The essential task of the modern dog trainer
Teach the dog how to behave naturally
In an unnatural environment
The rest is easy
The essential task of the modern dog trainer
Teach the dog how to behave naturally
In an unnatural environment
The rest is easy
I am the proud father of two. A daughter whose age at the time of this writing is measured in weeks, and a son who is roughly two and a half.
Like most toddlers, my son experiments with many different behaviors, often to see what he can get away with. He is experimenting with the world to learn what is within the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
Earlier this week when I was dropping him off at daycare, one of the caretakers in his room informed me that over the past couple weeks he has been occasionally hitting other kids. They said that when they try to intervene, he often just laughs as though it’s a game, and continues acting up. Naturally, at this point I asked what they do to discipline him. Their response was that they tell him to stop, and they try to redirect him into another activity. When I asked if they thought this approach was effective, the answer was “no.”
Here’s the deal. I wasn’t terribly shocked when they told me that my son had attempted to hit another kid. Other kids have done the same to him. Little kids do things like this. In fact, he had on occasion tried to hit his mother and me at home. However, because of the way we address the behavior at home, it quickly comes to an end, and he hasn’t repeated it for a long time.
The difference is consistent and effective discipline. I don’t hit my child. I don’t raise my voice. In fact, I don’t even get frustrated (training dogs has taught me to have tremendous patience.) When my son tries to hit one of us, I calmly tell him that if he does it again, he is going to get a “time out.” If he chooses to try it again, I calmly pick him up, carry him into his room, and put him in his crib. No second warnings or further discussions at that point. At his age, the “time out” is relatively short, lasting only about 2 minutes. When I go to get him, I ask if he is done hitting, he says “yes,” and then we return to our normal activities.
At his daycare, they have a policy against putting kids in time out. I get it, you have to draw a clear line in the sand when it comes to disciplining other people’s children. But, in this case, time out works. The reason it works for my son is because he hates it. It makes him upset, he often cries, and calls for us to come and get him. In other words, this type of discipline is effective at reducing the target behavior precisely because it is an aversive and stressful experience for him and he does not want to repeat it. Redirection does not inhibit behavior, meaningful consequences do.
In the world of animal behavior, we would say that the consequence of “time out” is a form of “negative punishment.” In other words, I am punishing (making less) a behavior by taking something away (in this case playtime, freedom, attention, etc.)
In order for negative punishment to be effective, there are two main criteria that must be met:
(1) The experience must be sufficiently unpleasant to motivate a change in behavior; and
(2) The animal must be able to connect the consequence of his/her action to the target (problem) behavior.
In other words, the animal must be able to assume that the behavior we are attempting to reduce is what causes the punishment, and the animal must be able to deduce from this the necessary change in behavior required to avoid the punishment in the future.
In the world of animal behavior, and dog training specifically, there is an underlying assumption held by many that negative punishment is more ethical than positive punishment (i.e., applying an aversive, rather than removing a privilege, reward, or opportunity for reward). This assumption, however, is worth questioning.
Two immediate questions should come to mind when evaluating the ethics of any particular approach to training:
It is widely agreed upon that for a consequence to have an effect on the future occurrence of a behavior, the consequence needs to have a “motivational representation.” In other words, we must ask whether the consequence is aversive (something the animal would want to avoid), or is it attractive (something the animal would seek out)? The lynchpin of most arguments for more “humane” dog training, training which only involves reward-based techniques (Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment), is that humane dog training should not involve aversive consequences or stress. Most trainers who operate under this philosophy will admit that they use punishment, but will make the distinction that they are using negative punishment (removal of reward) versus positive punishment (application of an aversive), and that the former is inherently more humane than the latter.
It is this basic belief – that negative punishment is inherently and always more humane than positive punishment – that I seek to bring into question here.
In fact, if we look to the scientific literature, there is mounting evidence that this assumption is false. To begin, consider the work of Schalke, Salgirli, Bōhm, and Harbarth (2008). In a pair of parallel studies, the researchers tested the cortisol stress levels, as well as the overall effectiveness, of three different consequences: (1) the Prong Collar; (2) the Electronic Collar; and (3) a Quitting Signal on 42 police dogs.
The “Quitting Signal” is a verbal cue that tells the dog that its behavior will not be rewarded (negative punishment). The dogs were trained with the Quitting Signal ahead of time using food and toys for a period of 4 months1.
In this study, the dogs were asked to heel, and then a “helper” appeared on the field attempting to provoke the dog. If the dog made a mistake (failed to heel), the appropriate correction was administered, either a prong collar correction, electronic collar correction, or they were given the quitting signal (non-reward). The researchers then tested the level of stress each correction produced in the dog.
The researchers found that the quitting signal produced the highest levels of stress (measured by cortisol), and the electronic collar produced the lowest. This is the exact opposite of what the popular reward-based philosophy of animal training would predict.
Before we go further, it is worth noting that there are several key factors that contributed to these results that also make it difficult to generalize these findings to the average family pet. The most significant is the fact that the dogs used were all Belgian Malinois, a breed which possesses far stronger appetitive motivation that the average dog. The more an animal wants a reward, the more stressful it is when the reward isn’t delivered, and these dogs really want the reward. In fact Schalke noted: “Frustration is a high stressor for Malinois,” suggesting that the authors would agree that negative punishment can produce high levels of stress in an animal, and in this case, higher levels of stress than with positive punishment.
However, it might also be argued that although the quitting signal produced higher levels of stress, the stress could be characterized as eustress (often considered “healthy’ stress) rather than distress, with the implication being that the former is healthier and more humane. However, these again are assumptions, and we should be careful about accepting such an appealing proposition as dogma.
There is in fact plenty of research that suggests we should be more careful with our assumptions. Dickenson & Dearing (1979) were able to demonstrate in a transreinforcer-blocking2 experiment that the omission of food (reward) has the same motivational representation to an animal as an electrical stimulation (aversive). To summarize the findings, the researchers were able to demonstrate that a signal, which a rat has learned to associate with receiving “No-food” can block new learning about a signal which means “A shock is coming.”
In the Dickenson & Dearing (1979) experiment, rats were taught that a tone means “no food.” Then the tone was given at the same time as a buzzer, both preceding a shock. The surprising result was that the rat’s learning about the buzzer/shock relationship was blocked by the tone/no food relationship. The tone/no food relationship was already represented in the rat’s mind as “tone means something bad/unpleasant is going to happen,” and since a shock is also unpleasant, the buzzer did not give the rats any new or helpful information from which to learn. What this all means is that we have reason to believe both “no food” (negative punishment) and “shock” (positive punishment) have the same motivational/emotional representation for the animal.
For those who like “sciency” jargon, Dickenson states in his book Contemporary Animal Learning Theory:
“Omission of an attractive stimulus activates the same motivational representation of an explicit aversive stimulus (such) as shock”
“The omission of expected food and the presentation of shock excited a common representation”
There are some conclusions that we may take from the two studies I mention above. First, If we take the findings from Dickenson & Dearing, then it follows that negative punishment is represented in the animal’s mind as an aversive experience, in much the same way as positive punishment. Moreover, the work of Schalke et. al. suggests that, at least in some circumstances, negative punishment can produce more stress, and thus be a more aversive experience, than positive punishment, such as an electronic collar.
Now that we have addressed the first question (i.e. What is the motivational and emotional value of the consequence?), we turn to the second question: How easy is it for the animal to connect the consequence to their behavior?
We might start by again looking at the Schalke studies. The authors sought to test the relative stress induced by electronic collars, prong collars, and quitting signal (negative punishment). However, not only did the authors report on the stress produced by each, but they also reported on the effectiveness of each at eliminating the target behavior.
Interestingly, although the quitting signal produced higher stress than the electronic collar, it actually had the lowest learning effect of the three tools. In fact, whereas both the electronic collar and the prong collar had a significant learning effect on 38 out of the 42 dogs, and 32 out of the 42 dogs respectively, the quitting signal had only a learning effect on 3 of the dogs, (38 of the dogs did not quit the behavior at all after the signal). So in this case, negative punishment was both the least effective, as well as the most stressful, of the three techniques used (It should be noted that the electronic collar was both most effective, and least stressful).
These two studies are a just a few examples of similar findings in the literature, but it is certainly enough to add shades of grey to the black and white assumption that negative punishment is inherently more humane than positive punishment.
More recently, in 2015 in an article titled 51 Shades of Grey: Misuse, Misunderstanding and Misinformation of the Concepts of “Dominance” and “Punishment,” Simon Gadbois of the Canid Behavior Research Laboratory at Dalhousie University noted:
“I have seen border collies go nuts if they are told only what they do right, and are ignored when making a wrong choice (for example, in a matching-to-sample task). In fact, ignoring wrong responses becomes very aversive, without really telling the dog what to avoid doing.”
While some may argue that the use of a non-reward marker (or quitting signal or conditioned negative punisher) does, in fact, tell the dog when a mistake is made, as we have seen in the Schalke studies, in some cases it is a very ineffective means of doing so. Between the lines in the Gadbois statement above is that this inefficiency can lead to very aversive experiences for the animal.
Back to the situation with my son. When addressing children, we have a significant advantage, which ensures that the behavior and consequence are connected: Language. The reason that negative punishment is far more useful when disciplining our children than when disciplining our dogs is that we can explain the connection to them. Note in the example above using my son, I told him “If you hit me again, you will get a time out.” Then, prior to removing him from his crib, I ask him to reaffirm his understanding: “are you done hitting?” “Yes, Dad.”
With dogs and other animals we do not have the luxury of semantic language. With animals, consequences are best understood when they begin and end with the behavior itself. If I withhold food from a dog as a consequence, the feeling of frustration, desire, or hunger may persist after the target behavior has ceased. However, with an electronic collar, I have the ability to both start and stop the consequence with surgical precision, with accuracy within one-fortieth of a second.
Again, I must reiterate, lest I be accused of arguing an absurdity, that I am not in any way proposing that negative punishment is always more aversive and/or less effective than positive punishment. What I am stating is that if we are going to use science and empirical evidence as our compass in assessing the ethics of various training procedures, then we must be prepared to acknowledge several things:
This last acknowledgment is significant. How can we make generalized claims that positive punishment (i.e., prong collars, electronic collars, etc.) are inherently and objectively unethical, in favor of either ignoring incorrect behavior, or using a non-reward marker?
In the world of companion dog training, we are often faced with situations where dogs are exhibiting behaviors that are dangerous to themselves or others. In most cases these behaviors need to be controlled or eliminated quickly and effectively to both mitigate the risk to the dog or others, or to prevent the dog from being surrendered or euthanized. In such cases, there are times where a more aversive consequence can be justified if it produces a significantly more expedient result, thus maximizing safety for all involved. However, if a particular consequence is both more aversive, and less effective in a given context, it can almost never be justified.
We owe it to ourselves as professionals, the clients we serve, and most of all the dogs for whom we are stewards to take into consideration all the evidence of both effectiveness and aversiveness when evaluating possible training procedures. There is no value in deceiving ourselves with false scientific claims and emotion-laden arguments. Furthermore, failing to take into account the effectiveness of training procedures, particularly concerning dangerous behavior, or other behaviors that place the dog’s future at risk is not only unethical to the dog, but to any other dog or person who may be hurt physically, emotionally, or otherwise as a result of the lack of effective treatment.
The point of all this is that black and white generalizations and cult-like dogma do not lend themselves well to the honest study of animal behavior, nor to productive discussions of animal welfare.
Ultimately, as to the question of which is more effective, humane, or ethical, positive or negative punishment? The only honest answer is “It depends…
1. Below is the process which was used for training the Quitting Signal in the Schalke studies: 1st step:
The first aim of the quitting signal training was to condition the feeling of frustration with any vocable which was previously insignificant to the dog. To this end, the following program was carried out:
Different sorts of treats such as dry food, sausage, cheese, or mixture of two or three of them etc. were used for the training. If food mixture was used, the dog’s favorite one was served as a reward.
2. “Blocking” is a phenomenon in animal learning that occurs when a previously learned signal interferes with learning about a new signal. Here’s an example:
Let’s say that I taught a rat that a buzzer sound occurs right before a shock. After they have sufficiently learned that the buzzer predicts shock, I want to also teach them that a light turning on predicts the shock. If I present the buzzer and the light together, the rats won’t learn anything about the light, because the buzzer already told them everything they need to know. The light did not provide them with any new information. This is called “blocking” because the previously learned association of the buzzer “blocked” learning about the light. To take it one step further, we could even change the aversive event and still witness blocking. In other words, I could teach the rat that the buzzer predicts shock, and then use the buzzer to block learning that a light turning on will predict getting poked with a needle. The rat will not learn about the light/needle relationship because prior learning about the buzzer “blocks” it. The motivational representation is “buzzer predicts something bad is going to happen.” It doesn’t really matter whether the bad thing is a shock or a needle poke.
In 1972, Michael Domjam and Nancy Wilson tested an interesting hypothesis: When creating a conditioned association between two events, do the types of events matter?
To help illustrate this question more clearly, let’s take an example: You go out for dinner at a new restaurant. You eat a large meal consisting of salmon, and don’t eat anything else for the remainder of the evening. The next morning you wake up to find yourself violently ill. As a rational human, you are likely to make the assumption that it was the food you ate which made you ill. In other words, you don’t assume it was the particular wallpaper that was chosen for the restaurant, or the uniform worn by the waiter, even though these two things were as equally correlated with the illness as the food you ate. You likely will have at least a temporary aversion to salmon, and no aversion at all to red floral wallpaper, etc. The point being that if the effect is gastro-intestinal illness, then we are more likely to have a conditioned aversion response when the perceived cause is something we ingested, versus something we saw or heard.
While this may seem like common sense, or perhaps simply a function of our human ability to explain the connection via reason and language, Domjam and Wilson set out to investigate further. In their study titled Specificity of Cue Consequence in Aversion Learning in the Rat, they were able to show that when either a specific taste (saccharine) or a sound (buzzer) were paired with illness (via injection with lithium chloride), the rats learned a very strong aversion to the taste, while the group that received the buzzer/illness pairing learned virtually no association at all. Likewise, when they paired the saccharine or buzzer with a shock, the results were the opposite. The group who received the taste/shock pairing learned almost no association, while the buzzer/shock group readily learned the association.
The theoretical implication of this study is that animals will learn selectively, in favor of associations which reflect an underlying causal relationship (Dickenson p.60). Evolution has programmed our learning mechanisms to understand that an external stimuli such as a touch sensation is more likely to be caused by something you can see or hear (such as a predator), while internal discomfort is more likely to be caused by something you ate (such as rotten meat). Clearly animals that have developed such learning preferences have a greater chance of survival.
I recognize that at face value, this may not seem like a groundbreaking concept. However if we take this line of reasoning a bit further, I think it raises some interesting questions, particularly in the realm of determining what constitutes “humane” dog training.
First, a qualifying statement: At this time I have no idea if any of the following hypotheses have been studied. The following discussion is purely a speculative thought experiment for the purpose shedding light on a different way of approaching the question of what is truly “humane.”…
To begin, knowing that animals employ selective learning in the case of aversion, is it fair to assume that the same selective learning may exist in the case of attraction? If we paired a variety of different stimuli with pleasant outcomes, would the same learning biases occur? For instance, will sight, sound, or smell be associated more readily with a pleasant taste than touch? If we assume the evolutionary perspective on causal relevance, then perhaps the answer would be species specific. Predatory animals rely on sight and sound to find food (prey), but most predators do not rely on touch to find something to eat. However, herbivorous prey animals are likely to use sight, smell, and perhaps even touch (foraging) to find food, and are less likely to rely on sound (although they would rely on sound to avoid predators.) If evolutionary pressures select for learning biases, then it seems appropriate to at least consider these possibilities.
For the purpose of exploring this line of reasoning, let’s assume for the moment that the hypothesis above is correct, and that selective learning applies to both aversion-based associations, as well as attraction-based associations. The next question that I would like to consider is if these biases have any influence on counter-conditioning protocols.
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, counter-conditioning refers to a classical conditioning process in which an attempt is made to alter the emotional association of a particular event or stimulus by pairing it with an event or stimulus which has an opposing emotional effect. A simple example of this would be to take a dog that is afraid of a flag blowing in the wind, and present it with food/treats every time it sees a flag. In theory, if the procedure is executed properly, over time the dog should begin to associate the flag with the presentation of food, and will begin to have a more pleasant emotional response to the sight of a flag.
If we apply our theory of selective learning to counter-conditioning, does it follow that the efficacy of a counter-conditioning procedure would be dependent on the nature of the two events/stimuli/emotions being paired? For example, does fear that is associated with a sight, such as a flag, respond better to food as a counterconditioning agent versus perhaps a toy, or a social reward (affection)?
Additionally, is it the type of emotion that matters most, rather than the type of stimulus? In other words, does it matter if the dog is in fear for her own safety, versus mildly annoyed? Does it matter if the stressor is related to a social anxiety (such as dog on dog aggression), versus a noise phobia (perhaps as the result of something falling and crashing to the ground near the dog)?
To take it one step further, can a negative reinforcer act as a counter-conditioning agent? I have written in the past about research that was conducted in the 1970’s that showed that behaviors that are learned through an escape/avoidance procedure (negative reinforcement) are maintained via a sense of relief and relaxation which occurs upon successfully eliminating or avoiding an aversive. In 1983, Daniel Tortora applied this finding in an interesting way. With the help of Tri-tronics, he designed an electronic collar which automatically produced a tone after the release of the stimulation button/termination of electrical stimulation. There was also a button that could produce the tone only. He used this system to rehabilitate 36 dogs who exhibited what he termed “Avoidance-motivated aggression.” Through the process of obedience training, the dogs learned to associate the tone with the sense of relief/relaxation/safety that they experienced after the stimulation button was released. He also used the tone-only button when the dogs successfully executed a command and avoided any stimulation.
Once the dogs were successfully conditioned to the meaning of the tone, he then put the dogs in a situation which normally would trigger an aggressive response, except he would give one of the previously trained commands, and present the tone to signal safety when they successfully completed the command.
The theory behind this procedure was that the dogs were using aggressive displays to achieve a sense of safety during a perceived threat. Tortora was using the conditioned safety signal (tone), to show the dogs that they could achieve the same sense of safety by behaving obediently and in a pro-social manner.
While I am not certain that this can truly be considered counter-conditioning, the results of his study were very similar to what we would desire from a traditional counter-conditioning procedure. Not only did Tortora report that aggression was successfully eliminated in all 36 dogs in the study (He followed up with each dog’s owner for a period of up to three years after the study concluded, and no dogs required re-training). Most interestingly, it was reported that each dog showed overall improvements in emotional stability, and evidence of an increased sense of “self-efficacy” or courage (Tortora p.176). In fact, Tortora noted that the safety tone, once learned, appeared to act as a conditioned positive reinforcer, thus supporting the theory that negative reinforcement plays a legitimate role as part of a counter-conditioning procedure.
Moreover, Tortora compared the results of his safety training experiment to several other protocols including differential reinforcement of alternative behavior, systematic desensitization, flooding, and punishment. In all cases, safety training was superior to the rest.
If we bring this back to our previous discussion, it appears that there may be some evidence that: A) negative reinforcement can play a role in counter-conditioning (either directly, or indirectly through the development of a unique safety signal which acts as positive reinforcement), B) counter-conditioning procedures can be susceptible to selective learning, and C) in the case of emotions that elicit avoidance-motivated behaviors, a program which involves negative reinforcement may be more effective than positive reinforcement alone for the purposes of counter-conditioning.
If that last statement turns out to be correct, then there are some interesting ethical implications. If we consider that avoidance-motivated behaviors are elicited by unpleasant emotions, then it follows that dogs who are displaying avoidance-motivated behaviors are suffering from diminished emotional welfare. If (1) it turns out that counter-conditioning, facilitated either directly or indirectly by negative reinforcement, is the most effective means of counter-conditioning those unpleasant emotions and producing the greatest overall reduction of stress when compared to other types of reinforcers, and (2) we assert that a training procedure is to be judged as “humane” by assessing its overall effect on emotional welfare and the overall increase or reduction on stress, then it follows that, at least in some cases, a training approach that involves negative reinforcement may be the most humane choice.
Admittedly, this discussion has been largely based on hypothesis. However, I hope at the very least what might be taken from this is that a comparison of various training procedures, particularly in reference to determining what constitutes “humane” dog training, is far more complex than it might initially appear. Oversimplification of the matter will likely lead to a position that does not hold true across the broad range of potential training contexts. In any conversation in which the question “Which training philosophy is better?” is posed, it should always be followed by “Better at what?” The more we define the “what,” the more likely we are to realize that these questions may not be as easy to answer as we once thought.
Domjam, M. & Wilson, N.E. 1972. Specificity of cue to consequence in aversion learning in the rat. Psychonomic Science, 26, 143-5.
Tortora, D.F. (1983). Safety training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs. J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 176-214.
Dickinson, Anthony. Contemporary Animal Learning Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.
Denny M.R. (1976). Post aversive relief and relaxation and their implications for behavior therapy. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 7: 315-321.
I wish I could be a reward-only trainer. I don’t enjoy correcting dogs or putting any “pressure” on them. I love dogs. That’s why I chose this career.
Unfortunately, because I specialize in helping dog owners to achieve success in real world
situations, some amount of pressure/correction/punishment is often necessary. The reality is that even in situations where a reward-only approach could potentially work for the dog, it often doesn’t work for the dog-human team. The tremendous amount of required skill, patience, time etc. is often unattainable, unrealistic, and out of reach for the average dog owner. I’m not happy about this, but it is the reality that dog trainers are faced with. Even if all dog owners started on the right track from puppyhood, this would be a challenge. Working with owners who have dropped the ball of puppy training, or rescue dogs that often come with a bit of “baggage” only emphasizes the issue.
I wish I could be a reward-only trainer, but if I were I wouldn’t be able to help nearly as many dog owners to achieve balance with their dogs.
I want to help as many dog owners as possible, but doing so requires that I take part in the less comfortable, less enjoyable, less than ideal parts of dog training.
cog·ni·tive dis·so·nance n. [PSYCHOLOGY] the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, esp. as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
This dichotomy is something I often struggle with. But I shouldn’t.
I understand the reward-only movement, and why it’s so alluring. Contrary to many people outside of this movement, I do actually believe, that in some cases, it is possible to create truly balanced and reliable dogs without the use of negative reinforcement or positive punishment. I have seen a very few skilled trainers who have been able to achieve sufficient real world reliability with their own dogs using an only reward-based approach. Those people are few and far between, but I am glad they are there, to inspire the rest of us to think outside of the box to achieve more with rewards.
However, although I have traveled around the country and worked with hundreds of trainers, I am yet to encounter a reward-only trainer who is able to reliably achieve those same results with the average family. Especially when it comes to modifying serious behavioral problems. This is only to be expected. If only a small percentage of professional trainers are achieving real world reliability (not just excelling in a sport) with their own dogs, is it realistic to expect the average dog owner who has only a fraction of the skill, experience, patience, and time to be able to do it?
As a trainer who works with families, I am regularly faced with situations where those families have been through multiple reward-only programs without success, and they are nearly ready to give up on their dog. To do what’s truly in the best interest of both the dog and the owner, a little pressure/correction can make a world of difference. And the end result of that, seeing the family and their dog “whole” again, is what gets me up every morning. Without someone to teach them the proper way to use negative reinforcement and positive punishment as a part of a well rounded training program, both the family and the dog would continue to suffer.
I’ve heard all the arguments on both sides:
“Dogs will never be reliable and respect their owner if all the person does is dispense treats”
Well, go hang out with someone like Susan Garrett in Ontario and tell me how she managed to do it?
“If you can’t train a dog without the use of aversives, then you shouldn’t own a dog”
Well, then we will have to immediately euthanize billions of dogs around the world. There is already an overpopulation issue, and if we eliminate all but the best of the best, elite dog owners, we would have a big mess on our hands. People are going to use pressure/corrections with their dogs out of necessity, and the responsible thing to do is to provide education so at least they do it properly and fairly.
The arguments on both sides are endless. They exist in the industry, on social media, and inside of me. If you are a professional dog trainer who truly wants the best for dogs, these arguments should exist inside of you too.
Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species…discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds… Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset.
-Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
These contradicting views are essential for the progress of the industry. Without the desire for more humane dog training that created and continues to drive the reward-only movement, dog trainers would still be using antiquated techniques such as filling a hole with water and submerging a dog’s head to discourage digging, or suspending their feet off the ground with a choke chain until they vomit to discourage unruly leash manners (Yes both these “methods” were accepted and published in dog training manuals of the mid 1900’s).
Without trainers who continue to question the limitations of reward-only training, and who are willing to confront the less-comfortable parts of training when punishment may be necessary, many families would be left frustrated and without the help they need.
When these arguments take place in places like social media, they fuel hatred and anger. However, when we embrace these contradictions within ourselves, they fuel progress and innovation.
Whereas the industry used to be split into distinct camps: Trainers who use “force” and trainers who use “bribery.” The truly modern dog trainer employs the best from both sides. We now understand that “reward” doesn’t equal “bribe”, and “pressure” doesn’t equal “force, fear and pain.” We are using sophisticated reward-based protocols to shape behavior and improve the dog’s desire to learn, while using subtle and graceful applications of pressure to increase reliability and bridge the gaps where an individual constraints may limit us otherwise.
We should all be continuing to become more skilled with reward-based techniques. The more skilled you become, the less pressure you will find yourself using. We should also all be refining our skills when it comes to negative reinforcement and punishment, so that when we do have to use some pressure, we can do it with the utmost care and consideration for the dog.
The reward-only trainer who is content with seeing their clients struggle in the name of staying true to their idealized view of what constitutes “humane” dog training should be ashamed of themselves.
The “balanced” trainer who gives the occasional treat, but is perfectly happy relying on pressure to get the job done, without pausing for a moment and considering that perhaps the reason they need to use pressure is due to a deficiency of their own skills, should probably find a new profession.
I don’t care which side of the fence you fall on. Put your ideals aside, embrace the turmoil inside of yourself, and help us lead this profession and this craft into the future.
Sisyphus was the King of Ephyra, and he had a reputation for defying the Gods and being a bit of a trickster. One of his best known exploits came at the end of his life when Hades, the God of the Underworld came to claim him, bringing along a pair of handcuffs. Sisyphus, in all his cunning and mischief, managed to persuade Hades to demonstrate the handcuffs on himself. Sisyphus further took advantage of this turn of events by locking the handcuffed Hades in his closet.
Eventually Sisyphus’ shenanigans caught up with him and he was brought to the underworld to receive his eternal punishment. For all his transgressions, he was condemned to an eternity of rolling a massive boulder up a hill. What made this especially torturous
was not that the hill was infinitely tall; in fact by exerting all his strength Sisyphus was able to reach the top. However, the moment he reached the peak and was ready to rest and rejoice in his accomplishments, the darn boulder rolled right back down to the bottom. Sisyphus, tired and frustrated, had to start the process all over again. And on it went for eternity….
Now, for lack of a clever segue, I’m going to abruptly shift gears. But don’t let the tale of King Sisyphus slip too far from your mind.
Negative reinforcement is one of the most widely used and versatile aspects of how animals learn. Technically speaking, negative reinforcement refers to the elimination of a stimulus (generally unpleasant), for the purposes of encouraging or strengthening of behavior. In dog training, negative reinforcement refers to when the dog learns to turn off (or escape) an unpleasant sensation, and later learns to avoid the unpleasant sensation altogether by responding to a specific cue.
Used properly, negative reinforcement can strengthen and solidify your dog’s response to known commands, and make that response far more reliable and resistant to extinction. The key, however, is to learn to use negative reinforcement properly. An incorrect understanding of negative reinforcement can make training stressful for the dog. At best, using negative reinforcement incorrectly can simply slow down your training progress and limit the overall reliability of the results.
While there are many mistakes that are commonly made when it comes to the use of negative reinforcement (which I will refer to as R-), I would like to use the story of King Sisyphus illustrate one of the most common ones: During the initial conditioning, or instructional phases of training, when the dog is learning how their actions can control the stimulus (or pressure), no sooner than the dog completes the task asked of it, then they are instantly released and/or given another command and the dog has to escape the pressure again.
To illustrate by way of example, let’s take the early stage of remote collar conditioning where the dog learns to go his bed in response to the stimulation*. The trainer presses the button on the transmitter on a low setting (only a mild tickle or annoyance to the dog), and then guides the dog to his bed. As the dog goes to his bed, the trainer releases the button and the dog is praised and rewarded. Then, after only a brief moment, the dog is released and the exercise is started again (the trainer presses the button, guides the dog etc.).
What we must remember is that it is the cessation of the collar pressure that is reinforcing to the dog. In order to really take advantage of this reinforcement, the dog needs a moment to enjoy his accomplishment and the sense of relief and relaxation that comes with it. In other words, when the dog successfully removes the stimulation, give them a minute to savor it.
When we drill our dogs with a rapid succession of commands during R- training, we are essentially giving our dogs the same fate as Sisyphus. However, training should be a fun and enjoyable experience for the dog. The “curse of Sisyphus” erodes the value of the reinforcement, thus eroding the dog’s desire to work with us, causing them undue frustration, and slowing down our progress.
Don’t give the dog the curse of Sisyphus.
Moreover, the more motivating the stimulus or pressure is, the more important it is to give the dog this extra bit of time.
After all, if Sisyphus was given a chance to sit down and catch his breath between boulder rolls, perhaps an extended break at lunch for a Panini and a glass of wine, and two solid days off on the weekend, maybe his fate wouldn’t have been so torturous (heck, it’s just a solid days work!).
In addition to potentially causing undue stress during training, we may also be missing out on one of the potential benefits of negative reinforcement training.
For those with just a casual interest in training, you can probably stop here. For those dog nerds like myself, you may want to read on, I’m going to get all sciency for a moment.
As stated earlier, negative reinforcement training ultimately has two components. First, the dog must learn to turn off, or “escape” the pressure when they feel it. Second, they learn to avoid it all together by responding to a predictive cue (i.e. our command). One of the unique and desirable qualities of this later avoidance learning is that once the dog learns how to avoid the pressure, they continue to do so for many repetitions without needing to be exposed to the pressure again. In fact, done properly, this type of learning is one of the most resistant to extinction.
Early researchers postulated that what was maintaining the dog’s response in the absence of actual pressure was a classically conditioned fear response when the cue is given. This seems to make sense. The dog hears a command, and responds out of fear of the consequence for not responding. The problem was that the evidence simply did not support this theory. Dogs wear their emotions on their sleeves, and they are terrible liars. What researchers observed was that when dogs were properly conditioned through negative reinforcement and avoidance learning, not only did they respond reliably, but they did so with very happy and relaxed dispositions.
More research and a new theory were needed to explain this phenomenon. Along came the safety signal hypothesis. Several researchers (see M.R Denny, R.G Wiesman/J.S Litner, and D.F Tortora) recognized that after the removal of pressure, the dogs experienced a sense of relief and relaxation. Further, as the dogs learned to successfully avoid pressure, any potential unpleasant emotions faded quickly, but the sense of relief and relaxation remained. Thus it is the pleasant emotions of relief and relaxation which act as reinforcement, and account for the dog’s disposition and the continued maintenance of the desired behavior.
In fact, M.R Denny noted that the experience of relief occurs 3-5 seconds after the cessation of pressure, and lasts for 10-15 seconds, whereas relaxation requires approximately 2-5 minutes to produce full benefits**. He also noted that the effects appear to double when the dog experiences both relief and relaxation as opposed to just relief by itself.
In other words, if you give at least 2-15 seconds between reps, the dog experiences some reinforcement, but it if you give a full 2-5 minutes, the experience of reinforcement can effectively double.
What this means is that by giving ample time between repetitions during escape/avoidance training, not only are you avoiding giving your dog the curse of eternal damnation (a bit of an exaggeration I know), but you are doubling the pleasurable aspects of the training.
We can take advantage of this extra time. Research has shown that we can condition other signals to be associated with this sense of relaxation. Thus praising and interacting with the dog during this time can increase the value of your praise and help establish your interaction as a source of safety and comfort. The latter is immensely valuable for professional trainers who are regularly working with dogs with whom they are relatively unfamiliar.
Lastly, remember that this principle doesn’t only apply to leashes and collars. For instance, in the rehabilitation of dogs with social anxieties we are often working on how to relieve social pressures in appropriate ways. Taking a bit of extra time between exposures can help to amplify your results. The same applies to exposure to other forms of fear, phobia and anxiety as well.
Training with any kind of pressure is a responsibility, not a right. If you are going to do it, every effort should be made to do it well. Avoiding the curse of Sisyphus is just one of the many ways you can ensure you get the most out of your training.
*I recommend training dogs initially with the use of positive reinforcement techniques, and utilizing the electronic or remote collar only to solidify and reinforce the previously established training.
** Denny specifies that relief involves a strong autonomic factor, whereas relaxation involves striatial muscles and various motoric components.
Denny M.R. (1976). Post aversive relief and relaxation and their implications for behavior therapy. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry, 7: 315-321.
Denny M.R. (1983). Safety catch in behavior therapy: Comments on “safety” training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs. J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 215-217.
Lindsay S.R. (2000). The handbook of applied dog behavior and training. Vol 1, 295-296.
Tortora D.F. (1983). Safety training: The elimination of avoidance motivated aggression in dogs. J Exp Psychol Gen, 112: 176-214.
Weisman R.G. and Litner J.S. (1969). Positive conditioned reinforcement of Sidman avoidance in rats. J Comp Physiol Phychol, 68: 597-603.
We all know it, that voice in our head that plays on repeat phrases like:
“Am I good enough?”
“Is this unique enough?”
“I don’t deserve this.”
“I’m not ready.”
Although it is easy feel that you are the only person who struggles with this type of negative thinking, the truth is that everyone around you, even the those who appear to exude nothing but confidence, all struggle with self-defeating thinking. Although we may find some comfort in knowing that we all share the same struggle, it is also helpful to cultivate strategies to avoid letting ourselves be trapped and limited by the naysayer in our own head.
The internal dialogue of self-doubt is often seen as a toxic thought pattern that needs to be suppressed. Decades of self help gurus and motivational speakers have preached the value of positive thinking in an attempt to keep us from succumbing to the “resistance”. While I don’t want to undermine the value of positive thinking and visualization, for anyone who has tried to suppress self-doubt and replace it with positive thoughts, you know it is far easier said than done.
Self-doubt is a mechanism that is produced by our amygdala (read: lizard brain) that keeps our egos from becoming over-inflated and prevents us from “flying too close to the sun”. Evolutionarily speaking, self-doubt serves a protective function by keeping us from taking chances that could cause injury or death. But it becomes problematic when it prevents us from taking risks that may enhance our lives. Try as you might, you will never rid yourself of it completely, and like most demons, it thrives on the fight. The more you push against it, the stronger it can become.
If you are tired of fighting with self-doubt then I have one suggestion: Embrace it.
Here’s a little secret…I didn’t become successful as an entrepreneur because I was super-confident. I didn’t gain a reputation as an innovator in the dog training industry because I felt like I was doing a great job. The reason I have found this measure of success is because I was constantly questioning myself, and questioning my operational status quo.
The ultimate driving force that pushed me to look at things in new ways is the fact that I am constantly doubting the way I am currently doing things. I still question the way I do things everyday, which leaves open space to innovate and improve.
I learned to take self-doubt, embrace it, and turn it into a drive to do better.
Self-doubt can either paralyze you or push you. We all have the internal dialogue of resistance. We can’t make it go away, but we can choose how to respond to it.
Never forget, self-doubt is a demon. Demons hate being embraced. Demons hate seeing that all their efforts to hold you back are only pushing you into the lead. Listen to your doubt, smile at it’s attempts to paralyze you, and then put your nose to the grindstone and become stronger, smarter, and happier.
“I know he’s just trying to protect me, but I don’t know why”
This is a common sentiment among dog owners bringing their dogs into our training center for help. If you have owned multiple dogs, there’s a decent chance that at least one of them has displayed over-protective behavior. The problem behaviors most often associated this sentiment are the dog lunging, barking or snapping at passers-by while out on a walk.
For successful resolution of problems like these, it is helpful to first understand what is actually going on. The motivation behind the behavior is often difficult for us humans to grasp. Dogs that lunge, bark and snap at people or dogs on walks are rarely acting in defense of their owners. Rather, they are protecting themselves. Or at least that’s the way it begins…
In most cases, the first time a dog lunges at others while walking, it is because the dog feels threatened. While this feeling of threat may be generalized as a perceived threat to the whole family or “pack”, it begins with the dog itself feeling insecure or afraid. This fear can then evolve into protective behavior in two ways:
First, as was already stated above, if a dog perceives someone or something as a threat to the dog itself, it is easy for the perception of threat to be generalized to the rest of the people or dogs they are with. However, this by itself does not necessarily result in an aggressive display. We must remind ourselves that dogs are inherently social animals, and as is true with all social animals, part of their experience and behavior is shaped by social constructs or hierarchies. These hierarchies may be static, or fluid, set in stone, or situation dependent, but they exist nonetheless. Within canine society, high-ranking members play a variety of important roles, one of which is taking the lead in situations of threat or danger and protecting the rest of the group.
So does this mean that your lunging/barking dog thinks he is “dominant” over you?
Not likely. A more likely interpretation would be that he or she doesn’t have faith in your leadership, which translates into the dog not feeling secure in the faith that you will protect him or her if need be. In fact, it is probable that if your dog is predisposed to experiencing these kinds of insecurities, they are not the type of individual that is gunning for top position, and they would much rather enjoy their position somewhere in the middle of the pecking order. In other words, your dog probably doesn’t want to be acting like the leader, but they feel that they have to because no one else is taking the reigns. Truth be told, among domestic dogs, there are relatively few “truly dominant” individuals. When dogs who are not naturally programed to be in a leadership position feel compelled to take that role, it can often fill them with anxiety and stress, thus contributing to the explosive and irrational nature of their responses.
The second iteration of this evolution is related to, but not entirely the same as the first. One of the ironies of dog training is that we humans often forget that we are just animals as well, and we succumb to the same types of conditioning that our dogs do. Being caught off guard by your dog suddenly lunging at a passing person or animal can be incredibly distressing, and even borderline traumatic for some. After several of these experiences in close succession to one another, we very quickly succumb to classical conditioning, or more specifically a conditioned emotional response.
Although the sight of an oncoming jogger used to not bother you at all, after repeated pairings of that sight immediately followed by the scary and distressing experience of your dog lunging at them, you now find yourself overwhelmed with fear and anxiety at the mere sight of a jogger coming toward you while you are out walking your pup.
While your dog started off lunging at joggers because they themselves felt nervous, they now begin to notice that as the jogger approaches you become afraid and nervous too!
“I knew this jogger was bad news,” the dog exclaims to himself “even my human is afraid!”
One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to stay calm and controlled in conditions of danger or conflict. Thus, your fearful/anxious behavior simply deepens your dog’s lack of confidence in you as their leader.
Furthermore, your anxiety validates for the dog that they were correct in being concerned. “Even my human is afraid!”
The dog has no way of knowing that you aren’t afraid of the jogger, you are afraid of what your dog might do. All they perceive is that when joggers appear, you get nervous, and they put two and two together from there. You, the human who is short of breath and whose heart is racing under the weight of your anxiety surely must need your dog to protect you.
I in no way intend to undermine the importance of a clear plan for direct training and behavior modification of this issue. However, to embark on that path without an awareness of these underlying factors can leave us frustrated and confused as to why we aren’t seeing the progress we expect.
First and foremost, check the foundation of your relationship with your dog, and what you represent to them. Without going into a discussion of what constitutes healthy leadership, suffice it to say, avoid any advice which advocates pinning your dog to the ground or the like, and gravitate toward an approach that encourages leadership through clear and consistent parameters on activity and behavior, the regulation of valued resources, and an awareness of your own tone, energy and body language as you interact together.
Next, run a check on your emotions when you are out with your dog. If you find yourself feeling anxious or nervous, it is worth pursuing strategies to mitigate either the emotion itself, or at least the signs of it. Breathing exercises such as deep “belly breathing” and visualization can be powerful tools. I also find it important to be accepting and understanding toward yourself for having these emotions, and to recognize that it is natural to continue feeling anxious until you start having some success and positive experiences out with your dog. Until then…”fake it ‘till you make it”.
“Scientific education is based in the main of statistical truths and abstract knowledge and therefore imparts an unrealistic, rational picture of the world, in which the individual, as a nearly marginal phenomenon, plays no role. The individual, however, as an irrational data, is the true and authentic carrier of reality.”
– C.G. Jung
The modern dog trainer is faced with a daily conflict. Only one hand, the field of animal behavior is being pushed more and more towards scientific knowledge. On the other hand, we are presented regularly with dogs in need of training, and the treatment of unwanted behaviors, who are nothing less than individuals with unique characteristics, traits, and responses.
Far too often, we find ourselves stuck in the mode of scientific thinking. The problem occurs when we consider the fact that scientific theories are by their very nature statistical. They’re based on averages, which ignore all exceptions at either end of the scale and replace them with an abstract mean.
Consider if you will a bed of stones with an average weight of 5 ounces. This tells us very little about the real nature of the individual stones. Anyone who thought on the basis of this average, that he could pick up a stone of 5 ounces on the very first try would be in for a serious disappointment. In fact it very well may be the case that no stone weighing exactly 5 ounces exists.
What science gives us is a universal psychology of Canis familiaris as a species. This abstraction paints a picture of an average unit from which all individual features have been removed. However, these individual features are what are most important for understanding and training the individual dog in front of us. When scientific theory tells us that “Dogs” will respond to stimulus A with response Y, that may in fact give us very little insight into the actual nature of the dog we are working with.
This is not an argument to discard science. Not at all. As professionals it is of utmost importance for us to have a firm grasp of the scientific knowledge available to us, in order to have a framework to reference. Rather, this is a reminder to always read the dog as they present themselves in the moment, and maintain a feel for their uniqueness.
To treat the dog in front of us we must temporarily lay aside our scientific knowledge in order to adopt a free and open mind, and a completely new and unprejudiced attitude towards the individual.
Tyler G. Muto
*This post was inspired by and adapted from C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self. P. 5-8
This is a re-post from several years ago:
When I was roughly 5 years old my mother asked me if I would like to take karate classes.
My answer was flat out “No.”
About 6 months later I saw the movie “The Karate Kid,” and suddenly I had a change of heart.
I took my classes pretty seriously for kid. I climbed the ranks, competed at championships, and by the time I was 12, I earned my black belt, the youngest at my school.
I learned many important things during this time, and none of them had to do with fighting. If you were to ask me today, the most important thing I learned was self-discipline.
Merriam Webster defines self-discipline as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement”. It often involves controlling one’s emotions, actions, impulses and desires. An extremely valuable skill for a young man to learn.
When I hit my teenage years I discovered girls, skateboards, and cars among other things; and my karate lessons seemed boring in comparison. I quit.
The discipline I learned carried me through many difficult situations and decisions, and helped form the adult I became. When I was 27, I had an itch, I needed martial arts back in my life, so I began taking Kung Fu classes.
When I was searching for a school, I had a particular vision of what I wanted. Again, it had nothing to do with fighting skill. I missed the discipline. I found what I was looking for at the Gold Summit Martial Arts Institute. My teacher, Laoshi Markle is strict in the most traditional sense. She is knows exactly what she expects from her students, and she accepts nothing less. She will not hesitate to scold someone for offering less that their best effort, and compliments are hard to earn. Because of this I find myself working just as hard to please her as I would my own father (I recently completed a class on one foot because I had a sprained ankle), and on the occasion that I receive one of her compliments it fills me with a sense of personal satisfaction that lasts for the remainder of the day.
What she knows is something essential, that great teachers have known throughout the ages. Her firm clear teaching, carefully doled out praise, and clear expectations have taught us to keep ourselves in line. The more advanced students never need scolding, they practice self-discipline.
Now, on to dog training. I am a firm believer that dogs can and do learn self-discipline. Not only that, but the vast majority of problem dogs that come into the K9 Connection dog training center have none of it. Most problem dogs that I see have never learned to regulate their own impulses, emotions, and actions.
This often is a function of either no training, or ineffective training. Many dogs, without learning that negative consequences can result from certain behaviors, never learn to temper their actions; they see no reason to.
If, when I first stepped into Kung Fu class, I saw that Laoshi ran her school following the only praise and reward style of teaching, I would have turned around and left, immediately. I knew that I would only reach my fullest potential with a teacher who will be firm when necessary, even if it is unpleasant in the moment. I crave the balance of reward and consequence, it makes her praise more appealing and it assures me that I am getting the feedback I need to grow as a person. Laoshi isn’t abusive; she never hits us or insults us. She doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, but she will always tell us what we need to hear.
Your dog craves this balance too. Structure and discipline can help a dog reach a state of peace and fulfillment. Instinctually, I think both you and your dog already know this.
Dog training can be a lot of fun, but it may not always be fun. Sometimes a dog needs to learn to do things that he may not really want to do. We work him through it. These are the moments that develop self-discipline.
There are times when it is preferable to create a situation where the dog wants to do what you are asking. You can add incentives like treats or toys to make the dog enjoy the process. To me however, an equally important part of training is seeing what happens when the dog doesn’t necessarily want to do what you are asking. Will they do it anyway? Will they use self-discipline without there having to be something external ‘in it for them’ such as a treat or toy?
One of the main exercises I use towards this goal is the down-stay position. Not the typical “stay for two minutes and you’ll get a treat” that the average training class teaches. I purposely ask the dog to do this when he knows there is no treat involved, and the minimum I require my students to strive for is a half-hour stay. During this time frame, the dog is going to have many impulses to get up and do other things, but I want to see him begin to control those impulses.
Essentially I want him to think twice before he acts, a habit that can carry over into every other aspect of his life. How great of a skill is that, think twice before you act, can you imagine?
-Tyler G. Muto