One of the best things about being a WDJ product review writer is having the opportunity to play with all the fun stuff that we review. As a professional trainer, it helps me in my business, too, to be able to try out new products before I invest in them myself (or encourage my clients to buy them). So it was with great interest and curiosity that I agreed to test products designed to keep dogs “off” or “away from” forbidden furniture, counters, or other areas of the house.
I must have been temporarily senile; for a moment I forgot how very opposed I am to most aversive training tools. When the products arrived and I removed them from the box I immediately realized my ethical dilemma. How could I possibly test these products? I refuse to use most of them on my own dogs, or clients’ dogs, and I wasn’t about to go to a shelter and test them on the already stressed-out canines there . . .
I called WDJ editor Nancy Kerns and explained the problem. We were specifically talking at the time about the mat designed to deliver an electric shock to the hapless hound who happened to perch on it.
“Of course you don’t have to use it on your dogs,” Nancy reassured me brightly. “I figured you would test it on yourself!”
“I did,” I retorted. “Now I’m afraid to sit on the sofa.”
Another problem would be encountered by multiple-pet households with these aversive booby-trap-type products. What if your dogs aren’t allowed on the sofa (ours are) but your cats are welcome? These products would punish canine and feline alike. Or what if you have two or more dogs in the room when a noise alarm is set off? The dog climbing on the sofa gets punished, but so does the one sleeping peacefully on the floor.
Punishment can sometimes be an effective way to train – if you like a method that depends on force and intimidation to compel obedience. Clearly I do not, but I do recognize that it can work, if used properly. The problem is that it can be very difficult to apply punishment properly. In order for punishment to work, certain criteria must be met. These include:
• The timing has to be right.
• The punishment must stop the unwanted behavior immediately.
• The punishment has to be applied every time the behavior occurs.
• The punishment has to not occur when the behavior is not occurring.
• The behavior must cease permanently within a few applications of the punishment.
If these criteria are not met, learning is impeded or simply does not occur. It is virtually impossible for a normal human being to consistently meet these criteria. As a result, a lot of punishment is ineffective, and worse, abusive.
Another disadvantage of punishment (and aversive products are punishment) is that each dog is an individual. The amount of force (or shock) necessary to stop the behavior of a tough dog with a high pain threshold might permanently damage the psyche of a more sensitive one. How do you know until it is too late? This lesson was brought home to me early on in the life of Peaceable Paws (my training business) when I used a citronella collar on a stable, confident, outgoing Golden Retriever. It took me six weeks to regain his trust after just one application.
Effective aversive tools
As you can see below, I did review the “off” products. I tested only the most benign on my dogs. The others I tested on myself, and judged them on the following criteria for an effective aversive tool:
• It must stop the behavior immediately.
• It must trigger itself with impeccable timing, not rely on human timing.
• It must reset itself, not depend on a human to reset.
• It must occur every time the unwanted behavior occurs (not possible if it doesn’t reset).
• It must not elicit unwanted side effects in the dog’s behavior (as the citronella collar did with my client’s Golden).
Don’t hold your breath. The “quick fix” punishment panacea is a pipe dream, meant for impatient owners who are unwilling to manage their dogs’ unwanted behaviors while training more appropriate ones. There are only two products out of the six we examined that we would suggest you let anywhere near your dogs, and they don’t meet all of our criteria for effective aversives.
-By Pat Miller