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On this past Sunday, I was walking my dog Annika in Southern Pines.  It was a nice day, though cold, and we were enjoying ourselves.

Until the same 3 dogs rushed up to us.  Now, I don’t always follow the rules either, so I don’t get too upset if people have their dogs off leash in these settings as long as they are under control.   If there are no cars in the parking lots at White Pines Preserves (it happens a lot), I put Annika on a 100 foot leash instead of the required 6 foot leash.  But if anyone else is there, I keep her close.  After all, while Annika is perfect, she is a big dog, and some people are afraid of big dogs.  They could be allergic to dogs.  And sometimes other peoples’ dogs are not dog-friendly.  It’s not fair for me to put other peoples’ dogs in a situation that makes them nervous or aggressive.  So I don’t do it because I’m not a jerk.  But anyway, I don’t get too upset if someone thinks they’re alone and has their dogs off leash as long as they have great recall.  

Since I’m about to start a rant, you can easily predict that these dogs were not under control.  They didn’t seem aggressive, thankfully.  When they all rushed us, they only sniffed and did normal dog things.  Annika was like “Whoah, that’s a lot of dog all at once” and I could tell she wasn’t entirely comfortable meeting 3 strangers when she was being restrained and they were not.  So I was eager to move along.  I don’t want Annika to be uncomfortable going on walks, thinking she’s gotta be on the lookout all the time.  

The owners yelled at their dogs, called their names, and shocked them each several times.  I was thinking to myself now that they know we’re here, this won’t happen again.  

I’m an idiot.  It happened 4 more times within the hour.  Why did I expect people to be considerate of others?  I’m typically much more cynical than that.  But this isn’t about me being uncharacteristically generous in assessing others.  It’s not even about these people being incredibly self-centered and inconsiderate of others.  

This is about the insane use of positive punishment in dog training.

What is Positive Punishment?

Positive punishment is one of the 4 methods of operant conditioning used to train dogs, other animals, people- pretty much everyone.  Operant conditioning is a way to teach based on rewards and punishments.  The idea is that our behavior is shaped by the consequences of that behavior in the past.  If we liked what happened when we performed a certain behavior, we are likely to repeat that behavior.  If we didn’t like what happened when we performed that behavior, we are less likely to repeat the behavior.  

We behave in ways that give us pleasure or avoid pain.  Dogs do the same.  As far as we can tell, all life forms behave the same way.  Even bacteria move away from things that will kill them if possible.  

There are 4 methods: positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement.  Positive doesn’t mean “good” in this context.  It means you’re adding something to the system.  Negative doesn’t mean “bad”, it means you’re removing something from the system.  Punishment means to decrease a behavior, and reinforcement means to increase a behavior.  So positive punishment means to add something to the system to decrease a behavior.  Positive reinforcement means to add something to the system to increase a behavior.  Negative punishment means to remove something from the system to decrease a behavior, and negative reinforcement means to remove something to increase a behavior. 

 

Operant Conditioning Grid

Modern Dog Training vs Punishment

Peaceful walk on Whitehall Trail

Modern science-based trainers use positive reinforcement to train their dogs.  We give the dog a reward to reinforce the desired behavior.   Some trainers, who are woefully uneducated or just like to be paid to torture animals, rely almost exclusively on positive punishment.  They believe that correcting the bad behavior using physical or emotional pain, will effectively communicate what behavior they do want.  And they are willing to let the dog try the 10 million behavioral options, getting painfully corrected each time, until they learn the one thing the trainer wants.  

Guess what that does to the dog’s emotional health?  Nothing good!  Some dogs will just shut down and do only what they are told.  In the business world, this is called quiet quitting.  Nobody wants to do more than the bare minimum because they were corrected for so many things that they gave up trying.  Instead of clearly communicating and reinforcing the desired behavior, all these workers get is reprimanded for trying to solve their own problems.  So they stop trying and just ask the boss what to do in every situation.  Dogs do the same thing.  Scientific studies have proven that dogs trained with positive punishment are slower to learn new behaviors and slower to follow cues.  

That’s the best-case scenario.  In the worst case, the dog is so emotionally harmed that it fears for its life and becomes aggressive.  This is especially problematic when the dog’s behavior is caused by fear to begin with, and the trainer uses punishment to suppress the dog’s expression of fear.  For example, if a dog is afraid of other dogs while being leashed, they may bark and lunge to make the scary dog go away.  It works for me an Annika- when a dog is barking and lunging at us, we sure as heck get out if their way!  That is very reinforcing for the other dog.  They made the scary thing go away- they avoided pain (fear) by acting aggressively.  It’s going to keep barking and lunging as long as it works, which it almost always will.

A punishment based trainer doesn’t understand, respect, or even care about the underlying emotional cause for the dog’s behavior.  They are only interested in punishing the behavior and not any consequences that it has on the dog.  So they shock or choke the dog whenever it barks and lunges.  Feeling confident in solving the problem- the dog is more scared of being choked or shocked than the other dog- they declare the dog trained and give them back the the owners.  The owners let their neighbor’s dog come over and their dog attacks them without warning.  What happened?  The dog decided the fear of the neighbor’s dog is greater than the fear of punishment and defended itself.  

What Happened on the Trail?

Let’s go back to the park and discuss how this fits in to Annika and I getting rushed by the same 3 dogs 5 times within the hour despite the dogs getting shocked multiple times each episode.  

I want to be clear- this is not the dogs’ faults.  The dogs seem nice enough for now.  They were just trying to meet new friends.  

But every time they meet another dog and get shocked, they are more likely to associate other dogs with punishment and pain.  The owners run the real risk of causing their dogs to be aggressive when they were not in the first place.  They haven’t taught the dogs what they want them to do.  The owners are stuck in the rut of “don’t do that” but haven’t given their dogs any alternative desired behaviors.  A dog can’t not do a thing.  A dog can do a thing, or do a different thing.  They never gave the dogs a different cue.  They yelled at them, said “no”, called their names, but never said “come” which would have been a perfectly reasonable alternative behavior to rushing up on Annika and me.  

Annika is trained to walk with me no matter what.  We used positive reinforcement to build up her solid recall over 100 feet distance and with tons of distractions.  She listens to me even if there are squirrels, people, other dogs, cats, whatever.  When I say come, she comes.  We were on a 6 foot leash or this walk.  When we got ambushed, I just kept on walking and so did she.  We didn’t want to stop and see what the other dogs wanted to do, and Annika wasn’t keen on being the only leashed dog in the bunch not knowing these characters.  Meanwhile, the owners kept shocking their dogs while they were nearby.

The dogs figured out that Annika and I were no fun and eventually went back to their owners, who promptly yelled at them.  If you want your dog to come when called instead of doing something WAY more fun, then you had better make it worth their while somehow.   The owners could have handsomely rewarded their dogs for returning.  As it was, they were punished for listening, which is the second reason they didn’t go back to the owners.  The first reason is the owners never asked them to.  They never communicated what the desired behavior was, and even when the dogs offered the desired behavior, they got punished for it.  

I didn’t have time to ask what the heck they were thinking they were doing with their dogs.  We were on a tight schedule to finish the walk so I could come home and grill dinner.  Plus, I was in the mood to enjoy a nice walk with Annika, not get into an argument over their insane dog training methods.  Which I’m sure would have resulted.  For whatever reason, people who shock, choke, and yank their dogs have a hard time stopping even when you point out it doesn’t work.  Which it obviously didn’t.  If it had worked, the dogs wouldn’t have repeated the same wrong behavior 5 times in an hour.  

One definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.  

Can we please stop the insanity in dog training?!

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