Protecting Accident Victims Since 1983

Dog attacks have been
on the rise and it may the owners who need to go back to school. A new study
published in Risk Analysis: An International Journal investigated
what leads dog owners to train their pets using positive reinforcement methods.

Positive reinforcement
training methods are considered to be the most effective and humane approach to
training dogs but many owners fail to effectively implement
the technique.

According to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 4.7 million Americans
are bitten by a dog each year and, in 2018, there were 36 dog-bite fatalities.
Despite the legal liabilities and possible euthanization, many dog ownershave not learned how to
effectively manage their dog’s aggressive behavior.

This study found that
perceived effectiveness of positive reinforcement and the owners’ level of
confidence in their abilities were key factors in the use of such techniques.
The researchers—Emma J. Williams and Emily Blackwell, University of Bristol,
United Kingdom—also explored the potential role of psychological factors such
as the owner’s emotional state, social influence, and
cognitive biases on the use of positive reinforcement.

The study was designed
to test a social science theory called Protection Motivation Theory that
suggests focusing attention on owners’ appraisal of the threat of dogs’ bad
behaviors as well as owners’ appraisal of the potential efficacy of positive
reinforcement. Participants were recruited using an online survey panel and a
total of 630 individuals completed the questionnaire.

Perceived confidence
(i.e., self-efficacy) in using different reinforcement techniques, including
positive reinforcement,
when in the home and when in public appear to be the two most influential
factors underlying how owners choose to manage their dog’s behavior, followed
closely by the perceived severity of the behavior (i.e., threat). However, many
respondents noted feeling stress and anxiety when their dog behaved badly and
reported that this reduced their confidence in their ability to effectively
manage their dog’s behavior.

Behaviors that owners
struggle with might include stiff posture with hackles raised and intense
staring, barking, growling, snarling, lunging, snapping, nipping, and/or
biting.

The role of
self-efficacy suggests that it is not enough to simply tell owners what
techniques to use and how to use them. Instead, owners need help feeling that
they are able to use the techniques, especially when their dog is acting
aggressively.

“This research
suggests that people are likely to need practical support when learning to use
positive methods. This support should both demonstrate the effectiveness of
reward-based training and provide an opportunity for people to practice skills
under expert guidance, so that they really feel confident in using the
techniques when they encounter challenging scenarios,” states Williams.
“Importantly, this research also highlights the emotional impact that
attempting to manage a reactive dog can have. It is important for owners, and
the practitioners helping them, to consider how they can best manage their own
well-being and reactions, as well as those of the dog, when navigating their
training journey.”

Future interventions
should focus on increasing owner confidence in the effective implementation of
these methods across multiple scenarios, as well as helping owners manage their
own emotional responses to a challenging situation. Providing owners both the
space and time to practice techniques in diverse environments is likely to
assist with developing confidence.

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