(LIFE WITH PETS) Put down the choke chain, and bust out the doggy biscuits. The University of Pennsylvania has linked aggressive training methods used by dog guardians to canine behavioral problems. Guardians who use confrontational, punishment-based techniques received more aggressive responses from their pooches than guardians who used positive-reinforcement training methods. Punishing Fido may instill fear in your furry friend, and the number one reason for dog aggression toward humans is fear. Read on for more on this enlightening new study and the methods that may harm man’s best friend. — Global Animal

Medill Reports, Sheila Dichoso

Is Fido being aggressive? Don’t blame the dog – you might have to blame yourself.

University of Pennsylvania veterinary researchers found that pet owners who used aggressive methods to treat their dogs’ behavior problems may be aggravating the problem instead of alleviating it.

The new study, published in the February issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, found that pet owners using confrontational, punishment-based techniques on their dogs were getting more aggressive responses from their dogs compared to owners who used positive-reinforcement techniques.

“By far the most common behavior problem we treat in dogs is aggression,” said veterinarian Meghan Herron, lead author of the study.

Although many veterinarians and dog trainers may not find the results surprising, the public is largely unaware of the ramifications of using confrontational training methods.

Herron said it was interesting that several confrontational methods, such as the “alpha roll” and hitting or yelling “no” at their dogs, elicited an aggressive response in more than a quarter of the dogs, according to the pet owners that were surveyed.

The alpha roll is a training technique in which the dog flips over on its back and is held in that position, usually by the throat. This has been traditionally thought to teach the dog that the trainer is the pack leader, or “alpha dog.” Herron said this aggressive technique, along with growling at the dog, staring down the dog or forcing the release of an item in a dog’s mouth by putting pressure on their gums with fingers are more likely to have the adverse effect them, or may not even help them at all.

Most of these confrontational or punishment-based methods are fear-eliciting, and the primary motivating factor for dog aggression to humans is fear, Herron said.

“[Confrontational and punishment techniques] may mask the aggression, but it doesn’t change the way the dog perceives what it is aggressing towards,” added Rendy Schwartz, owner and head dog trainer at Anything Is Pawsible in Noble Square.

Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia collected 140 surveys with dog owners who made appointments at the school. It asked how they previously treated their dog’s aggression, what kind of response they received back and where they learned the training technique. It was done over a one year period and analyzed dogs that displayed all types of aggression, including separation anxiety and thunderstorm fear. They also found that dogs who exhibited aggression toward strangers were more likely to respond aggressively to the “alpha roll.”

Another possible way dogs can develop aggressive behavior is through games, such as tug-of-war.

“Tug-of-war is a great energy outlet for many dogs when played correctly,” Herron said. But when not played correctly, it can elicit aggressive behavior.

“Any contact with the dog’s mouth on people’s hands instantly ends the game,” she said. “When the game is over, the toy should be put away and tug should not be played with any other item in the household. This keeps the game very structured and prevents tug-eliciting behavior with other items, such as bedding or clothing.”

“We encourage owners not to engage in any rough play that involves hands, feet or other body parts, but rather to engage in play and exercise in a more structured fashion,” Herron said.

Schwartz likened treating dogs to how a parent would treat their children. “If you lead a child with a heavy hand, or through force, you can see these children act out in aggressive ways as well,” she said.

Herron recommends using positive reinforcement techniques, such using food. She also suggested owners should be calm, predictable and consistent when training their dog.

The study’s goal was to see if confrontational training methods led to aggressive responses compared with other training methods.

But preventing aggression in dogs is a lot easier than treating it. While most dogs have the capacity to rehabilitate, “it takes time and massive amounts of dedication and vigilance to help severe cases,” Schwartz said.

Herron said she hopes the study emphasizes the fact that using confrontational-based techniques will increase the risk of harm to dog owners and dogs, that are in turn relinquished or euthanized as a result.