BY LINDSAY POLLARD-POST
Despite health experts’ warnings that raising one’s voice can increase the likelihood of spreading the coronavirus, yelling seems to have become the new norm of communication for many in this year of heightened stress and shortened tempers. But even if you’re wearing a mask and standing 6 feet away, there’s someone you should never shout at: your dog.
A study by researchers from Portugal’s Universidade do Porto found that aversive training methods, such as yelling or leash-jerking, can have serious long-term negative effects on dogs’ mental health. It’s a message we all should take to heart, especially since so many people have added a canine companion to their family this year.
The study, which compared dogs from training schools that used either aversive or positive methods, found that “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.”
Similarly, shock collars — which deliver painful jolts to dogs’ necks for crossing invisible boundaries, for simply using their voices or for other random “transgressions” — can cause anxiety and displaced aggression, as well as serious injuries ranging from burns to cardiac fibrillation. Choke and prong collars can injure dogs’ trachea or esophagus or damage their sensitive skin. And locking dogs up like prisoners in their own homes (aka “crating”) can cause separation anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, fearfulness and other problems — while prolonging and complicating housetraining.
Painful punishments can also shatter the trust between dogs and their guardians. As animal behaviorist Karen Overall explains in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, “Such tools ‘work’ by engendering fear, pain, and distrust, and in doing so they cause long-term damage.”
These findings should come as no surprise. Being screamed at, yanked around, shocked or locked up are stressful and traumatic for anyone. Dogs who are trying to learn the strange “do’s” and “don’ts” of living with a different species aren’t deliberately misbehaving — they’re simply engaging in their natural behavior. They don’t deserve to be punished for not understanding or complying with human whims and expectations.
Most experts agree that positive reinforcement is not only more humane but also a more effective training method. In other words, kindness is a better teacher (a lesson we might apply to our interactions with fellow humans, too).
Helping dogs — particularly energetic puppies — adjust to life in a new home calls for patience and positive reinforcement, never punishment. Set dogs up for success by sticking to a regular schedule for mealtimes, “bathroom” breaks (at least every two hours for puppies and at least four times a day for adults), walks and playtime.
Daily exercise and mental stimulation are vital to dogs’ health and happiness, so let them set their own pace on walks and sniff the roses as long as they’d like. Use a comfortable nylon harness or a front-clip harness to gently reduce pulling if needed.
Engage dogs with games of fetch and let them cut loose at the dog park. Provide plenty of appropriate chew toys so they don’t have to resort to chewing on your shoes or couch. Pleasantly tired pups are much less likely to be destructive or bark excessively. (Think of how you feel after a good workout — happy, calm and perhaps ready for a nap!)
Reinforce desired behavior with rewards — treats, petting, play and praise (whatever your dog likes the most). Not only will you have a happy, confident dog; you’ll also have a much stronger bond with your canine family member. And that’s something worth shouting about. Well, maybe after the pandemic is over.
Lindsay Pollard-Post is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; PETA.org.