What is an Aversive?

According to The American Heritage Dictionary “aversive” is an adjective for something “causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behavior by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behavior modification.”

In other words, when we punish, we have to use something that is aversive to the subject of our punishment. It has to be something they find “unpleasant or punishing”.

So what or who determines what is aversive? The person or animal on the receiving end makes this determination. This is an important point often misunderstood not only by people in general, but even some trainers.  Why is this important? Because when you are training any animal everything has a consequence, good or bad. Too often punishment is misunderstood to the detriment of the animal.

People often mistake something aversive with something being abusive. If it doesn’t meet with their definition of abuse then it must not be aversive and okay to use in training. I saw someone correcting a dog on a plastic pinch collar while trying to introduce it to a new dog. The dog on the plastic collar quickly made the association that the new dog caused him discomfort and growled to get out of the situation. When I mentioned this to the person they immediately said that they were not being mean and that the plastic collar did not hurt. It doesn’t matter what the person thinks. It only matters how the dog perceives it.

For instance, I want to do something special for my friends so I invite them to dinner and grill steaks. For most of my friend’s this would be a good thing. They would be more inclined to come over the next time I invited them. For my vegan friend, this would be rather unpleasant. It will likely decrease the likelihood of her coming back to my house for dinner. I wasn’t doing anything to be mean, but to my vegan friend, this wasn’t a good thing. To her it was aversive.

During a class several months ago we were talking about what was rewarding to our puppies. During the discussion we talked about physical praise such as petting or scratching our dogs. We talked about paying attention to what our dogs liked and did not like. The following week one of the families said that their puppy had stopped coming to them when they called.  I asked them what they were doing different. They said they had starting petting their puppy as the reward. I asked them to show me how. Immediately they reached out to pet the puppy on the top of its head and he backed up. Although the people thought they were doing a nice thing, their puppy found being petted on the top of his head to be aversive. Because of this it had decreased the puppy’s desire to respond to them when they called.

A local shock collar trainer talks about how the collar doesn’t hurt the dog. He has his perspective clients test out the collar on their hand. He then asks if it hurts. The answer is almost always “no, it doesn’t hurt”. The person’s perception is that if it doesn’t hurt their hand it can’t be unpleasant for their dog. This is a perfect example of not understanding what an aversive is. The dog’s perception is not even taken into account. If you are currently using a shock collar, put it on your neck and use it on the same setting as you use on your dog. Now you will be better equipped to determine whether or not your dog considers it aversive.

So the next time you go to do something to your dog and you find yourself thinking “it is not being mean” or “it doesn’t hurt” think of your dog’s perspective. How will she perceive it? Will your dog think it is punishing or rewarding? Now you are better equipped to make that determination.  For me, if I think it will be perceived as aversive by my dogs, I will walk away and say “No thanks”.

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4 Responses to What is an Aversive?

  1. Excellent points – rewards and punishers are in the eyes of the perceiver; or from the point of view of behaviorism, can only be judged based on their effect on future behavior.

  2. a nice concise explanation of what aversives mean with good examples, and anything that puts over the perspective from the point of view of the dog rather than the human (even if that human’s a trainer) is ok in my book! keep up the good work and happy blogging. it’s not easy to encapsulate points in a short piece and also make it interesting enough to read!

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