A shorter version of this was in Inside NoVA/Prince William Edition in Oct 2016
“If your cat scratches furniture, stop him with a mist from a spray bottle.” “Your dog keeps barking: spray him in the face with water. He will learn to stop.” These are two very common training recommendations made by well-meaning veterinarians, trainers and other pet owners. In my early days as a trainer back in the 90’s ( I have been working with dogs since 1982 but began working towards my own business in the 90’s), I recommended squirt bottles. Almost every trainer and even some behaviorists did too! However, as we learned more about behavior and learning, many of us have stopped using averse training methods. Let us look at a couple of examples why using a water spray to discipline should be avoided.
Mr. Whiskers is happily amusing himself. Jane is not happy her cat is attacking her new fuzzy throw. Mr. Whiskers is a cat. Cats claw and scratch. This fuzzy throw is just what the cat wants to engage with. So Jane pulls out the spray bottle as recommended by her vet. Hey, it works! Jane squirts the cat and he stops mauling the throw. However, Mr. Whiskers keeps attacking the fun, fuzzy throw but running away when he sees Jane approach. Jane assumes he knows the throw is off-limits and is trying to sneak a scratch when her back is turned. Over time, Jane notices Mr. Whiskers avoiding her. He no longer sits on her lap or greets her after work. He runs away from food when Jane is near. She walks into a room and he scoots out. Mr. Whiskers has not learned the throw is not a toy. He has only learned Jane is not a person to be trusted. Jane has not taught Mr. Whiskers appropriate scratching toys. She has damaged their relationship.
Alice uses a spray bottle to stop Angus’s barking. Every time Angus barks, Alice yells “NO” and squirts him in the face. Now, Alice grooms Angus herself. Because of his coat type, she needs to mist his coat before brushing. Over time, Angus begins to struggle and panic when Alice pulls out the spray bottle for grooming. Alice does not make the connection as to why Angus no longer likes being brushed. She does not realize his grooming fears are related to how she disciplines.
Why do owners use spray bottles when behaviorists and good trainers advise against them? I see three main reasons. First is water bottles or squirt guns are ingrained in our minds as being a safe and less damaging alternative to stop unwanted behaviors. People are afraid of change even when there are better ways. I know how hard it is to change minds. But if I can learn newer and less behaviorally damaging ways to stop undesired behaviors, so can others. Second, people assume because a behavior stops when a pet is sprayed that he has learned the behavior is bad. The pet stops because the human is near and the pet is trying to avoid something that scary. When the human is bottle are gone, the behaviors are back. The critter has learned a pattern and not one the owner wants. Third people owners put their trust in (veterinarians, breeders, rescuers, some trainers, etc.) still recommend squirting. Obviously if someone is a professional, they must know what they are talking about. Again, if I as a canine professional for decades can learn to change, so can’t others. The way I trained in the 1980’s and early 90’s is much different than how I work now. As a trainer it is my duty to stay current on science and learning.
I do not want my pets to fear me. I must teach desired behaviors and manage my pet’s environment as he learns. Also, I need my pets to associate sprays with good. Grooming, medicated sprays, dental sprays, etc all require pets to have positive associations with a spray bottle. How fair is it for me to demand they tolerate something also used for punishment? It is not fair at all.
Now, how many people are aware for some pets – especially some dogs – spraying with water may positively reinforce the behavior you are trying to stop. Say Sparky’s favorite thing to do is catch water sprays. The hose, water pistols, he chases the sprinkler, Sparky loves chasing water sprays! He revels in the spray! How is spraying him in the face going to stop an undesired behavior? Sparky may associate the behavior with the coming of his favorite game. Now what? You have reinforced something you do not want.
There are methods to stop undesired behaviors that will not negatively affect your relationship with your pet. Please seek people out who will teach these better ways. Leave the spray bottles out of it.
Karen Peak owns West Wind Dog Training and The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.