Yelling At Your Animal Doesn’t Always Correct Bad Behavior, And Here’s Why

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Real talk here, living with an animal isn’t always easy.

No matter how much you love your dog, your cat, your Burmese python or liberated lab rat, there are bound to be days when your precious pet tests your patience. Coming home to a mangled shoe or shredded sofa cushion, you may even find yourself at wit’s end.

Take a deep breath. This may be as much a learning experience for you as it is for your mischievous companion.

A preliminary report uploaded to the pre-print server bioRxiv maintains that yelling at your pet or otherwise punishing them for bad behavior may actually have a negative effect in the long term.

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“Our results show that companion dogs trained using aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare as compared to companion dogs trained using reward-based methods, at both the short- and the long-term level,” wrote the team of researchers, led by Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro of the Universidade do Porto, in Portugal. “Specifically, dogs attending schools using aversive-based methods displayed more stress-related behaviors and body postures during training, higher elevations in cortisol levels after training, and were more ‘pessimistic’ in a cognitive bias task.”

The study involved a population of 92 dogs. The dogs were split into groups of reward-based and aversive-based raining schools. Dogs in the reward-based group were given positive reinforcement for acceptable behavior. Dogs in the aversive-based group were treated with positive punishment and negative reinforcement for unacceptable behavior.

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During tests, dogs were video recorded. Their saliva samples were collected both before and after the tests.

“Video recordings were then used to examine the frequency of stress-related behaviors (e.g., lip lick, yawn) and the overall behavioral state of the dog (e.g., tense, relaxed), and saliva samples were analyzed for cortisol concentration,” the researchers wrote. “For the long-term welfare assessment, dogs performed a cognitive bias task. Dogs from Group Aversive displayed more stress-related behaviors, spent more time in tense and low behavioral states and more time panting during the training sessions, showed higher elevations in cortisol levels after training and were more ‘pessimistic’ in the cognitive bias task than dogs from Group Reward.”

The dogs were reassessed a month after the initial battery of tests.

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“79 of them were then trained to associate a bowl on one side of a room with a sausage snack,” Science Alert reports. “If the bowl was on that side, it always held a delicious treat; if located on the other side, the bowl never had the treat. Then, the researchers moved the bowls around the room to ambiguous locations to see how quickly the dogs would approach in search of the treat. Higher speed was interpreted to mean the dog was anticipating a mouthful of deliciousness, whereas a slower speed meant the dog was more pessimistic about the bowl’s contents.”

Dogs from the aversive-based training group approached the bowl more slowly than their less cynical counterparts from the reward-based group. Coincidentally, the dogs from the reward-based group figured out the trick faster than the others.


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The results of this study may prove that positive reinforcement for good behavior is a stronger ward against bad behavior than punishment after the fact.

“Critically,” the researchers said, “our study points to the fact that the welfare of companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods appears to be at risk.”

The study is currently awaiting a peer review, after which it may be officially published in a scientific journal.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.
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