Is Using a Spray Bottle Really Training My Dog?

Is using a spray bottle for dog training effective?

If you google, “spray bottle dog training,” you’ll find lots of products and articles telling you how great spray bottles are for training your dog.  Noisemakers fall into the same category because they work basically the same way.   But should this be referred to as training?  What’s really happening when you use a tool to stop unwanted behavior?  Is there a method that would work better?  

Before we consider the answers to the above questions we should first take a very quick look at the behavioral science that all learning emanates from, the operant conditioning quadrant.  Yes, it’s a quadrant, meaning four, but this quick look will focus on two main categories: Positive Reinforcement (R+) and Positive Punishment (P+).  When I first started learning about the science behind animal training, I thought positive punishment sounded like an oxymoron.  How could punishment be positive?  In science, the positive (+) doesn’t mean good, it means to add, as in mathematics.  So P+ means to add something aversive that would make a behavior less likely to happen in the future and R+ means to add something desirable to increase the likelihood of a behavior happening in the future.

The spray bottle falls into the same category as pinch collars (P+) as they are used to stop unwanted behavior.  Let’s get into answering the above questions.  At a seminar, one of my favorite trainer/teachers, Kathy Sdao, made a comparison between training and gardening.  She asked, if a person who focused on stopping unwanted behavior in a dog was considered a dog trainer, would a person who killed weeds with poison be considered a gardener?  It’s a very good analogy – the point is about focus.  Are you focused on stopping unwanted behavior or teaching behavior you would like to see more often?  

The use of P+ has some drawbacks as it really doesn’t teach the animal what it is you want them to do, much like yelling “NO!” – it might stop the unwanted behavior, but it’s usually just a temporary fix.  When we use punishment, science also teaches us that there is something called a punishment callous.  This essentially means that the animal will get conditioned to the current level of punishment and it will stop working.  Here’s a typical example if your focus is to stop pulling on a leash. You switch from a buckle collar to a choke chain collar to help your corrections become more effective, and then you move to a pinch collar when the choke chain is no longer working.  After your dog becomes conditioned to the pinch collar you might move to a shock collar, some with 50 different levels of intensity.  Or you could choose to do what one person did at a local “Love Your Pet” event, put TWO pinch collars on your dog.

Now if you’re just using the spray bottle to stop barking or other nuisance behaviors, in my opinion it’s not much different than yelling “NO!” – it might work for a bit, but it’s not likely to have any serious fallout.  But, on the other hand, if you’re using the spray bottle to stop a severe behavior like dogs that would fight with another dog, you’re taking a dangerous risk.  Most behaviorists would agree that the most common causes of dog-to-dog or dog-to-people aggression are fear based.  It’s a known fact that fear is a dog’s default response to the unknown.  If the underlying cause is fear and you spray them in the face for growling or showing their teeth to another dog, what you’re saying is, “Stop being afraid.”  

Let me ask you this: if you were at the mall with a small child and the child said to you, “That man is really scary”, should you tell the child to “shut up” and encourage them to get closer to the scary man?  Essentially what you’re doing to the dog is punishing them for their feelings, which doesn’t help them feel any better.  You’re not teaching them that other dogs aren’t scary, you’re actually adding to the problem.  They’re already likely feeling stress and now on top of that, they’re learning to be afraid of you – especially when you have a spray bottle.  There are 8 rules to follow if you want to punish behaviors successfully.  One of those rules states that the punishment shouldn’t be associated with you.  This really is impossible if you’re the one holding the spray bottle and it’s even worse if you just show them the spray bottle as a threat to stop behavior.   Another rule states, timing is critical – you must deliver the punishment within a half second of the behavior you want to stop.  When you think about these two rules I just mentioned, how is a spray bottle going to effectively change behavior?

Let’s look at this another way.  The speed limit is 65 mph on the freeway… is everyone going the speed limit?  No, but if I see an officer (P+) I immediately slow down because I don’t want to be punished.  However, in the absence of the punisher I’ll do whatever I choose, especially if I’m running a little bit late for my next appointment.  This is yet another problem with using punishment.  In the absence of the punisher, the learner will do whatever they choose because they haven’t been taught any other behavior, merely punished for doing the wrong thing.  So if you’re not in the same room with dogs that may not get along, how is it going to turn out?

My choice for training is to teach my learner what I would like them to do, instead of focusing on stopping unwanted behavior.  I control the environment so that they can’t practice the unwanted behavior. I also set up the environment so they are likely to choose a desirable behavior that I can then reinforce.  I take small steps to reach my goal, only moving forward when I’m getting a high success rate and take a step back when my learner is struggling.  This creates very little stress on my learner and increases their level of trust in me.  When I’m done, I have a learner who will happily choose to do what I want, because that behavior has a history of positive reinforcement.   When working with dogs that have issues with other dogs, my goal is to change the way they feel about other dogs.  This is best done through a positive association with other dogs, which can’t be done using punishment.  I want my fearful dog to see other dogs and think good thoughts, not fear punishment such as getting sprayed in the face or shocked.  Using positive reinforcement (R+) I can successfully change how my dog feels when it sees other dogs.


Further reading:

  • Susan Friedman: ”APDT what’s wrong with this?”
  • Ian Dunbar: “Ian Dunbar on Punishment”
  • Mirkka Koivusalo: “8 reasons why you shouldn’t train your dog using a spray bottle”