Archive for April 27, 2010

See no evil. Read no evil. Cite no evil.

The internet hosts hundreds of articles warning you about the dangers of electronic training collars (e-collars). Ruth over at Spot Check recently summarized a few of the most often cited studies in a post on the heated rhetoric surrounding the recent ban on the use of e-collars in Wales. Her post was the inspiration for this one.

The literature is full of references to studies by Schalke et al., Schilder and van der Borg and more recently, Herron et al. whose authors warn us that e-collar training (and indeed, any use of aversives) is unpleasant, painful, frightening — and pointlessly ineffective.

If you spend some time reviewing these articles, as I recently did, you might assume that no research supporting the use of e-collars is currently available.

And you’d be wrong.

Given the widespread references /cites to studies that support the idea that e-collars are not only cruel and abusive, but that they can also elicit aggressive behavior — imagine my surprise when I came across an article providing strong evidence that e-collars were astonishingly effective in rehabilitating aggression in dogs.

Daniel F. Tortora’s study, titled “Safety Training: The Elimination of Avoidance-Motivated Aggression in Dogs,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 1983. The article is only available by purchase but is well worth $11.95 if you have an interest in this area. (Note: the article was also published in Australian Veterinary Practitioner in 1984, 14 (2), 70–74.)

Tortora took an elegantly simple approach to treating what he referred to as “avoidance-motivated aggression”. He proposed that because avoidance-motivated aggression is learned and maintained as an avoidance response, the most effective way to counter-condition it would be to teach the dogs nonaggressive avoidance responses.

Tortora defines avoidance-motivated aggression as “a form of instrumental aggression that involves attacks or threats of attack directed toward one or more of the dog’s human caretakers”. Avoidance aggression typically starts out as aggressive avoidance responses to things like physical discomfort (such as from grooming), intrusions on areas that the dog views as his territory and commands he doesn’t want to comply with. According to Tortora, these dogs usually suffer from a lack of training and predictability in their lives and therefore feel like they lack control over their environment.  They behave like they expect bad things to happen and the only way to prevent the bad things is through aggression. When their frustrated owners resort to after-the-fact punishment, the dog’s expectations are reinforced, a feedback loop is created and the dog’s aggression escalates.

Tortora’s proposed remedy for this common, dangerous and difficult to remedy form of aggression consisted of teaching the dogs “nonaggressive, prosocial habits” such as AKC’s CDX level obedience exercises. He predicted that the probability of post-training aggressive behavior would be inversely proportional to the number of obedience exercises a dog gained proficiency in. The program also included teaching the dogs a conditioned safety signal that was used to reinforce good behavior and build the dogs’ confidence.

All exercises were introduced with the slip collar, then e-collar training was overlayed onto the introductory work. The e-collars used could emit two different tones, and tones and stimulation could be delivered separately or in conjunction with each other. The dogs were trained to perform 15 different commands at increasing levels of difficulty. These included: stand, down, come, go, hold, drop, sit, off, place, fetch, in, stay, play, no, heel, and hup. As commands were mastered, they were practiced in environments of increasing distraction. The dogs were initially trained by experienced trainers (Tortora doesn’t describe their qualifications but all were apparently able to train the dogs to a minimum of CDX level around significant distractions) in a board and train environment. Once the dogs were able to consistently perform the exercises under distraction without the e-collar, training was transferred to their owners, who used the e-collar only as needed to proof exercises.

Tortora stated that the dogs could be safely returned to their owners because: “Safety training with companion dogs, however, produces changes of long duration, perhaps even permanent changes. These changes in behavior readily transfer readily from the trainer to the dog’s owners and others.”

Many people are concerned that the stress of e-collar training will make dogs fearful or aggressive. While the dogs developed an initial conditioned anticipatory fear reaction during the escape training portion of Tortora’s program, their fear was extinguished during the subsequent avoidance and proofing stages. Upon reviewing these results, Tortora stated “It seems that the impact of safety reinforcement is to make the dog less fearful generally and better able to withstand trauma.”

How effective was this work? Well, in the abstract Tortora states that the program:

… resulted in complete and permanent elimination of aggression in all of the 36 dogs tested. In addition, it produced extremely extinction-resistant prosocial avoidance responses, significant increases in the dogs’ emotional stability, an avoidance-learning and safety acquisition response set, and improvements in measures of the dogs’ “carriage.”

Take a few minutes to let that sink in. If a study demonstrated similar results for clicker or food lure training it would be cited on tens of thousands of sites across the internet. The author would be the darling of popular dog magazines and a regular presenter at dog training conferences. Heck, I bet he’d even have his own television show – and (unlike another popular television dog trainer) there wouldn’t be a torch and pitchfork mob out to lynch him.

While I understand that the literature can be (and often is) cherry-picked to support preconceived notions even in peer-reviewed studies, I am absolutely stunned by the dog world’s shunning of Tortora’s work. His article is very rarely cited in recent studies related to ecollars, aversives, dog training and aggression — and when it is, it is not unusual for him to be misquoted or taken out of context. (details on that below the break)

Given the outstanding success Tortora had in rehabilitating aggressive dogs and the fact that his article appeared in a well-known journal published by the American Psychological Association, why are studies published by Schalke, Schindler and Herron (and opinion pieces written by Pat Miller) touted as landmark studies on e-collar use while his work languishes in anonymity?

Using e-collars to train dogs is a controversial and emotionally-charged issue. This is largely because, as Steven Lindsay writes:

… the word shock is loaded with biased connotations, images of convulsive spasms and burns, and implications associated with extreme physical pain, emotional trauma, physiological collapse, and laboratory abuses.

Shock scares us. Despite the fact that electrical stimulation can now be used to relieve pain, most people simply cannot come to terms with the idea that a ‘shock’ can be used as anything but a terrifying and harshly punitive bolt from god.

Unlike those commonly in use today, early electronic training collars could only  be used in a harshly punitive way – and much of the laboratory research that has been done on shock, aversion, escape and avoidance was horrifyingly cruel. Along with the strongly negative connotations associated with the word “shock”, the ugly history of the use of shock in behavior modification studies also affects our feelings and opinions about its place in dog training.

The current literature on the use of aversives (especially electronic ones) in dog training shows a striking lack of articles that present results that call popular ideas favoring positive reinforcement only dog training into question. And unfortunately, as we recently saw in Wales, the results published in these studies are being used to further a political agenda.

There are far too many cases where great scientific advances were made based on a piece of odd, apparently anomalous or unpopular bit of work that could very easily have fallen by the wayside. Rejecting, ignoring or suppressing data and ideas that don’t fit in with popular thought is a dangerous kind of censorship. And it is crucial that we do all we can to it in a world where science has an increasingly important effect on the personal and regulatory decisions we make.

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Below the break: Links and brief summaries of recent literature related to using e-collars to train dogs, and some notes on the journals the articles are published in.

(more…)

April 27, 2010 at 10:30 am 39 comments


Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

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