Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How Negative Reinforcement Dog Training is Detrimental For People with Mental Illness

Trigger Warning: This post contains descriptions of what may be considered by some people to be violence to an animal and a description of what the experience of PTSD is like, which both may trigger PTSD or traumatic memories. 

Most of us have heard that in order to train a dog, the "owner" needs to be the dominant one, "leader of the pack." Most trainers use negative reinforcement (causing discomfort to the dog to get it to do what you want) and insist that it does not hurt the dog, it just shows who is in charge. This means you yank on the dog, may use shock collars, yell "no!," use choke collars, some pushing or even swatting, and electric fences. Most dogs I know are trained this way and it is a decision that the owner needs to make as to what training method they want to use. There are articles and books all over the place that argue the benefits or disadvantages of both negative reinforcement training and positive reinforcement training. (Positive reinforcement is rewarding for good behavior.) Feel free to look them up and make your own decision. I am not a dog trainer so will not claim to know what is best for the dog. (I will say that I will never use anything other than positive reinforcement clicker training with my dogs as I do know dogs who have become more aggressive using the other methods.) I will give you advice though for what I think is best for a person with mental illness who is a dog owner and/or a possible Psychiatric Service Dog handler.
Positive Reinforcement Materials

I do not believe negative reinforcemnt training is appropriate for dog handlers who have mental illness. Many of us with mental illness have trauma in our backgrounds and training a dog with negative reinforcment means using methods that, even if you argue are safe for the dog and they like it, is still technically hurting another living being. Asking us to do this is extremely traumatic, whether or not people say it is "proven" that it really does not hurt the dog. For those who have expereinced trauma, even what other people consider "moderate violence" is a trigger for us. For instance, I can not watch slapstick humor like The Three Stooges. Other people find that funny, but I find it so upsetting that I can't even look at it and it triggers a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder response. This is what can happen to us if we are asked to use negative reinforcment with our dogs. Let me give you an example.

I went to a dog store and Rosie is still learning to be calm when greeting other dogs. When she saw the owners dogs, she immediately started jumping around, bowing to the other dog to say she wanted to play, barking, and pulling on her leash. The well meaning owner, wanting to help me, took the leash from me and told me I had to be forceful to train her. So he yanked on Rosie's leash, yelling no,  which yanked Rosie up into the air dangling from her leash with her front feet off the ground. Her ears went back, her tail went between her legs, and she was scared. She stopped barking and playing, and the person was explaining that this was showing Rosie how she was supposed to act. He pulled, yelled at, and yanked on my dog until I got what I needed and left. At one point he even put the leash in my hand with his hand over mine and yanked on her leash to get Rosie to know that I was in charge. He was very nice and helpful and to him, and most trainers and owners, he was doing the right thing. He was NOT trying to be mean or hurt my dog.

However, to see Rosie dangling in the air by her back (fortunately not her neck because we use a halter rather than attach the leash to her collar,) was extremely traumatic for me. I was shaking the whole time, felt sick, and was scared. I could not speak up for myself to even ask him not to handle Rosie. Not only did it make Rosie scared of him, but I was scared of him as well.

When we got into the car I could not drive because I was crying so hard. Not only could I not get the scared look and body language of Rosie out of my mind, but I felt disgusted that he had shown Rosie that I would yank on her and hurt her by putting the leash in my hand and making me pull on it. I was a wreck and my son was scared seeing Rosie handled aggressively.

For me, this was hurting another living being who is trusting me for their care, who clearly was scared and hurt by what was happening to her. I looked into her face and saw fear and was so immobilized with fear myself that I let it happen to her. There is no describing not only how terrible it is to watch pain being inflicted on someone else in order to control them, but to also be part of that process. Every time I think about that event, I see my son afraid and the picture of Rosie's fear and pain over and over in my head.

Due to the trauma background of many people with mental illness, I do not advise negative reinforcement training. Even without trauma, we tend to be more sensitive to feelings and aggression than other people and it is really not safe for us to interact with our dogs in this way.

So what kind of training do I recommend? Positive reinforcement such as clicker training where you capture good behavior and reward for that. To see the difference between negative and positive reinforcement, check out this video by Kikopup. (Don't be misled by the title.) She has great training videos for any issue you have.

Rev. Katie


  1. Most of us who have championed positive methods of dog training are up in arms about Cesar Milan's fame and continued use of the term “dominance” and its justification for physical corrections in dog training.

  2. However, when we are standing or sitting in a chair and they come bounding over to greet us, jumping up on us and trying to reach our face, we must not bend over and exchange hugs and kisses. If we do we are training and rewarding the puppy for jumping up.

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