Behavior and Training · Clicker Training · dog-human relationship · Operant Conditioning · Science

Reward-Based Training and Relationship

Trainers who use reward-based training methods (aka positive reinforcement training) often expound about its benefits to dogs and likewise caution about potential risks associated with punishment-based training. Although not extensive, there are a few studies that support the behavioral and emotional benefits of reward-based training and several others showing that the use of aversive stimuli (typically e-collars) can be emotionally and behaviorally harmful to dogs. (For a review of these research studies and references, see Chapter 8 in my newest book, “Dog Smart“).

However, training is something that is shared by owners and our dogs, and does not impact only our dogs. It is equally important to understand what, if any, effects that various training methods may have upon owners themselves and on the bond between owners and their dogs. Specifically, do we have evidence that reward-based training supports a stronger bond with our dogs or that, conversely, punishment-based training may damage this relationship?

DOES THE USE OF REWARD-BASED TRAINING IMPROVE OUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH OUR DOGS?

Evidence with Human Subjects: There is evidence (quite a bit actually) that doing something to help another person and using positive reinforcement when instructing someone encourages a favorable attitude towards that individual. In other words, we tend to like people who we are nice to and treat well. Similarly, we tend to think poorly about people who we treat badly or punish. I address the implications of this research in the Science Dog Essay “The Ben Franklin Effect“. However, this phenomenon has not (yet) been studied directly with people and dogs. A study published last month comes rather close.

The Study: Researchers at Purdue University recruited a group of 111 US military veterans who were currently living with a Service Dog. The owners were predominantly male (80 %) and had received their dog as an aid for PTSD-related disorders. The objectives of the study were to examine the relationship between the training methods used by the owners to maintain their dog’s training (i.e. subsequent to the dog’s training as a Service Dog) with the dog’s behavior, their relationship with their dog, and the owner’s PTSD symptom severity. The researchers classified training methods into five categories: positive reinforcement, negative punishment, positive punishment, dominance (i.e. use of alpha rolls), and bond-based (i.e. sharing food, co-sleeping). For a review/explanation of the first three categories, see “The Consequences of Consequences“). The dog owners completed an on-line survey asking how often they used a range of training methods with their dogs. It also collected information about the dog’s behavior and temperament and about the relationship between the owner and dog. (Note: For the purposes of this essay, I am focusing primarily on the objectives and results that examined associations between training methods and the bond between dogs and their owners).

Results: All of the participants reported using methods that fell into one or more of the five training categories, in varying frequencies. When associations between the type and frequency of method used and aspects of the human-dog bond were tested, the following relationships were found:

  • Positive reinforcement (reward-based) methods: The frequent use of reward-based training (praise, petting and food treats) was positively and significantly correlated with higher scores for “closeness” with dogs, increased attachment and attention-seeking behaviors, and higher levels of activity and playfulness in the dog.
  • Punishment-based methods: The frequent use of punishment-based training (verbal reprimands, collar corrections) was significantly correlated with lower scores of “closeness”, higher scores for fear in the dog, reduced eye contact between the owner and dog, and a lower perception of the dog’s trainability.
  • Bond-based methods: About 50 percent of the participants reported that they co-slept with their dogs daily. More frequent use of bond-based training was associated with higher degrees of closeness with their dog and lower level of activity.

Conclusions: The researchers conclude that these data support an association between the use of reward-based training methods and positive outcomes for dogs and for the relationship between the dogs and their owners (higher degree of closeness and attachment). Conversely, the frequent use of punishment was associated with fearfulness and reduced eye contact in dogs, and a less close relationship.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  First and foremost, remember that important principle: 

The existence of a correlation (dogs trained daily with positive reinforcement were found to have closer relationships with their owners) does not necessarily mean that using +R caused these closer relationships (though, of course, many of us like to believe that it does). And, we could be right, of course. It is just that demonstrating an association between two things does not provide evidence of one of those things causing the other.

In the case of these data, it is equally possible that owners who have strong and loving bonds with their dogs are more likely to choose to use reward-based training methods than those who are less bonded. The results would be the same, but the underlying relationship between the two factors would be different. Similarly, the use of punishment may indeed be a causal factor in reducing the level of attachment between owners and their dogs. However, it is also possible that owners who are less attached to their dog are then more predisposed to using punishment to change behavior. (Though, as the authors also note, this sequence does not explain the higher level of fear in the dogs trained with punishment).

So, while these data provide support for the belief that reward-based training methods enhance our bonds with our dogs, we must be cautious about interpretation. As with all research, this study and the evidence that it provides adds to our increasing knowledge base about what is best for our dogs and for our relationships with them.

Happy (reward-based) Training!

Cited Study:  LaFollette MR, Rodriguez KE, Ogata N, O’Haire ME. Military veterans and their PTSD service dogs: Associations between training methods, PTSD severity, dog behavior, and the human-animal bond. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 2019; 6:23. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2019.00023


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One thought on “Reward-Based Training and Relationship

  1. It might be possible that people with compassionate relationships seek out reward-based training. Were it not for all the corroborating studies on the efficacy of science-based training as well.

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