Improving Service Dog Training Methods

Research Paper Title

Improving dog training methods: Efficacy and efficiency of reward and mixed training methods.

Background

Dogs play an important role in our society as companions and work partners, and proper training of these dogs is pivotal.

For companion dogs, training helps preventing or managing dog behavioural problems – the most frequently cited reason for relinquishing and euthanasia, and it promotes successful dog-human relationships and thus maximises benefits humans derive from bonding with dogs.

For working dogs, training is crucial for them to successfully accomplish their jobs. Dog training methods range widely from those using predominantly aversive stimuli (aversive methods), to those combining aversive and rewarding stimuli (mixed methods) and those focusing on the use of rewards (reward methods).

The use of aversive stimuli in training is highly controversial and several veterinary and animal protection organisations have recommended a ban on pinch collars, e-collars and other techniques that induce fear or pain in dogs, on the grounds that such methods compromise dog welfare. At the same time, training methods based on the use of rewards are claimed to be more humane and equally or more effective than aversive or mixed methods.

This important discussion, however, has not always been based in solid scientific evidence. Although there is growing scientific evidence that training with aversive stimuli has a negative impact on dog welfare, the scientific literature on the efficacy and efficiency of the different methodologies is scarce and inconsistent. Hence, the goal of the current study is to investigate the efficacy and efficiency of different dog training methods.

To that end, the researchers will apply different dog training methods in a population of working dogs and evaluate the outcome after a period of training. The use of working dogs will allow for a rigorous experimental design and control, with randomisation of treatments.

Military (n = 10) and police (n = 20) dogs will be pseudo-randomly allocated to two groups. One group will be trained to perform a set of tasks (food refusal, interrupted recall, dumbbell retrieval and placing items in a basket) using reward methods and the other group will be trained for the same tasks using mixed methods. Later, the dogs will perform a standardised test where they will be required to perform the trained behaviours.

The reliability of the behaviours and the time taken to learn them will be assessed in order to evaluate the efficacy and efficiency, respectively, of the different training methods. This study will be performed in collaboration with the Portuguese Army and with the Portuguese Public Security Police (PSP) and integrated with their dog training programmes.

Reference

de Castro, A.C.V., Araujo, A., Fonseca, A. & Olsson, I.A.S. (2021) Improving dog training methods: Efficacy and efficiency of reward and mixed training methods. PLoS One. 16(2):e0247321. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0247321. eCollection 2021.

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