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Reward-Based Training More Effective and Humane Than Aversive Training

By Lee Pickett- Q: I mentioned to a friend that I am sending Bert, our new dog who is wild and undisciplined, to a training school to learn to settle down and mind his manners. My friend responded that this trainer uses shock collars to train dogs, which she feels is inhumane. What’s your opinion?

A: The preponderance of research evidence says your friend is correct. For example, a recent study evaluated positive and negative training methods on the short- and long-term welfare of pet dogs.

Reward-based training with treats and play was compared with aversive training, e.g., yelling, jerking the leash and physically manipulating the dog. The shock collar and other forms of punishment obviously belong in the aversive category.

In the study, 42 dogs enrolled in three dog training schools that use reward-based training, and 50 dogs enrolled in four schools that employ aversive training methods.

Short-term assessment involved videotaping three training sessions to determine whether the dog was mostly relaxed or tense and to identify stress-related behaviors, including turning or moving away, crouching, panting, salivating, licking the lips and yawning. For each dog, six saliva samples were analyzed for the stress hormone cortisol — three at home, to establish a baseline, and three after training sessions.

Long-term assessment was performed a month after training by teaching the dog to find a sausage in a bowl and then moving empty and sausage-containing bowls around the room and asking the dog to find the sausage. Rapid searching for the sausage signals optimism and self-confidence, while searching slowly indicates pessimism.

Dogs taught using reward-based training moved faster and actually learned more quickly to find the bowl with the sausage. The dogs trained using positive methods also exhibited less tension and significantly fewer stress-related behaviors than the dogs trained using aversive methods. Moreover, cortisol levels of reward-trained dogs remained the same whether at home or school, whereas cortisol levels in aversive-trained dogs increased during training.
Other studies have documented increased fear and aggression in dogs trained using aversive methods.

So my advice is to train Bert yourself at a dog training school that uses only positive methods. It will help him bond to you and reinforce his desire to please you.

Q: My veterinarian doesn’t offer Lyme vaccination for my cats, who spend more time outside than my dogs. Is a vaccine available for felines?
A: A vaccine to prevent Lyme disease in cats is not available because it’s not clear that cats actually get the disease.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria called Borrelia, which are carried by Ixodes ticks, including deer ticks, black-legged ticks, western black-legged ticks and bear ticks.

The larval stage of the tick acquires the bacteria when it bites an infected small mammal, bird or lizard. The larval tick transforms into a nymph, which takes a blood meal from a small animal, dog or human, infecting the host and then molting into an adult tick.

The adult takes a blood meal from a large mammal like a deer, human or dog, again infecting the host. Adult Ixodes ticks mate on deer and continue the life cycle.

In areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, half the Ixodes nymphs and adults carry Borrelia bacteria. After the tick feeds for 36 to 48 hours, some of the bacteria leave the tick and enter the host.

Dogs infected with Borrelia bacteria form antibodies to them. Some infected dogs also develop arthritis and kidney damage, though not all do.
In cats, Borrelia bacteria induce antibody formation but don’t cause clinical signs typical of Lyme disease, even after cats are infected twice.

Although cats are remarkably resistant to Lyme disease, they still need protection from ticks, which carry other serious diseases. Fortunately, veterinarians offer a variety of products that kill ticks and fleas and are safe for cats.
Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina.

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