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Shaping or Breaking for Gun Dogs?

Stressful training techniques can lead to increased aggression.

Shaping or Breaking for Gun Dogs?
Photo Credit: Mark L. Atwater


There has been a noticeable increase in problematic behaviors such as stress-related fearfulness, excessive barking at unexpected things, fear biting, dog attacks on people and strange dogs, aggressive reactions in excess of any real aggressive context, all without an apparent cause. More disturbing than the “without apparent cause” is that these problems are happening in breeds usually known for docility and amiability like the wirehaired pointing griffon, German shorthair, springer spaniel, cocker spaniel, golden and Labrador retrievers.


Some of the proposed basic causes of the problematic behavior with research to substantiate them are removal from litter too early (before ten weeks), and misguided selection of potential breeding stock where dogs are bred because of ribbons or trophies without regard for temperament faults or other genetic faults. But recent research in several European countries primarily, and to a lesser extent in North America, suggests much of the problematic behavior results from training techniques and the human relationships associated with those training techniques.

What the research is telling us: Back in 1991 I wrote an article for GUN DOG titled “To Shape or Break Your Dog? Is There a Question?” The article pointed out the pluses and minuses of the positive reinforcement of shaping vs. the negative reinforcement of what then was called “breaking” and is still called that in some circles.

I concluded that shaping was the better option for a hunting dog because it produces better adjusted dogs, more capable of further self-learning new things, and generally more cooperative dogs, but it tends to be slower and less demanding of perfection than the breaking techniques. However, back then there was no controlled research to substantiate anything. Now there is.

Research has been in two somewhat independent areas, the first being the effects of positive vs. negative reinforcement stress and welfare of the dog, and on training for a new task; the second on the effectiveness of positive vs. negative reinforcement on correcting unwanted or problematic behaviors.

The first paper I noticed was called, “Training methods and owner-dog interactions” (Rooney, N. And Sarah Cowan. 2011. Applied Animal Behavior Science. Vol.132, no. 3-4, p. 169-177). The study compared reward given for correct response and mild correction for mistakes to totally negative reinforcement (punishment such as shock or ear pinch). There were 53 owners surveyed and then filmed in their homes to verify they did what they claimed.

The researchers concluded that high levels of punishment adversely affected the dogs’ behavior in that they were less friendly toward strange people and dogs (more defensive), were less playful, and performed poorly on learning a novel task. Positive reward dogs performed novel learning tasks significantly better, were more playful and had much improved subsequent ability to learn.

Another study, “Effects of two training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog and dog/owner relationships” (Deldalla, S and F. Gaunet. 2014. J. Vet. Behav. Vol. 9, No.2, p. 58- 65), compared effects of positive reinforcement (appearance of an appetitive reinforcement [food reward] with negative reinforcement (disappearance of an aversive stimulus [cessation of a shock]) on behaviors associated with signs of stress and attentiveness. Obedience to walking on leash and to the command “sit” were the criteria studied.

Dogs trained to negative reinforcement demonstrated lowered body posture (an indicator of stress) and lowered trainer attentiveness. Dogs with positive reinforcement training showed less stress and much greater attentiveness to the trainer. The researchers concluded positive training techniques are less stress inducing and better for the welfare of the dog.

The first of two review studies I found was “Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare? A literature review” ( Fernandes, et al. 2017. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., Vol.196. p.1-12). The studies reviewed all said dogs are trained by methods that vary between mainly negative reinforcement and positive punishment (aversive-based methods) and methods based on positive reinforcement and negative punishment (reward-based methods).

The published studies all suggest that the use of aversive-based methods is correlated with indicators of compromised welfare in dogs, namely stress-related indicators during training as shown by elevated cortisol levels and problematic behaviors such as fear and aggression. However, many of the studies were based on surveys rather than on objective measures. Many used laboratory dogs or police dogs rather than a broad-based population approach.

Another review study, “The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs–a review” ( Ziv. 2017. J. Vet. Behav. Vol 19, May-June, p. 50-60) considered a total of 17 studies. These studies measured the effects of positive reinforcement vs. aversive training including positive punishment and negative reinforcement. They included surveys, observational studies and interventions. All studies concluded aversive methods can jeopardize both physical and mental health of dogs.

The studies showed that using positive punishment (cessation of the negative stimulus) can also be effective in training a dog, but there was no evidence that it was more efficient than positive reinforcement-based training. In fact the opposite was shown to be true. The overall conclusion was those who are working with or handling dogs should rely on positive methods and avoid using positive punishment and negative reinforcement as much as possible.

Another study, using a slightly different approach, “Human directed aggression in domestic dogs.” (Casey, et al. 2014. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. Vol 152. March. p. 52-63) concluded among other things, like the effects of breed differences and individual dog differences on aggressiveness, that the use of positive punishment or negative reinforcement was associated with aggressiveness toward family members and toward people outside the house.

Studies evaluating the effectiveness of positive vs. negative methods to correct existing problems all showed positive, reward based methods were more effective in correcting problems than negative methods, were a more permanent fix, while negative methods more often than not exacerbated the problem.

My 1991 “To Shape or Break” article ended with the extended sentence: “So, if you want a dog that will be a constant source of entertainment, one that will surprise you with its apparent smarts, one that can handle the unusual situations with absolute brilliance, go heavy on the shaping and very light on the breaking.” Research now verifies it.

For solutions to your dog’s behavior problems or behavior related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at:

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