We have put together a list of resources and done our best to ensure the content is of high quality and that the methods taught are humane. However, we cannot guarantee all of the content and we do encourage you to be a discerning learner and to always apply the principles we have outlined throughout our ‘Teach with Kindness’ programme to any content you come across.
What are aversive training methods?
These are methods that can cause pain, injury, fear, distress, or anxiety and include techniques such as beating, kicking, and choking, using equipment such as choke chains, prong collars, and electric shock collars. In fact, any tool can be used aversively. A standard flat collar and leash in the wrong hands can be used to choke or hang an animal. A martingale collar used incorrectly can also choke a dog.
Why are aversive training methods harmful?
There are three main concerns.
- The physical and mental harm the animal suffers. For example, when an electric shock is emitted from a shock collar, the animal experiences pain at that point in time. But not only that, the animal now has to endure the fear of expected future pain. This can cause a lot of distress. A prong collar is designed to cause discomfort and pain. One particularly horrific training method employed by some dog trainers is to hang or choke a dog so as to cause suffocation.
- Aversive methods generally do not address the underlying causes of unwanted behaviour. If, for example, a dog is barking excessively, beating the animal every time it barks does not address the root cause of why the animal is barking. This not only causes unnecessary pain and distress for the animal but is unlikely to resolve the problem. The method also does not provide the animal with an alternative and acceptable behaviour to perform. In some cases, it may be reinforcing the unwanted behaviour. If one shouts at a dog every time it barks, the dog may enjoy the attention and continue barking.
- Aversive methods can lead to the development of other problem behaviours, including aggression.
Does that mean aversive methods do not work?
While it may be possible for aversive methods to achieve the desired results, we believe that the process matters as much as the outcome. Just because a tool seems effective does not mean it is the right one to use on your pet, especially when there is the potential to cause significant harm to the animal. Since there are equally, and often more effective humane methods available, there is no reason to resort to aversive training.
Why are aversive methods still commonly used?
One reason is that there are still many dog trainers who teach and promote these methods. Another common reason is that these methods are often touted as quick and easy solutions to behaviour problems.
What is wrong with quick and easy? Not everyone has the time to manage their pet’s behaviour problems.
We do empathise with pet guardians struggling for time. There is nothing wrong with quick and easy in itself. We would love to promote something that achieved results fast if it were truly beneficial for handler and pet. However, aversive-based training methods can cause significant harm to the animal, may not actually be solving the problem, and may even lead to the development of other behaviour issues.
Would you not prefer to employ a method that produces more lasting results in a way that does not cause pain or distress to your pet? With a method that is enjoyable both to you and the animal? A quick and easy forceful fix today may result in another problem tomorrow. You will end up spending much more time than you initially thought. So ‘quick and easy’ isn’t really so.
It is also not true that force-free methods always take more time, rather the skills of the trainer are a key factor in resolving a behaviour problem.
Finally, keeping a pet comes with considerable responsibilities. It requires time and patience to meet these commitments.
But it works! I used a prong collar on my dog and my dog doesn’t pull when out for walks anymore. A shock collar has stopped my dog from barking. This was what a ‘professional’ trainer advised and also, nothing else worked. Why is this wrong?
The first point to address is that ‘nothing else worked’. This is a very common refrain of trainers who use aversive methods who say they only employ painful or fear causing methods because all else has failed. There is a diverse group of dog trainers in Singapore and while some will only use aversive methods as a ‘last resort’, there are some who use them as ‘go-to’ training tools. Be wary of both groups, especially the latter.
If your trainer informed you that there are no other options available other than aversive methods, it may be that they have reached the limit of their knowledge and are unaware of alternatives. It is also possible that they have a misunderstanding of, and a lack of experience with humane and force-free methods. Some prefer to stick to what they know well.
Yes, it is possible for an aversive method to work. However, in many cases, the animal is merely suppressing the unwanted behaviour in the presence of the aversive tool to avoid the negative outcome, and the tool will need to be used in the long term. This means the animal may be repeatedly subjected to pain, fear, or distress over a prolonged period. Also, some animals get used to the pain and may thus require increasing levels of force to be used on them to achieve the same results.
With aversive methods, the animal is made to perform a wanted behaviour or to not perform an unwanted behaviour out of fear of punishment. Stress levels are high during training and can persist even after. There is a much better alternative for both parties, where the animal performs a behaviour that is rewarding for them. When your pet is having fun, they are willing to work harder.
Is a person breaking the law if he/she hurts an animal during training or while disciplining it?
Yes. There have been cases in the past where individuals, including a dog trainer, had action taken against them for harming animals in the name of training and discipline.
In 2016, a man was charged in court for kicking, punching, and choking his dog in an effort to discipline it. He pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was fined $8,000.
In 2019, a man was caught kicking his dog, lifting the dog from the ground by its leash and grabbing its neck and pinning the dog down. He was found guilty of animal cruelty, fined $10,000, and banned from keeping pets for one year.
Recently, enforcement action was taken against a dog trainer who hung and strangled a dog till the dog turned blue and spluttered a few drops of blood.
I have seen a dog trainer or pet guardian hanging and choking dogs, or using similarly brutal methods. What should I do?
Hanging (animal off all four legs) or choking dogs (either with equipment or with bare hands) is unfortunately not uncommon. The industry even has a term, ‘helicoptering’, for hanging and choking dogs such that they struggle at the end of a leash and thrash about in fear for their life.
Remember this case from 2015? The guardian was trying to discipline his dog and his method of choice was to hang and choke the dog into submission. Thankfully, the SPCA was able to take in the dog and we eventually found it a loving home.
These are clearly cruel methods that have no place in animal training and must be punished under the law. The same applies if these acts are carried out by a “professional” animal trainer.
If possible and if safe for you to do so, stop the handler from hurting the dog. Collect as much evidence as you can, including pictures and videos where possible, and lodge a report with the SPCA here.
Why is the SPCA asking for a ban on the electric shock collar?
The SPCA is continuing in its call for a ban on the use of the electric shock collar, as the device is harmful and has no place in animal training. Its use is already banned or significantly restricted in numerous countries and jurisdictions such as Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and parts of the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia. Many animal-related professional organisations around the world are also against its use.
What kind of training does SPCA advocate?
We advocate humane, force-free, rewards-focused, and evidence-based approaches to animal training. Examples of this are the use of rewards such as food, toys, or praise to promote desired behaviours, as well as to encourage the learning of alternative behaviours in place of unwanted behaviours.
What are the benefits of force-free training?
The humane approach is backed by modern scientific understanding of animal psychology and behaviour. We believe this approach is not only effective and achieves long-lasting results, but is also kinder. It makes training more enjoyable for the animal and the human while encouraging the development of a strong, positive human-animal bond.
Force-free methods are used by trainers and organisations all around the world in a wide variety of settings.
How do rewards work?
Rewards motivate a dog to make good choices. The reward reinforces the good behaviour that we want, and the dog is more likely to repeat that same desired behaviour in another similar situation. With consistent practice, the dog becomes more reliable and fluent in making the desired choice.
Can I still use rewards-based training if my pet is not food motivated?
Yes, you can! Ways to train a pet without treats:
How do I resolve behaviour issues such as excessive barking, pulling on the leash, chewing of furniture, and toileting in the wrong place? Can these really be solved with force-free methods?
The force-free approach works for both obedience training as well as behaviour problems. There are free resources available to you online.
The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA) has both written content and some videos on pet care, including material on how to address common behaviour problems.
If you prefer to learn by watching, Zak George, a US-based force-free trainer, produces good and easy to understand videos covering a very wide range of topics linked to behaviour.
If you need further help, please contact a humane and qualified trainer for assistance.
Do reward-based techniques work if I don’t have the time to practice with my pet every day?
We must acknowledge that when we bring an animal into our home, we have a duty to spend time on training and teaching the animal what is acceptable behavior. No method will work if one is not committed.
Training, however, doesn’t always have to be done in stand-alone sessions and can be easily worked into a daily routine. For example, you can teach and practice a ‘sit’ when putting on your pet’s harness and leash. Or teach your pet a trick while waiting for the lift. These mini training sessions can really add up!
Can force-free methods solve my problem immediately?
Generally speaking, no. You should also be very skeptical of methods which can solve a behaviour problem fast. Some of these may “solve” one problem but lead to the development of others.
Animals’ personalities and behaviours are complex, just as in humans. How many of us can solve our own ‘problem’ habits with one quick-fix solution?
Modifying an animal’s behaviour and teaching them what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (largely human-created rules) takes time. Helping our beloved companions face their fears and challenges in a kind, patient, and consistent manner will lead to the development of a strong and positive human-animal bond and a much happier animal.
Will my pet put on weight if I keep giving him treats? Wouldn’t this lead to obesity-related health problems?
Reward-based training, even when treats are used, does not have to result in weight gain.
If you have used up say 25% of your pet’s daily caloric needs with treats/favorite food during training, then reduce their meal intake to 75%. You should also keep an eye on overall nutritional requirements, being careful not to provide an excess of low nutritional value treats. There are plenty of healthy treat options available. Consult your vet if in doubt.
You can even use a portion of their daily meal for training or enrichment games! Why feed a dog in a bowl when you can place that food into a puzzle toy, providing your pet loads of fun while burning off excess energy at the same time?
How can I find a humane and force-free trainer?
There are no qualifications which guarantee a trainer uses only force-free approaches. There are also no certifying or accrediting bodies in Singapore who can vouch for a trainer’s methods.
Besides using the above poster as a guide, ask the trainer about their methods and if they use any aversive methods or tools and ask them for a list of their professional qualifications. It is important you thoroughly assess the trainer and their methods before engaging them and making any payments. This can help you avoid situations where you inadvertently expose your beloved pet to things like smacking, jabbing, choking and hanging.
Is there a list of dog trainers in Singapore you recommend?
The SPCA does not maintain a comprehensive list at this time. To produce and maintain such a list would require significant resources as trainers and their methods would need to be thoroughly assessed.
So in lieu of a list, we have produced the above guide on how one can find a humane trainer. But due diligence is required when selecting one.
How much do dog training lessons cost?
Dog training costs largely depend on the experience and qualifications of the trainer, complexity of the training, number of hours, location and whether it is individual or group training. A private lesson can cost anywhere from $80 – $350 per hour, while group classes range from $40 – $150 per hour for a six to eight-week programme.
My pet was trained using “traditional” punishment-based methods. Can we now take up force-free training?
It is never too late and you should certainly change your approach to a force-free one to avoid aversive methods. In fact, many pet guardians and trainers have done so. And your pet will love you for it!
I have tried engaging a force-free trainer for my pet for a behaviour problem, but it did not work. What should I do next?
You can go back to your trainer to discuss why the problem has persisted and what can be done. There are no easy solutions with behaviour and modifying an existing habit will take time, patience and a consistent approach. Sometimes, we need to change the approach if something is not working and consider consulting other professionals such as veterinarians. It is possible you may have missed something (e.g. an underlying medical condition) so it is always useful to review the whole situation again if the desired results have not been achieved.
If the issue is still not resolved, you can consider getting a second opinion from another force-free trainer as each trainer comes with their own expertise and experience.
My trainer calls himself a ‘positive’ dog trainer and says they use positive reinforcement methods. But some of their methods are harsh and make me uncomfortable. What is going on?
This article sheds some light on the issue.
Have studies been done on humane and aversive methods or on devices such as the shock collar?
Yes, you can find a good summary of the scientific literature here.
Credit: Dr Joanna Makowska
For several decades, SPCA has seen cases reporting the use of forceful and punishment-based animal training methods in Singapore, predominantly in dog training. These include beating, kicking, choking, and hanging.
Here are some cases from recent years:
In a 2017 case, a dog trainer, in an effort to discipline a pet dog, used the animal’s leash to hang the dog, with the animal thrashing about in fear for its life. The trainer then grabbed the dog by the neck to strangle it, with its eyes turning bloodshot and tongue blue. Despite furious protests from the dog’s owners, the trainer continued with the abuse while mocking them and saying that their dog would never learn if they were so nice to their pet. He only stopped after the owners informed him that the dog started spluttering
blood. The case was referred to the then Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) and enforcement action was taken against the trainer.
A Japanese Spitz dog in a 2015 case was similarly hung by its owner, who was trying to discipline the animal. Thankfully, an eye witness managed to obtain video evidence and the SPCA was able to take in the dog with the help of the police. The video went viral online with many condemning the owner’s actions. The dog was eventually rehomed.
In 2016, a man was charged in court for kicking, punching, and choking his dog in an effort to discipline it, with the abuse caught on camera. He pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was fined $8,000 by the court.
A man was caught on video kicking his dog, lifting the dog from the ground by its leash and grabbing its neck and pinning the dog down. Earlier this year, he was found guilty of animal cruelty, fined $10,000 and banned from keeping pets for one year.
World Animal Day 2020 Webinars
SPCA Singapore presents a series of pet care webinars this October. We will be sharing force-free training techniques, pet first aid, and canine massage.
Click the Zoom links below to register — there will be Q&As for all sessions!
For full list of World Animal Day deals in October (pet portraits, embroidery & more), click here.
1. Basic Dog Training Webinar (3 Oct, 11.00am)
Want to learn the basics of dog training? Our first webinar has got you covered! Learn how to teach your dog its name, how to sit, how to get used to wearing a harness, and how to walk comfortably on a leash. We will also talk about why we advocate a humane and force-free approach and how you can get started on this journey.
2. Guide for Puppy Owners: Behaviour (4 Oct, 11.00am)
Starting off right sets you and your canine companion up for long-term success. Recently obtained a puppy or about to get one? Then this webinar is for you. In this session, we will cover a puppy’s development and how to socialise and train your puppy. You will learn how to help them grow into well-adjusted dogs while minimising the potential for the development of behaviour issues.
3. Introduction to Canine Massage (8 Oct, 8:00pm)
In this webinar, pet parents will learn how to massage their canine companions, why massage after exercise is beneficial for dogs, and how it can strengthen the bond between humans and animals.
4. Guide to Harnesses (10 Oct, 3.00pm)
Ever thought of getting a harness for your dog or have questions about whether a harness is right for your pet? In this webinar, you will learn all about harnesses, and the differences between the various tools you can use to walk your dogs. Stay tuned for a giveaway at the end!
5. Addressing Common Dog Behaviour Issues (11 Oct, 1.00pm)
Most pet parents need assistance with a behaviour problem at some point. We are here to help. Our speakers will address common behaviour issues such as excessive barking and toilet training fails. Come with questions and we will do our best to advise.
6. Pet First Aid (17 Oct, 11.00am)
Want to be better equipped with a first aid kit for your pet? Join us to learn simple skills and techniques that you can apply. What you learn may one day save an animal’s life!
7. “Do you have a Velcro Dog?” – Anxiety in Dogs (18 Oct, 11.00am)
Is leaving the house a traumatic experience for both you and your pet? Do you return home and find things damaged by your pet?
These could be signs that your pet is experiencing anxiety. Join us as we discuss anxiety in animals and how it can impact their quality of life. Know the signs and understand how we can help our pets feel more comfortable and confident about being home alone.