better education among ALL areas of professionals in dogs, period, that is what I am doing.

  2. I prefer not to use aversives at all, but I do not completely rule them out. They are tools, just like everything else. You won’t see me with a shock collar, choke or prong collars; nothing like that. I am for all intense and purposes a force free trainer.

    So, I have developed these rules for using an aversive. Mostly, I use them to deny clients the okay to use an aversive. I apologize, I have not used them in a while and don’t have them written down. So this could be cleaned up a bit.

    1. The dog must be a confident, happy dog. Scared dogs will have increased adverse fallout from an aversive. 1a. Clients must know the difference between fear aggression and confident aggression; they don’t. If they did, I would not be there.
    2. You must have a clear set plan with a goal. Know exactly what you are punishing, know what reaction you are looking for and have a clear understanding of when the reward has to be produced. Yes, there must be a reward.
    3. The severity of the aversive must be only enough to avert the unwanted behavior. If a dog reacts fearfully to the aversive, its not aversive, its abuse. Means you have to find that point where the aversive is only an annoyance that makes the dog hesitate the unwanted behavior.
    4. You have to be able to use that hesitation to your advantage; read, you better reward that shit quickly. Means your timing must be impeccable.
    5. If there is no progress in 3-4 attempts; its a fail. by this time even a confident dog is going to lose its confidence.

    By no means is it easy to follow my rules. i.e. leave it to me to use the aversive.
    My best example is a dog that was snatching treats faster than I could get them delivered; say bloody hands. I couldn’t even get the treats to the floor.
    So, I asked the dog for a sit. As soon as my hand began to move, she lunged toward it. This time she got the back side of my hand and I bopped her on the end of the nose a little. She backed, hesitated and I crammed the treat in her mouth. By the third time she didn’t lunge hardly at all. Still having a good time. Yes, there were other things I could have done, but this was fast and the dog had the confidence.

    I find that putting so much responsibility on a client deters them from doing it. If I feel I can do it without backlash, that’s different because of my experience and ability to observe small nuances in behavior.

    1. Hi Gerry,

      Thanks for the response to my blog.

      Good to hear you do not use fear or pain.

      1 – The trouble with phrases like “confinement aggression” is that all aggression is rooted in fear, period. All fear does not equal aggression, but all aggression has fear as the impetus.
      That is behavioral law, it is not up for debate, aggression is rooted in fear, and to think that a dog has a moral imperative to want to aggress is false.

      2 – Agreed that the human must have a plan and a target behavior, which is different than a “goal”, not being semantic, a goal = “dog should stop jumping”, a target behavior = dog approaches person and sits for reinforcement of some kind.
      Agreed punishments such as time pts or removal of something the dogs wants works very well and there is no need for fear or pain.

      3 – Abuse is many things, but in terms of adding an aversive to decrease behavior anything that is causing fear and pain on a regular basis, or the threat of pain, is abusive, which is how aversive work that cause gear and pain. I will bum a dog out no doubt, so I use punishments just without fear or pain. So, agreed annoyance is fine, the dog will bounce back if they are sound to begin with as we all know some dogs are going to find even a time out fearful, so it is a matter of case, fear and yes pain = troublesome for the generalization of fear.

      4 – Timing is a big issue with lots of people, not just dog guardians. This is one of the main issue with people using shock and choke, aside from the cognitive fallouts. Poor timing in dog training is a problem all around.

      5 – Agreed 3 – 4 time outs and something in the environment need to change, in my case I look to change the environment ASAP once I know what the dogs potentially may do. The issue with saying 3 -4 times and it is fail is that someone reading that may think they have 3 -4 tries with a shock or prong collar, so I would define what exactly the aversive is.

      “Bopping” a dog in the nose will cause a fear of hands. So in your case sure, with this one dog, maybe you get away with it, you most likely work with lots of dogs, you have better timing you backed it if with the padding of a treat. However, the average person does not have good timing and their idea of a “bop” will differ greatly and most likely get their hand bitten or someone they know gets bitten when the dog is reached for.
      • Never discount the generalization of fear. Hands are the number one appendage for dogs to have contact with.
      • Spontaneous Recovery is a real thing and it is the retrieval of a painful or fearful memory and can result in aggression unless counter conditioning is applied to decrease the amount of stress hormones being secreted.

      • You could have stopped issue treats as a reward and let the dog relax on the mouth –hand stimulus and used a toy for obtaining reinforcement, if the dog would work for toys. Also, you could down grade the food so it was not as salient, unless you had a dog that had a bad mouth for taking treats and would chomp no matter what, all trainers have had them. There is always a better approach than a “bop” on the snout. Always.

      Agreed that clients need to have a simple plan and easy to follow ways to communicate. It is no doubt the humans that are more challenging train than the dogs, any dog. However, the humans should know no matter what do not cause the fear and pain and or use your hands in a way that the dog will find threatening.
      Teach8ng humans wrangling skills, luring, verbal prompting, and general cues to orchestrate the dog’s movements for daily interactions is what is needed. When they get a green light for using aversive approaches beyond removal of the dog what dog wants, it is a slippery slope, and opens the door to lots of low level aversives that are also not good, as the dog spends lots of time being hushed and shushed and szzzt, and yes “light smacks” or kicks, on the nose or rump all these are only causing negative associations to hands and voices and approach.

      This is where I feel pain trainers are lazy, not saying you, but people who show up with a “dog is dominating” “Teaching Pack leader” crap, and use a shock and or a prong collar.

      Behavior is in the environment not “in the dog” humans are part of that environment and the biggest variable as to what and how the dog learns. I have no trouble getting people to wrap their heads around that and have little issues with people being motivated and supported via email or videos.

      People who are committed and want to make change will, the others won’t. If they are with the dog, they can train the dog. If they have a written plan, and in my case I have videos of simple ways to train common behaviors. Again, ALL pet dog trainers need to step up their game and learn about ABA and the fallouts of fear and pain based approaches and learn how to write a training plan and make instructional videos for their clients, otherwise they are not the best they can be and that is when dogs will not get a fair chance.

      I know how aversive approaches work and it is not something anyone in the general owning population or otherwise should have a “plan for” beyond time outs or removal of access. If the dog has serious issues, then most certainty the dog does not need any form of aversive they need counter conditioning and that takes knowledge of ABA to teach the simple version for clients, which sadly few people training have a clear understanding on.

      Aversive approaches repeatedly used shut lots of dogs down and sadly that is what lots of people want and consider success. Not saying you do, but lots of people just want behavior stopped and they try the short cut of aversive methods and it back fires. I say step up the training skills and knowledge and pass on to clients how to achieve success without fear and pain, and then we have a safer community and a more humane profession.

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