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Dog owners need positive reinforcement, too

Confidence and education affect how discipline is administered to misbehaving pets

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Clinical animal behaviourists should strive to help dog owners feel confident in their behaviour modification techniques, research shows.
Clinical animal behaviourists should strive to help dog owners feel confident in their behaviour modification techniques, research shows.

Clinical animal behaviourists should practice patience when coaching owners on how to correct aggressive behaviour in dogs, according to new research out of the University of Bristol.

The study, which looks at factors that influence how owners correct aggressive behaviours in their pets, found the effectiveness of behaviour modification techniques recommended by animal experts largely depends on an owner’s confidence to apply the methods successfully, as well as their certainty the system works.

“Our findings highlight the need for behaviourists to offer practical support to owners, to demonstrate the effectiveness of reward-based training, and to provide them with an opportunity to practice under expert guidance so they feel confident in their ability to use the techniques before attempting to apply them independently,” says Emily Blackwell, PhD, B.Sc., FHEA, director of companion animal population health at the Bristol Veterinary School.

The study’s goal was to determine what influences a dog owner’s decision to use punishment-based methods instead of positive reinforcement-based behaviour modification techniques to curb aggression. Specifically, researchers wanted to explore whether theoretical models and psychological concepts used in other contexts could help them understand this issue.

Further, the research identified the potential for extreme negative emotional responses and feelings of failure experienced by owners in situations where their dog reacts aggressively toward people or other dogs.

“The study also shows the emotional impact attempting to manage a reactive dog can have, with its associated ups and downs,” Dr. Blackwell adds. “It is therefore important for practitioners to consider the well-being of the owner as well as the dog, including the potential implications of this, when helping them along their journey.”

The study, researchers say, provides a foundation for future studies exploring the influence of different psychological factors on a person’s decision to use positive reinforcement techniques to manage aggressive behaviour.

“The majority of research on companion animal behaviour has focused on the behaviour of the animal itself, rather than the behaviour of the owner,” says Emma Williams, PhD, B.Sc., vice-chancellor fellow in digital innovation and well-being at the university’s School of Psychological Science. “We believe this is the first time psychological theories exploring how people respond to threatening situations, such as protection motivation theory, have been applied to understand people’s interactions with their pets.”

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