The pawfect storm

Study finds high levels of problem behaviours and use of aversive training methods in pandemic puppies.

The average number of owner-reported problem behaviours among ‘pandemic puppies’ was five, with problem behaviours more likely in owners using aversive training techniques, says the Royal Veterinary College.

Four in five (82%) ‘pandemic puppy’ owners have reported using aversive training methods in attempts to address their dog’s problem behaviours, according to a new study by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). However, this rise in negative reinforcement/positive punishment (e.g., owners shouting at their dog or using training equipment that is unpleasant for dogs, rather than using reward-based methods such as praise and treats) not only negatively impacts animal welfare, but is often poorly effective, and in some cases, can even result in new problem behaviours in dogs due to the fear and anxiety it can cause.

This study – funded by Battersea and part of the ongoing RVC Pandemic Puppies project that follows a cohort of puppies purchased during the covid pandemic in 2020 under the age of 16 weeks from breeders in the UK – sought to identify risk factors linked to four areas. These included owner-reported problem behaviours, use of training methods, expectations vs realities of behaviour and training, and seeking professional advice for behaviour and training of these puppies as they hit 21 months. This is a pivotal age when problem behaviours increase the risk of owners deciding to rehome or euthanise their dogs due to these issues.

More than 1,000 UK owners were asked to identify problem behaviours they saw in their young dogs. The list of 24 behaviours that owners considered as problems ranged from control behaviours (e.g., pulling on their lead) and attention-seeking behaviours (e.g., jumping up, clinginess) to aggressive behaviours (e.g., towards other dogs, people and guarding food), and fear/avoidance behaviours (e.g., anxiety/fear around other dogs, people, loud noises) and more.

Almost all (97%) owners reported their dog displayed at least one problem behaviour from the list. The average number of owner-reported problem behaviours at 21 months was five, while 20% of owners reported eight or more. The three most common behaviours that owners considered a problem were pulling on the lead (67%), jumping up at people (57%) and not coming back when called (52%).

When the behaviours were grouped, the most frequent behavioural problems were control behaviours (84%), attention-seeking (77%), fear/avoidance behaviours (41%) and aggressive behaviours (25%).

When asked about the dog training methods they used in the first 21 months of ownership, 96% of owners reported verbally praising their dogs as a training method. However, 80% also reported using one or more aversive methods/aids – with 39% of participants admitting to using two or more aversive training aids.

The most commonly used aversive training method/aid was physically moving the dog (e.g., pushing them off if they jump up at a person or on furniture) (44%), followed by shouting at them/telling them off (41%) and leash corrections (e.g., yanking their lead if they pull) (40%). Other methods reported included the use of a range of aversive training equipment including rattle bottles/cans/discs, water pistols/spray bottles, choke chains and more.

Owners were less likely to use aversive training techniques if they had attended online puppy classes with their dog (while they were under 16 weeks) during the pandemic, demonstrating the value of educating owners in humane training techniques at an early stage of ownership.

Dr Rowena Packer, Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science at the RVC, and lead author of the study, said “Problem behaviours in dogs are a major welfare challenge, not just for affected dogs but also for their caregivers, causing stress and lifestyle changes for many owners. Our findings indicate that problem behaviours are extremely common in Pandemic Puppies, and in many cases, are potentially being exacerbated by owners using punishment-based training techniques.

“Although we understand these problem behaviours can be very frustrating for owners, they are often a sign a dog is struggling to cope or that they haven’t been taught an appropriate response in a situation, rather than dogs intentionally behaving ‘badly’. Punishing problem behaviours can lead to dogs becoming anxious and fearful, going on to develop further problem behaviours, including aggression.

“Gaining a deeper understanding of the risk factors for problem behaviour development is important in helping us provide effective advice to owners. A key piece of guidance arising from our study is that attending puppy classes is a vital way to support owners in using the best training techniques available. We appreciate many pandemic puppy owners missed these opportunities due to lockdown restrictions, but thankfully, there are also many science-based behaviour professionals available running adult classes and consultations who can support owners and dogs using effective, humane training techniques, who we would encourage all owners troubled by their dog’s behaviour to reach out to.”

Robert Bays, Battersea’s Senior Animal Behaviour Manager, said “At Battersea we have seen a significant increase in the number of dogs coming to our centres with certain behavioural issues, such as separation anxiety, which can often be linked to the pandemic and the training challenges this unusual time presented. Without the right kind of positive training and support, a small behaviour problem in a puppy or dog can quickly escalate into a serious issue, so we are deeply concerned by this study’s findings that so many owners are using aversive training methods. This approach can often cause further behavioural problems in adulthood and lead to suppression of behaviour, not to mention significantly damage the relationship between pet and owner, which can be challenging to overcome in the future.

“We believe that this new research from the RVC, supported by a grant from Battersea, will really help provide the animal welfare sector with a greater understanding of the behavioural needs of a whole generation of dogs, and in turn, the needs of their owners, so that we can offer the appropriate support and training advice they need.”

As a wider longitudinal study, later timepoints in this cohort of dogs’ lives will continue to be investigated for the same and broader outcomes in the future, including the potential impact on these puppies’ later adult-dog behaviour, their health, and their bond with their owners (including relinquishment).

1 comment

Feb 05, 2024
Laura J Boswell

It’s discouraging to me as an animal care provider that these are the methods most used in daycare and boarding situations. I feel that it is a disservice to our clients but am in a minority in my frustration..

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