Most pet parents I know have, at one point or another, been told to spray their pet with a spray bottle when they are "misbehaving." This technique is considered positive punishment in operant conditioning, which means that punishment is added during or immediately after an undesired behavior in the hopes to reduce the occurrence of said behavior.
Although some trainers still encourage this outdated technique, it's not ideal, nor does it have long-term success. Today, we're discussing why spraying your pet won't train your pet. Then, in our next post, we'll offer better solutions to common unwanted pet behaviors that are often "addressed" with spray bottles.
Spraying Your Pet Hurts Your Relationship With Your Pet
Our pets have a hard time navigating our world. They have no idea why the shag rug they tinkled on is a no-go while our lush lawn is an approved potty place. They don't know when they can eat from our plate because we sometimes share but sometimes fuss at them to stop begging. They definitely don't understand why we're yelling at them to stop barking when a stranger is at the front door yet our energy immediately shifts when we hear the doorbell.
Unfortunately, the use of a spray bottle and other similar aversive training techniques can cause additional confusion in our pets, leading to a lack of confidence and even distrust in their caregivers. It's the opposite of relationship-based training, in which learning is a positive experience that deepens our bond with our beloved companion animals.
In fact, while limited, scientific research shows that aversive techniques like using a spray bottle cause stress in dogs, which is unsurprising. Imagine a teacher spraying a student in the face with water every time they got a math problem wrong. How stressful would that be?! And, how much could they possibly learn while simultaneously being concerned for their physical safety during the lesson?
Spraying Your Pet Won't Fix the Behavior
In addition, spraying a pet in the face with water doesn't magically make behaviors go away. Mostly because spraying your pet is something you have to be present to do, pets will conclude that the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is simply your presence. They may learn to not jump on the counter ONLY while you're in the kitchen. Once they learn that skill, they'll just wait until you've walked out of the kitchen, left to work, or gone up to bed to enjoy a human food feast.
In other words, aversive training techniques are ineffective because they only "fix" behaviors when the aversive or punishment is present and visible to the pet. 'Out of sight, out of mind' is a great way to describe it.
Instead of understanding that they aren't allowed to jump up when you walk in, your dog may freeze when they see your holding a spray bottle. In your mind, you taught them not to jump, but you only created fear around the squirt bottle, which is why they are not jumping on you. Lose the spray bottle and the jumping will likely resume.
Spraying Your Pet May Turn Into a Game
For some dogs that love water, the squirt of a spray bottle will be a welcome treat. It can become a game for cats - a stream of water to swat at from atop the kitchen counter or dining table. In either scenario, the pets learn absolutely nothing. They are neither motivated to alter their behavior nor do they realize that a lesson is in progress.
Spraying Your Pet May Cause Trauma
Some pets are so sensitive to aversive training that they start to generalize their anxiety and project their distrust of one human or spray bottle to all humans and all spray bottles. Further, while you may think that a slight squirt of a water bottle is harmless, some pets will see it as a significant threat, sending them into 'fight, flight, freeze' every time they see a spray bottle in their vicinity.
Our friend, Isabel Alvarez Arata of Covered in Pet Hair, devoted an entire episode of her pet podcast to positive training, aversive training, and spray bottle trauma. The dog discussed in this episode went into a full-on panic when she spotted a spray bottle. The dog's owner and roommate couldn't clean the house without their dog cowering in the corner.
In this post, Pam Johnson-Bennett, a renowned cat expert and behavior consultant behind Cat Behavior Associates, goes into detail about why the same can be true for cats who are "trained" using spray bottles. "For example," she says, "a cat parent who sprays the cat for being on the counter may find the cat becomes reluctant to enter the kitchen at all, even to eat out of their own food bowl." Yikes! Talk about a technique that has the ability to backfire and create additional undesirable behaviors.
At Hearts at Home Pet Sitting, we love pets and respect them. We work tirelessly to make them feel at ease and would never risk our relationships with them by using aversive techniques.
In fact, I am a Fear Free Certified Professional. I was certified by Fear Free Pets, an organization that is championing consent-based, fear-free pet care across the pet industry including veterinary care, grooming, and pet sitting. Using positive-based training, rewards, and motivation, I believe that pet parents can have the pet of their dreams or, at minimum, learn to happily coexist with their pets.
Hearts at Home Pet Sitting offers top-notch dog walking and pet sitting services in Yorktown, Poquoson, Newport News, and Hampton, Virginia. To get started, submit your new client questionnaire here. You may also contact us by email at Hello@HeartsAtHomePetSitting.com or by phone at 757-745-9868.