In Dog Training, Focus On The Positive Vs Punishment

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Hundreds of dog trainers (actually probably upwards of close to 1000) from across the country converged on Covington in October. It was the very first time that the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) has held its large annual conference here and I was fortunate to be among the attendees. APDT is a professional organization of individual trainers who are committed to becoming better trainers through education.

Steve WhiteSteve White was one of the presenters. Accredited as a master trainer by the Washington State Police Canine Association, Steve has served as vice president of the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and has been an instructor for the K-9 Academy for Law Enforcement. He specializes in teaching behavior modification, tracking, and scent work through the use of positive reinforcement-based operant conditioning.

In his talk, he reminded us about the danger of using punishment in our training. He even went so far as to compare aversive-based training with a nuclear war.

“If the blast doesn’t get you, the fallout will,” he said.

How about that for making a point?

I’ve seen it all too often…a dog whose fear issues have only heightened, who has become aggressive or disinterested in learning OR a bird that cowers in a corner of its cage or gives a nasty bite because an owner used a form of punishment to stop an unacceptable behavior.

Dr. Susan Friedman has written extensively about the topic. “We are virtually surrounded by punishing strategies to influence behavior. Fines, penalties and reprimands whirl around us like leaves in a storm,” she had written. “Unfortunately every time an animal responds to punishment by doing something less often, the person who delivered the punishment is rewarded.”

 So, how do you define punishment?

Functionally speaking, it is any consequence to a behavior that reduces its frequency or intensity – but that is a very individualized. What one animal may see as aversive, another may find rewarding. Uh oh!

And punishment is just an umbrella term for a number of strategies. A mild strategy is withdrawing or removing something from the environment such as each time your bird chews on your ear, you gently remove him from your shoulder. No rough handling is ever needed – just immediate removal followed by an opportunity to do it right.

Another example of a mild punishment is to ignore a behavior – but that can be too difficult (for us not our pet) to do properly and affect change. One of the reasons so many birds have become loud and incessant screamers is because their owner ‘tried’ to ignore the behavior but couldn’t. And, it is only after the bird has increased the intensity of the behavior that the owner finally gave in with attention (remember – whether something is aversive or not is in the eyes of the behaver). Then guess what? The owner inadvertently reinforced the louder, more obnoxious scream. Ugh!

Ignoring an unwanted behavior while also hugely reinforcing another acceptable behavior instead is a much more effective approach. In fact, it is that approach that I learned over 11 years ago that not only saved my relationship with Barnaby but got me hooked on the study of behavior. (I have the story of my behavior plan in solving Barnaby’s screaming on my pet behavior blog.)

I won’t detail the more aggressive strategies of punishment here because I’d rather not focus on them. I’d rather focus on the fact that we can affect behavior change in our pets AND foster a love for learning if we switch the way we look at it. Instead of working to get your pets to stop doing something, work to teach your pet the behavior that you would like to see him do instead…then reinforce the heck out of it.

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