I have been seeing a lot of dog training and handling techniques lately that really make me sad, and I feel like we are reverting back to the 80’s! Just when I started to think the world of dog training had really taken a turn towards positive, I find that I am sadly mistaken. I wanted to take this opportunity to voice my opinion on these matters, and point some major flaws in punishment based training.
First of all I want to say that if you need to use painful or scary punishment, or employ intimidation tactics, then it is you who is lacking as a dog trainer. This is a fact, not an opinion. There are plenty of things I do not know how to teach a dog to do; dogs can learn so much! When I am not certain how to help a client with his dog, I refer him to a trainer who I know can help. I feel this helps my accountability far more than simply just trying to work through what the client has asked. I know it is hard to admit you don’t know something, but it is necessary when working with animals. I feel that I always have more to learn, and the day I stop feeling this way will be the day I stop training animals, because it is this sort of arrogance that usually results in someone getting very badly hurt, and I don’t only mean the humans! I find that people turn to punishment when they don’t know what they are doing, or they don’t know how to properly train the desired behavior. It is for this reason that I do not turn to harsh punishments to get through training. The fact is that dogs can be trained through positive methods, therefore there is never a reason to not do all we can to use these methods, even if we don’t understand them at first. It is much easier to jerk a choke chain than train using counter conditioning, desensitization and positive reinforcement.
Don’t fall victim to quick fixes! Your dog is not a toy, he is not a machine, he is a living breathing animals, with real emotions and a quite complex psychology. If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is! Don’t fall for anti-barking, anti-pulling, and electronic training devices. Teach your dog what you want, practice throughout his life! This is the only way to truly get the behavior you want. Dogs have an incredible ability to desensitize to a lot of things. This is something we can often use to our advantage, but it is important to remember this when trying a quick fix. If you don’t pair the device with training, your dog will eventually learn to do the undesired behavior even with the deterrent. Believe me your dog can continue to pull you in that harness, and he can even learn to bark through an electronic shock, so he will just be getting shocked for no reason-this is not effective, and it is cruel!
Why is positive punishment so negative? Positive Punishment is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. The four quadrants are Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment. It is best to think of the positive and negative as they are referred to in math; as adding or taking away. Reinforcement is anything that will make a behavior increase, so that you see it more often. Punishment by definition is something that lessens a behavior. When we say positive punishment, it means the addition of something that lessens behavior. The shock of the shock collar is positive punishment. When you use harsh or scary punishment to lessen behavior you risk serious side effects. If you jerk a prong collar because your dog is pulling on leash, but a child happens to be right in your dog’s eye-line when you administer this punishment, in one trial you may have taught your dog that children being in his vision causes a painful jerk. After only one trial you could see a difference in your dog’s behavior. Not in that he will stop pulling, but in that the next time a child is in his vision he will have a negative, and possibly even an aggressive response to seeing the child. He will do this to try to avoid the pain that came the last time he saw a child, as in his eyes it was the child that caused the jerk, not his own behavior. If you use treats to train your dog, sometimes it takes longer to see a behavior stick, but it is simply not worth the risk that comes along with harmful punishments. If your dog pulls on leash, and you live in a city, in one walk on a prong collar you can give your dog a negative associally with children, bicycles, other dogs and even people, just think that if he gets a painful jerk anytime any of these things are around, you are working towards a quite fearful dog.
Punishment can be necessary, we have all been punished, and it probably made us better, so this can be part of dog training. The thing that you have to remember is that is is simply not fair to punish your dog for something you have not taught him. If you do not want your dog to pull on leash, teach him to heel, if you don’t want your dog to bark, teach him a “quiet” command. It is also crucial to remember that you must teach your dog things in different environments and under different circumstances. Once you feel your dog knows a behavior you can use a punishment to lessen the behavior of him not listening, but again this punishment should not be harmful or scary. The best punishment I have ever experienced is in newer cars; when you don’t buckle your seat belt the car beeps at you repeatedly, until you buckle your seat belt. This is a perfect example of positive punishment; the addition of the beeping alarm, lessens the behavior of people not buckling their seat belts, because I know I buckle my seat as soon as I can so I don’t have to listen to that annoying beeping! As is the case with Positive Punishment is usually means using more than one quadrant; at it’s onset the seat belt beeper is positive punishment, but as it beeps in turns into negative reinforcement. The removal of the beeping reinforces the buckling of one’s seat belt. It doesn’t scare me, or shock me, and it doesn’t have to; the same is true for the punishment you administer to your dog. I like to train with a treat jar near by. If I am practicing commands and behaviors my dog should know, and she simply does not respond to me for some reason, or does something wrong, I take whatever treats I am holding, stand up put them into the jar, close it and walk away. The punishment is the end of her chance to earn the treats. I have only actually had to do this three times with my dog before she understood that listening to me was far more rewarding than ignoring me. To take this one step further you can even add an “oops” or “uh-oh” command by saying this command before the punishment. So say “uh-oh” and then get up and put the treats away.
Your actions can reinforce and punish your dog’s behavior; this can be a good thing, if we use it properly! If you are seeing more of a behavior, good or bad, then it means this behavior is being reinforced, in some way. It could simply be by getting your attention. If your dog takes books off a book shelf, and it results in your getting up from the couch and chasing him around the house; plan to see more book stealing because you have reinforced this with a fun game of chase! You can also use your attention to your advantage, if your dog jumps all over you when you come home, and you don’t like this behavior, then as soon as you come home and see the behavior, turn around leave agin. Walk right back out the door as if to say “I don’t even know you when you behave that way!” You can come back in and try again after only a few seconds. I will give you a hint, this won’t take 3 or 4 tries, especially if it is a behavior that has previously been reinforced with attention. The good news is you don’t ever have to stay mad at your dog, as soon as he offers you a behavior you like, give your attention to reinforce this. If your dog jumps on you when you come home, so you walk out the door once, and then come back in and he jumps again, and you leave again, and then you come in a third time and he looks at you a bit like you are crazy, and sits, then stay and say “good dog.” Be careful with your praise as it might excite your dog enough to go back to breaking the rules, so keep this praise red light and low toned.
Breaking habits takes time, ignoring and allowing bad behavior means your dog has been able to practice this behavior to form a strong habit. Take your time, and remember that as much as you can avoid allowing your dog to indulge in the naughty behaviors the less practiced they will become. Training you dog never ends, it only gets easier, if you use consistency, patience and compassion!