sad dog

“Dogs really suffer when you scream or punish them, and it affects their mental health.”

As anyone who’s had a dog can attest, they are a source of immense joy and happiness. Dogs make people happier and they also make them healthier, new studies have shown. But people want dogs to behave — and lose their temper when this isn’t the case.

But even if doggies can be mischievous at times, yelling and punishment should not be the answer

Sad dog on floor
Sad Dog on floor

It’s been suggested for quite a while that negative reinforcement can pose quite a strain on dogs — yet this is still what many owners and training schools opt for. To see whether punishment really does have negative consequences on dogs’ mental health, a team of researchers recruited 92 companion dogs from three reward-based and four punishment-based training schools (also called aversive-based).

The researchers, led by biologist Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro of the Universidade do Porto in Portugal, carried out both short-term and long-term welfare assessments for dogs in both groups.

For the short-term assessments, the dogs were recorded over three training sessions, and saliva samples were gathered to analyze their cortisol levels (cortisol being well-known as an indicator of high stress). Video recordings were also made after the training sessions to allow the researchers to examine the frequency of stress-related behaviors (such as lip licks or yawns).

For the long-term assessment, dogs performed a cognitive bias task — a task that would reveal patterns of deviation in judgment, representative of the animals’ emotional states.

Assessing pessimism in animals is not a novel practice. In this case, the dogs were trained to associate a bowl on one side of a room with a sausage snack. If the bowl was on one side, it always had a treat. If it was on the other side, it never had a treat.

Both bowls were rubbed with sausage to prevent the smell from giving it off.

sad pug dog
Sad pug dog

Then, the bows were moved around the room to ambiguous locations, to see how quickly the dogs would appreciate the bowl, hoping for a treat. The quicker they’d go, the more optimistic they are. If they took their time, it mean that the dog was more pessimistic.

Sure enough, the more aversive training dogs had, the more time they took before approaching the bowl.

No yelling, please

Dogs from the aversive-based schools exhibited more stress-related behavior and exhibited an overall lower mood than their counterparts — which was also indicated by their high cortisol levels.

In the long term, dogs who were yelled at or punished during training were also more pessimistic.

“Our results show that companion dogs trained using aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare as compared to companion dogs trained using reward-based methods, at both the short- and the long-term level,” the researchers write in the new paper, which was published on the pre-print server bioRxiv.

“Specifically, dogs attending schools using aversive-based methods displayed more stress-related behaviours and body postures during training, higher elevations in cortisol levels after training, and were more ‘pessimistic’ in a cognitive bias task.”

These findings indicate that the use of aversive-based methods threatens the emotional wellbeing of dogs both short-term and long term.

By contrast, the reward-based training schools seemed to cause no major shift in behavior — so it’s not training dogs that affects them, it’s the punishment-based training.

It’s not the first time something like this has been suggested. A 2017 literature review of studies reported a similar effect, but noted that most studies are based on surveys (not objective measurements) and are mostly focused on police and laboratory dogs.

Now, this study expands the findings to a range of companion dogs. The bottom line — training or no training, dogs shouldn’t be yelled at or punished, they should be loved and cherish (this was not a part of the study, but it goes without saying).