During my fall semester as a second-year graduate student in the Anthrozoology program at Canisius College, I took a wonderful course entitled "Psychology of the Human-Animal Bond." As I'm sure you can imagine, I learned so much in this course that applies directly to the work I do through Heal to Howl. I wanted to share with you the paper I wrote for this class as it very interestingly compares various dog training methods with parenting styles. Be sure to let me know what you think in the comments below!
Evaluating Similarities Between Choice of Training Methods and Parenting Styles
The American Veterinary Medical Association (2012) reports there are over 43 million households with dogs in the United States. While there is debate on pinpointing the exact timeframe, the first human-dog relationships occurred thousands of years ago (Perri, 2016). This relationship was and still remains a mutualistic relationship. Payne, Bennett and McGreevy (2015) discussed how a positive human-dog relationship benefits both parties physiologically and emotionally (p. 72). Some research suggests that the human-dog relationship involves attachment bonding similar to that of human caregivers and infants, such as increased levels of urinary oxytocin after periods of mutual gazing (Nagasawa, Kikusui, Tatsushi, Onaka & Ohta, 2008). While acknowledging there are distinct differences between parent-child and human-dog relationships, it is important to determine the implications of the similarities.
Dog training is an important part in the development and maintenance of the human-dog relationship, and the utilization of different dog training methods can either positively or negatively affect the human-dog bond. Greenebaum (2010) determined that reward-based training methods as opposed to “traditional” dominance-based methods are more likely to improve the human-dog relationship for both species. Various studies have determined the negative effects of training methods that utilize positive punishment and aversive tools such as electronic shock collars and choke chains. They put dogs at risk for physical injury and also increase stress signals not only during training sessions but also just in the presence of their handlers (Overall, 2007; Brammeier et al, 2006; Schilder & van der Borg, 2004).
There is increasingly more research being done on the effectiveness and welfare implications of different dog training methods. However, one area of research that has yet to be explored is determining why dog guardians choose one training method over another and how that choice not only affects their dog but also themselves. One consideration in determining choice of training method might be human perception of human-animal relationships, which includes factors such as anthropomorphism, attachment level and belief in the animal mind (Ellingsen, Zanella, Bjerkås & Indrebø, 2010, p. 232). Guardian personality traits such as empathy may also play a role. However, more information is needed. Thus, due to the similarities in attachment bonds in the human-dog relationship and parent-child relationship, I propose that research on parenting can also provide us information on dog guardians’ choices of training methods. Recommendations for future research are also discussed.
Methods of Inquiry
Searches were conducted for peer-reviewed articles on Google Scholar and through the Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library’s online catalog using the keywords: “human animal bond,” “human dog bond,” “human dog relationship,” “parenting stress,” “parenting stress and discipline,” “parenting styles,” “parenting punishment,” “positive parenting,” “dog training methods,” “milgram experiment,” “milgram experiment animals” and “milgram experiment dogs.” Applicable studies were screened for and chosen for analysis and inclusion in this review based on relevance to topic.
Dogs & Children
An attachment bond occurs between dog guardians and their dogs much like that of parent/caregiver and child (Payne et al., 2015; Prato-Previde, Custance, Spiezio & Sabatini, 2003). One study by Nagasawa, Kikusui, Tatsushi, Onaka & Ohta (2008) discussed the importance of gaze in social bonding between mother and infant and examined the role gaze might play in bonding between guardians and their dogs (p. 434). In the study, dog guardians interacted with their dogs, and researchers noted periods of mutual gaze in addition to testing the guardians’ urinary concentrations of oxytocin. The study’s participants included a fairly small sample size of 55 guardians with their dogs of varying breeds (p. 435). The participants were recruited in dog training classes, and the experimental procedure took place at a university in Japan. While the participants did complete a questionnaire with the purpose of providing more information about their relationship with their dog, choice of training method was not asked nor did the researchers specify which types of training classes these participants were recruited from. Particularly applicable to this topic, it would be interesting to see this study replicated using guardians who utilize different training methods and see if the results are affected. The researchers determined that the participants who shared longer durations of gaze and had reportedly better relationships with their dogs had higher levels of oxytocin in their urine. Thus, the study suggested the existence of social bonding, similar to that between parent and infant, occurs within the human-dog relationship.
A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study by Stoeckel, Palley, Gollub, Niemi & Evins (2014) also found similarities between how human caregivers perceive their children and how they perceive their dogs. The researchers examined patterns of brain activation when images were presented to mothers of their children, their dogs and of unfamiliar children and dogs. The sample size was very small with only 14 final participants (p. 2). Each of the participants took the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale to determine their level of attachment to their dogs (p. 6). LAPS in considered a suitable evaluation of attachment levels between humans and pets (Johnson, Garrity & Stallones, 2015). One of the exclusions for participation in the fMRI study by Stoeckel, Palley, Gollub, Niemi & Evins (2014) was working in an animal-related field, and it would be interesting to know their reasoning behind that decision. The results determined many of the same areas of the brain were activated when mothers viewed images of their children and their dogs but not when they viewed images of unfamiliar children or dogs (p. 6). While more research on the accuracy of fMRI studies is necessary, this study provides further support for the similarities between the human-dog bond and parent-child bond.
Parenting Styles & Training Methods
Due to the similar attachment bond that exists between guardian and dog and parent and child, looking at research on parenting styles may provide insight on dog guardians’ choice of training styles. Hoeve et al. (2007), in a study on parenting styles as a predictor for child delinquencies, identified three different parenting styles using a cluster analysis: authoritative, authoritarian and neglectful (p. 228). Authoritative caretakers were noted for their fairly good relationships with their child with high levels of communication and support. They also scored high on positive parenting, which consists of reinforcing good behavior with rewards, while competently supervising their child and not utilizing physical punishment for discipline. Authoritarian caretakers were considered moderately supportive but did physically punish their child. The disciplinary techniques of neglectful caretakers were inadequate as they physically punished their child and provided poor supervision. The researchers considered neglectful caretakers as having the worst relationship with their children in comparison.
Another commonly used term for physical punishment in relation to parenting is corporal punishment. Gámez-Guadix, Straus, Carrobles, Muñoz-Rivas & Almendros (2010) defined corporal punishment as the intention to cause a child pain without injury through the use of physical force in order to correct or control the behavior of the child (p. 529). Gámez-Guadix et al. determined that even mild and moderate corporal punishment is linked to the development of behavior problems in children (p. 535).
The use of corporal punishment in parenting is strikingly similar to the use of punishment in dog training. Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw (2004) discussed various training methods including traditional methods that rely on positive punishment and negative reinforcement (p. 63). Positive punishment is utilized to decrease an unwanted behavior by applying an aversive stimulus such as a shock or physical force. Negative reinforcement increases a desired behavior by removing the aversive stimulus. The intention of these methods is generally not to injure the dog but to cause enough discomfort or pain in order to correct an unwanted behavior. Similar to positive parenting, positive reinforcement training increases desired behaviors through rewarding the behavior. Determining how parents and dog guardians decide between the various parenting/training styles is critical.
Factors Influencing Choice of Parenting/Training Styles
One of the influences in choice of parenting style and approach is parental stress (Guajardo, Snyder & Petersen, 2008, p. 38). Highly-stressed parents often utilize an authoritarian parenting style, are less involved and affectionate, and are more likely to use “power-assertive” techniques (Guajardo et al, 2008, p. 38; Crnic, Gaze & Hoffman, 2005, p. 119).
In addition to parental stress, one study found that parental self-confidence played a role in choice of parenting style (Alizadeh, Applequist & Coolidge, 2007). Parents participated in a questionnaire which measured self-confidence, warmth and involvement and whether or not the parents utilized corporal punishment. This particular study focused on parents of children with ADHD, and it was determined that they were significantly less self-confident, less warm and involved in parenting and much more likely to utilize corporal punishment (p. 570). The researchers recommended that the results should be considered in a clinical setting as reason to address not only the child with ADHD in treatment but also work to improve their parent's self-confidence and provide education to them on ADHD (p. 571). The study also discussed the link between corporal punishment and physical abuse and also addressed the effectiveness of corporal punishment. Corporal punishment may result in immediate changes in child’s behavior, but because punishment does not teach what behaviors are desired, the child is likely to return to the previous behavior. The researchers recommend that therapists educate parents on the consequences of corporal punishment and also encourage parents to utilize rewards and reinforcement in conjunction with their parenting style.
This questionnaire-based study by Alizadeh, Applequist & Coolidge (2007) could be modified and distributed to dog guardians with dogs with perceived behavior concerns such as reactivity. The researchers’ recommendations for therapists can also be translated to trainers and other animal professionals who can educate guardians on the short and long-term effects of utilizing punishment-based training/handling techniques.
Research on parenting supports the theory that factors such as stress and self-confidence influence parenting style. Furthermore, research indicates that stress and anger expression are antecedents for physical abuse (Whipple & Weber-Stratton, 1991; Rodriguez & Green, 1997). These are important considerations when evaluating dog training methods.
While some recommendations for future research have already been discussed, it should be noted that there is still much to be explored when evaluating dog guardians’ choices of training methods and their effects on the human-dog bond.
Future research on the human-dog relationship should examine whether stress, self-confidence and anger expression impact choice of training style and other human-dog interactions. It would also be interesting to see if the application of different training methods causes guardian stress and how this impacts not only the human but also the dog in the interaction.
Vasconcellos et al. (2016) studied the effects of positive reinforcement training on the stress and welfare of captive, human-socialized wolves. The researchers discussed the relaxing effect of positive human-animal interaction had on animals (p. 3), and in addition to the data they collected specific to the wolves, they also collected saliva samples of trainers (p. 1 & 7). To ensure the trainers’ stress levels were not affecting the responses of the wolves, they measured glucocorticoid and testosterone concentrations. Research on owner stress, through the measurements of parameters such as cortisol, heart rate variability and respiratory rate, during the utilization of different training methods is recommended.
One way this could be done is by adapting the well-known Milgram experiment which tested whether or not people would inflict pain through electric shock to an unfamiliar individual when directed to do so by an authority figure (Slater et al., 2006, p. 1). Slater et al. created a version of the Milgram experiment in which the participants were immersed in a virtual environment and the character receiving the shock was not real. Despite this, the measured physiological parameters indicated that the participants were still stressed by shocking the virtual person (p. 6). Dog guardians rely on the expertise of dog trainers and other animal professionals to aid in the prevention and treatment of behavior problems. While there are trainers who still employ the use of shock collars in classes and sessions, which could be an appropriate setting for a version of the original Milgram experiment, an adaptation of Slater et al.’s virtual Milgram experiment would be much more ethical in its consideration of dog welfare. The virtual study could include dog guardians with dog trainers or behaviorists as the “authority” figure with a virtual version of their own dog receiving the shocks while various physiological indicators of stress are measured.
More longitudinal studies are also necessary to determine the long-term effects of utilizing different training methods. However, studies on parenting styles and children imply that positive reinforcement training may be more likely to decrease long-term behavior concerns and to improve the human-dog relationship. Nonetheless, encouraging dog guardians to utilize more reward-based methods requires a deeper understanding on why dog guardians choose some training methods over others in order to effectively educate them on how that choice impacts their relationships with their dogs.
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Owner of Coexistence Consulting. Master of Science in Anthrozoology. Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer. Certificate in Applied Animal Behavior. Student in The Academy for Dog Trainers.