Do confrontational dog training methods work? Is that really the point?

You roll him. I'll watch.


A few months ago the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science published an article titled Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors". Two of the researchers participated in the research regarding children and dog bites that I wrote about earlier, so I decided to plunk down my $31.50 and read it for myself.

Similar to the research on canine aggression directed toward children, the researchers had access to people seeking helping from a veterinary behavioral service. This time, rather than examining records, surveys were distributed to families requesting information about the methods that had been used prior to common to the veterinarian and whether they had a positive, negative, or no, effect on the dog's behavior. The survey also asked whether aggressive behavior was seen in association with the particular method. One hundred forty surveys were completed in one year's time.

In analyzing methods the researchers broke them down into four broad areas: direct confrontation, indirect confrontation, reward-based training, and neutral.

The takeaway from the research has been discussed in quite a few places already on the Internet; confrontational behavior modification techniques can result in aggressive responses from dogs. The specifics however, had some very interesting points.

  • Sixty of the participants reported trying to use "alpha rolls" or "dominance downs." Eighteen of them - that's 30% - said that the technique resulted in an aggressive response.
  • Twenty-eight of the participants reported hitting or kicking their dogs. Twelve of them reported an aggressive response. That's 43%!
  • Twenty-seven participants used scruff shakes or grabbed their dog's jowls. 26% reported an aggressive reaction.
  • Fifty-three used a "stare-down," sixteen of which (30%) reported an aggressive response.
  • Fifty-one used a spray bottle. Ten of them reported an aggressive response. (That's 20%).

Needless to say, some commonly used aversive methods come with a bit of risk.

Now, compare those numbers to these:

  • One hundred twenty-four reported using food rewards. Two reported an aggressive response.
  • One hundred and one reported trying increased exercise. None reported an aggressive response.
  • One hundred and one reported having their dog sit for all desired items and activities. Two reported an aggressive response.

As you might expect, non-confrontational methods infrequently elicit aggressive responses.

But here's the real rub: the survey also asked families about the success rates for various techniques. I don't want to regurgitate too much more of the paper, as it risks violating the publisher's rights, but here are some quick numbers:

  • Alpha Roll: 44% effective, 25% negative, 31% no effect
  • Dominance Down: 48% effective, 24% negative, 28% no effect
  • "Sit for everything" 85% effective, 1% negative, 14% no effect
  • Increased Exercise: 69% effective, 1% negative, 30% no effect

The reported 44% - 48% success rate with alpha rolls/dominance downs is rather interesting. Going from no training at all to any training, regardless of the techniques and the degree of skill and consistency, is going to lead to some improvement. Be careful when you dismiss methods that you dislike or even those that are outright inhumane: even an unprogrammed VCR is right twice a day.

Of course, this is a small sample and the observations are those of "average pet owners" but all things being equal, the word from the trenches is that non-confrontational methods are not just more effective but also less risky.

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