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Yelling!!! Does It Work?

By Barb Levenson

Soft voice vs. loud commands ... which works better with our dogs? Are you shouting commands or "asking" your dog for behaviors? In a beginner rally class one night I had an opportunity to show this to some of my students. One of the dogs, an adolescent lab, was somewhat anxious during class. I noticed that the owner (a very receptive student I might add) was "barking" commands to the pup. When I inquired he told me his son also barked and did it even louder. My response to this was to immediately take all the dogs out on the floor and ask the owners to WHISPER their signals to the dogs. The impact was amazing! All the dogs were calmer, quieter and paying better attention to their handlers. The eye contact from the young lab was amazing! She was so focused on her owner. Think about this for yourself. How do you feel when your boss yells at you and tells you to do things in a loud, COMMANDING voice? I've had that boss and I lived from 8 am to 4 pm in a state of high stress and anxiety. But let's take that same boss and now he comes over in a calm, low, non-threatening voice and ASKS you to do something... Which will have the best response from you? Of course, the soft asking voice. Our dogs are no different. They respond better to calm, soft cues. Loud, threatening voices make them anxious. It is harder for them to work with that anxiety -- no different than humans, right?? Let's look at some studies and you can draw your own conclusions.

Yelling!!! And Children
There is a lot of information about the effect a loud voice has on our dogs. Before we look at our dogs, however, I would like to set the stage with a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh(i). The study concluded that the use of harsh verbal discipline may actually aggravate problematic behavior such as aggressive behavior even in adolescents. In this study the researchers also found that the effects of verbal discipline were comparable to the effects of physical discipline.

The authors also showed that harsh verbal discipline occurred more frequently when the child exhibited the problem behaviors AND these same problem behaviors were actually more likely to continue when the children received verbal discipline. The effect of the verbal discipline was either zero change or it increased the problem behaviors!! This is the same results I see with my students who yell and "correct" their dogs.

Yelling!!! And Our Dogs
Similar results for dogs were found in a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and published in The Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour(ii). The researchers concluded "If you're aggressive to your dog, your dog will be aggressive too." According to Meghan Herron, DVM, the study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods do little to correct the improper or inappropriate behavior. Furthermore, these methods can actually elicit aggressive behaviors. The frequently used "NO!" was shown to produce aggression in 15% of the dogs studied.

Karen Overall, MA, PhD, DVM is one of the most highly regarded behaviorists in the country. In her recently published Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats(iii) puts this into a perspective for our dogs. I believe Overall's conclusions are vital information for those of us competing in dog sports such as obedience, rally and agility.

According to Overall, operant conditioning or the basis for most positive reinforcement training, has taught us behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated. And Overall believes "the most valuable reward for our dogs is good information. In Box 1 Overall indicates Types of Rewards. Please note, yelling is not included as either information or a reward.

Types of Rewards:

  • Food
  • Touch
  • Praise
  • Play
  • Attention
  • Social access
  • Chewing or access to special chew toy
  • Avoidance of discomfort

In addition, it is vitally important for handlers of dogs competing in obedience, agility and rally to understand learning theory particularly the best way to deliver the information. Overall goes on. Learning by definition is the acquisition of information or behavior through exposure and repetition. With that in mind reinforcement is the catalyst to effective learning. For the purpose of this article I will deal only with positive reinforcement which "encourages desirable behaviors because it marks and identifies the preferred behavior…coupling it with a reward." (Note: Negative reinforcement is NOT punishment and will be discussed in future articles.)

Why does positive reinforcement work for our dogs? Simply put, "the repeated reinforcement insures better, more numerous and more efficient connections between the neurons in the brain." And the rewards that are of particularly high value for the survival of the species, such as food, will have a much higher value to our dogs. Food is much higher value than praise or play upon which survival DOES NOT HINGE.

So why be concerned about yelling? As long as one reinforces won't everything be OK? The answer is an unequivocal and LOUD (I'M YELLING!!!) NO!! Aversive stimuli interfere with learning at the cellular level.

Dogs trying to learn skills for agility, obedience or rally become stressed, upset and fearful when we yell at them. As the Penn study showed, even "NO" can evoke enough fear that the dog may become defensive, aggressive and even fight back. According to a 2009 study by DeQuervain(iv) fear and anxiety, (by-products of yelling at the dog) will adversely affect our training program. Learning tasks such as heeling, retrieving or rally exercises are enhanced when stress, fear and distress are mitigated. I believe that statement is particularly relevant to dogs still being trained with aversives such as choke and pinch collars in obedience.

The data from the 2009 study suggests that our training programs should not rely on aversives or fear; and that includes yelling at the dog. If it doesn't stop inappropriate and incorrect behaviors in our children it certainly WILL NOT do so in our dogs.

Yelling – Not
What then can we do about the inappropriate or incorrect behavior in our dogs? Here are some suggestions:

  • PREVENT: This includes management – crates, exercise pens and especially leashes.
  • KNOW YOUR CRITERIA: What do you WANT the dog to do? Break the behavior down into small bite- size pieces and train using operant conditioning. Karen Pryor's first Law of Shaping is "Raise criteria in increments small enough so that the subject always has a realistic chance of reinforcement." This is good advice.
  • TEACH ONE THING AT A TIME: Another suggestion by Karen is, "Train one aspect of any particular behavior at a time. Don't try to shape for two criteria simultaneously." I watch people try to train several criteria at one time. Susan Garrett calls this "lumping" and suggests we become "splitters."
  • Use a soft gentle voice with your dog. It has a calming effect on the dog and will enhance learning.
  • BECOME A DOGGY EXPERT: I believe the most important thing I can do for my dog is become a better handler/teacher. Taking the time to advance your doggy education through reading good books, attending seminars and classes with the best in the business is crucial if we want to bring out the best in ourselves and our dogs. So many people are training the exact same way they did in the 80's and 90's. Our knowledge and understanding of dog training has grown by leaps and bounds. And the only detriment to becoming a better trainer is our energy and creativity.

A Final Thought
My friend, Jane is a therapist and her favorite saying is, "Nothing changes if nothing changes." This very simple statement sums it all up. The research shows that yelling and aversives do more damage than good. It's up to us as teachers and trainers to change our thinking and behavior to enhance our relationship and training of our dog. If we don't, well…. nothing changes. It behooves us to become advocates for change and the betterment of our dogs. Let's start today!

For more information, call your local Giant Eagle pharmacy or visit www.gianteagle.com.

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