Aggressive Behavior: Role of Integrated Compliance and Obedience Training

Most treatment programs for aggression problems incorporate some element of obedience training () or nonconfrontational compliance training (). According to Tortora (1983), the benefits of obedience training depend on treated dogs learning that safety can always be obtained by engaging in cooperative behavior. Similarly, Clark and Boyer (1993) have argued that obedience training promotes a “feeling of security” as the result of establishing clear lines of communication and social boundaries by selectively and consistently applying incentives and appropriate deterrents to guide and shape dog behavior. The efficacy of obedience training as a therapeutic tool has been confirmed by Blackshaw (1991), who reported a high success rate involving dominance and territorial aggression by introducing proper restraint techniques and obedience training as her primary form of behavioral intervention. Even those individuals who appear to discount the preventative value of obedience training as & placebo, exerting “neither positive nor negative effects on the incidence of behavior problems” (), may nonetheless recommend such training because “obedience training provides tools for owners to use in modifying pet behavior” (). Finally, nonconfrontational compliance training utilizes the most simple obedience exercises (e.g., sit and sit-stay) and positive reinforcement to achieve secondary control over the expression of aggressive behavior ().

Despite the apparent therapeutic efficacy of obedience and nonconfrontational compliance training, the role of such activities for the prevention of behavior problems remains controversial. Although the literature is conflicted and equivocal on the preventative value of training, many authors, nonetheless, suggest that training does appear to exert a strong preventative influence. For example, Overall (1997), an advocate of preventative compliance training, has claimed that dogs require rules and need a rule-based social structure to communicate and cooperate with one another and with humans, claiming that her type of compliance training (a highly intrusive variation on Voith’s “nothing in life is free” program) provides a means for “preventing such problems and in treating all forms of behavioral problems” ().

But the question remains: Does obedience or compliance training serve to prevent problems, especially aggression problems? With respect to obedience training, Voith and colleagues (1992) suggest that it may not perform a preventative function. In a study involving the analysis of 711 questionnaires filled out by dog owners visiting a veterinary hospital clinic, they found that obedience training (as well as spoiling activities and anthropomorphic attitudes) showed no significant correlation with a wide spectrum of behavior problems, including aggression. A subsequent study performed by Podberscek and Serpell (1996) also failed to show a linkage between obedience training and the incidence of aggression problems in English cocker spaniels (N = 596). Finally, in a case-controlled study involving 178 matched pairs of biting and nonbiting dogs, Gershman and colleagues (1994) failed to detect a significant statistical relationship between obedience training and the incidence of aggressive behavior.

More recently, upon analyzing the data extracted from a large sample (N = 2018), Goodloe and Borchelt (1998) reported that a preventative relationship does appear to exist between a history of obedience training and the occurrence of a variety behavior problems, including aggression. Obedience training was significantly correlated with a lower incidence of aggression in all categories analyzed, except aggression toward unfamiliar dogs. They also found that obedience training was generally correlated with better-behaved dogs in two complementary directions: a decrease of undesirable behavior and an increase of desirable behavior. These findings suggest that training may help guide and refine a dog’s adaptation to domestic life, making it more successful and problem free. In addition to the obvious benefits of establishing limits and control, the authors suggest that the benefits of training may be related to various incidental aspects of interaction that are associated with the training process, including increased time spent with the dog, added exposure and socialization resulting from class attendance, and a better appreciation and understanding of dog behavior. This study appears to contradict the earlier findings of Voith and colleagues (1992), which failed to identify a beneficial relationship between obedience training and the incidence of behavior problems. Goodloe and Borchelt note that the larger sample of respondents used by them may have provided a better statistical pool for detecting the beneficial influences of obedience training. They suggest that the earlier study performed by Voith and colleagues may have been too small to detect these correlations. Finally, Patronek (1996) has reported that dogs that participated in obedience classes were much less likely to be relinquished by their owners to an animal shelter.

Given the evident therapeutic value of obedience and compliance training, it is a bit astonishing that such training would not exert a more consistent and strong preventative influence over the development of aggression problems. This impasse is of considerable significance, since most treatment programs for aggression (especially dominance-related aggression) depend, in part, on some variant of obedience or compliance training. Behaviorally speaking, the treatment applied in advance (preventative training) should exert some mitigating influence over the problem, for the very same reasons that it presumably reverses it. Logically, in fact, one should expect the preventative effect to be far more robust and persuasive than the treatment effect, since the therapeutic influence must exert enough power to reverse already established aggressive behavior and prevent its reoccurrence (behavioral momentum). Further, most treatment programs are founded on the behavior-modifying effects of learning. Learning does not just occur when guided by an experts recommendations or under the owners conscious efforts, but proceeds continuously insofar as a dog lives and interacts with its environment:

One cannot choose to either employ or ignore the empirically established rules of learning. Much like the law of gravity, the laws of learning are always in effect. Thus, the question is not whether to use the laws of learning, but rather how to use them effectively. ()

Given the apparently robust effect of behavior therapy, on the one hand, and the continuous influence of learning on the other, it is difficult to imagine how such things as obedience training, spoiling activities, and anthropomorphic attitudes would not have a significant effect on behavioral adaptation and the incidence of behavior problems.