Am I A Monster?

Dogs 004I want to make something crystal clear:  I do not hate anyone.  There are some methods I don’t like.  I don’t like seeing dogs in a pinch collar, a shock collar, or a choke collar. I believe these methods to be harmful to the dog, and to the dog owner relationship.  I never like to see a dog that was trained with fear and punishment.  That being said, the trainers that use these techniques are regular human beings, like you and I.  How do I know this?  I was once one of these trainers.

Those of you who have known me long enough know that the face pictured above is my beloved beagle, Molly, who was trained using a shock collar.  I have no bigger regret in life than I put my baby girl through such a thing, but I did so with the best of intentions.  I had always, and will always, believe that a strong recall can save a dog’s life.  And I thought back then I couldn’t get that without the use of force.  It’s what those who taught me to train told me, and they were taught by others.  We were all in the same boat of doing things we regarded as “right” for the dog according to what we had been taught and what was common practice, but we were wrong.  Not bad people, not sociopaths, not people who would ever tolerate animal abuse (as we defined it in our ignorance).  Just people who loved our dogs, and wanted what was best for them.

I won’t even tell you I didn’t see it.  There was a part of me that had to turn a blind eye to what it was doing to my girl.  I knew no other way, and I wanted my girl to be safe off lead, and so, even though there were times my stomach tightened when I had to use the equipment, I thought it was necessary.  And I convinced myself it wasn’t hurting her.  I convinced myself it was best for her.

It was not until I spent time with several wonderful trainers who used reward based training that I truly was able to acknowledge the damage I had done to my Molly girl.  They did not judge me.  They did not berate me.  They simply showed me ways I could do it in the future without the use of painful and stressful tools.

One day I saw an advertisement for a workshop with Gail Fisher.  I admit I had no idea who she was, but my friend and mentor Maggie told me to go to the workshop.  I was a little horrified when I walked in and realized it was a clicker training workshop.  I had not anticipated that.  But Gail was fantastic, and she showed how, with good timing and lots of positive reinforcement, you could train a dog to do just about anything.  I left a convert.  I have never looked back.

But I always look forward.  I look for new information, new science, and new techniques everywhere I turn.  I have even learned from some trainers that I don’t agree with, and been able to modify their techniques to fit my own convictions.  I firmly believe you never need to cause fear or pain to a dog in order to train it.  I didn’t always believe that.  I wish I had started with Gail.  But even she used punishment and fear at one point in her career.  She is very open about it.  And I want to be very open about it.

I know trainers that use aversive techniques can be terrific people who love dogs.  And, for their sake, and for the sake of the dogs that they work with, I hope they love to learn, and will be open to new ideas.  And when they see that dogs can be trained without fear, pain, and intimidation, I hope that they will give up the traditional training methods and opt for methods that are fun and rewarding to the dog.  Positive reward training works, but it doesn’t make me a better person than someone who uses punishment.  It just means I have seen the power of positive reinforcement, and the damage that can be done when fear is used to motivate.  I know because I have been there.  I wish I hadn’t damaged my Molly in my learning process.  But she, being a beagle, has forgiven me, and loves me with all her heart.


Beating a Dead Zebra – Final Note

angry chiThe apparent success of punishment can be convincing.  Punishing will often result in an end to a behavior.  It may also result in the temporary suppression of a behavior.  At least, as long as the one doling out the punishment is present.  Dog pees on the floor, and his owner rubs his nose in it.  Next time the dog needs to pee he slips behind the couch.

Dog growls or shows aggression.  Punishment happens.  Dog no longer shows signs of aggression.  But is the underlying emotional cause gone?  Absolutely not!  Punishment of these warning signs often leads to dogs that bite “without warning”.  We humans, in our infinite wisdom, are notorious for punishing out the warnings our dogs give prior to biting.  It doesn’t change the anxiety that leads to the aggression, it just changes the dog’s decision to warn us about our transgressions.

Aggression begets aggression.  That is a fact, and it often occurs on both sides of the equation.  We punish something we don’t like, get a result, and next time it happens we punish again, often with harsher punishment than before.  We feel a sense of satisfaction from the suppression of the unwanted behavior.  Because of this we are rewarded for punishing.  Basic behaviorism tells us that any behavior that is reinforced will grow stronger.  It is a hard pill to swallow, but it happens all the time when we use punishment.

Aggression also can lead to more aggression from our dogs.  Because we are now perceived as a threat to them because of our perceived erratic and violent behavior, they must defend themselves.  If we set up an adversarial relationship with them we should not be surprised when that is what we end up with.

Beating a Dead Zebra – Part 5

cane_corso_italiano_6Learned helplessness occurs when an animal/human finds their situation so out of their control, they eventually stop trying to change or escape it.  This is the reason that humans stay in abusive relationships, and it happens when punishment is used with our four legged friends.  Because our timing is not perfect, our dog doesn’t understand why the punishment happened.  Because (from the dog’s perspective) the punishment happens at random regardless of his behavior, the dog feels powerless to change it and will simply stop moving.

You may have seen this watching some of the popular TV shows featuring dog “professionals”.  Some describe it as calm or submissive.  What it is:  helplessness.  The dog has given up.  You can do whatever you want to him and he will not react because he has decided there is simply no point.  No hope for him.

Learned helplessness has no place in our training regimen, nor does it have a place in our relationship with our dogs.  There is nothing healthy about it.  I have seen a dog stand in one place as if frozen while given commands that he supposedly ignores while he is repeatedly shocked with a “remote” or “electric stimulation” collar.  Chances are the dog simply doesn’t know the cue well enough to perform in his current surroundings.  A dog in this situation is learning nothing except to accept his fate as inevitable.  It will never result in his obedience, just his misery.

Beating a Dead Zebra – Part 4

Next on our list:  Modeling.  Modeling is seen in humans when children live through abuse.  The often grow up to be abusers.  Thank goodness our dogs are so often capable of living through horrendous torture and still coming out the other side without any apparent signs.  But as a general rule, violence in a relationship begets more violence.

Even without modeling, increased aggression can take place.  According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior:

Animals in which the punishment does not immediately suppress the behavior may escalate in their efforts to avoid the punishment to the point where they become aggressive. Those
who already show aggressive behavior may exhibit more intense and injurious aggressive behaviors.

What we humans fail to realize is that, when a dog feels threatened it only has a few options.  The first choice is usually to run, but if that doesn’t work they give us a warning growl.  If that doesn’t work, they raise the lip, lunge, and ultimately bite.  Our use of punishment can cause our dog to feel as if they must defend themselves.  Please don’t put your dog in that position.

Beating a Dead Zebra – Part 3

So, going with our list, avoidance is next.  This one is fairly straightforward.  If you punish your dog the dog is likely to be unaware of your intentions.  Most people (even trainers) don’t have the absolutely precise timing that it would take to allow the dog to associate punishment with the act he’s being punished for.

So what does he associate the punishment with?  YOU!  When you aren’t around, no punishment.  When you are around… So now you have a dog that is afraid of you because you dole out punishment seemingly at random.  Do it enough and your dog may begin to avoid you.

One way trainers see this a lot is when a dog has been punished for soiling in the house.  After a while, a dog will stop wanting to go to the bathroom in front of his owner, regardless of where they are.  The dog learns that “when I go to the bathroom in the presence of my owner I am punished, therefore I will go behind the couch, and NOT get into trouble for it.”

Another fairly obvious time avoidance comes into play is with recall.  If the dog comes to you with appeasement (some people call it guilt, but he’s just trying to make you understand he is just a wee pup and doesn’t want trouble) and you punish him it can effect how successful you are in getting your dog to come when called.  He may have had enough experiences with you where he approaches you only to be faced with something unpleasant, so he stops coming to you at all.  He may even run the other way.  No punishment if you can’t catch him!

So don’t give your dog any reason to not want to be around you.  You need him to enjoy your company if you are going to have a dog that pays attention and listens to you.

Beating a Dead Zebra – Part 2

Okay, so on the list I gave you in my last post the first one is not really applicable to dogs.  Dogs don’t act in a passive aggressive way.  I know some people will argue with me.  I myself had a little dog that would pee under my chair every time I sat at my computer.  And when she did, I stopped computing, and took her outside (which she loved) and then cleaned up the mess.

So why did she do it?  Well, what was the result?  A trip outside!  My attention!  She won the jackpot.  So the next time she saw me engrossed in working on the computer and wanted me to refocus, she did what worked:  Peed on the floor under my chair.

So the lesson here is to pay attention to what you are reinforcing.  In order to do that, you must begin to see reinforcement from your dog’s perspective.  Just because you THINK your dog should like something does not mean he does.  And if he doesn’t like something, it is not reinforcing.

Let’s look at what is important to a dog.  First, and most obvious, sustenance.  Most dogs are highly motivated by food, especially stuff like boiled chicken or freeze dried salmon.  With dogs, the stinkier the food, the more they seem to like it.  Food’s an easy one for us to control.  We can very easily give it when they are doing what we like, and withhold it when they do something we don’t like.  Easy.

Attention is also important to your dog.  Your attention is worth a huge premium.  So be careful where you give it, and how you give it.  Dogs don’t always recognize negative attention as negative.  Especially if that’s all they get.  So carefully use your attention when you see a behavior you like, and withhold it (unless it’s dangerous to dog or human) when he does something you don’t like.  I’m talking about more than just praise.  I am talking about a look, a touch, a word.  Anything that tells your dog you are paying attention.

Toys and games are also reinforcing to most dogs.  Find the ones your dogs like, and use them as tools to increase behaviors.  Any behavior you reinforce will increase.  Behaviors that are not reinforced in any way will very likely go away.  Why would the dog waste precious energy on something that achieved nothing?  Dogs are pretty ingenious that way.  They don’t waste energy on things that don’t pay off.

So, summary:  Reinforce stuff you like.  Don’t reinforce stuff you don’t like.  You will see your dog begin to make better choices in his behavior.

Beating A Dead Zebra

I don’t want to feel like I am wasting my time trying to convince people that they do not need to cause their dog distress in order to get their dog to behave.  It is SO important to me that people understand their dogs and don’t just go with the latest fad because it looks good on TV.  There is so much more to it.  When you hear hoofbeats, it really isn’t smart to think of Zebras, at least not here in the U.S.

So in the days to come I will be addressing some of the most important issues with regard to our relationship with the four legged members of our families.  Let me start by saying this:  You DO NOT HAVE TO USE PUNISHMENT and moreover, you SHOULD NOT use punishment when training your dog!  What constitutes punishment?  Anything that you add to the equation that the dog finds distasteful.

So why do I keep harping on about punishment?  According to the latest and greatest college textbook on general psychology in regards to how we learn there are a number of bad side effects to punishment:

  1. Passive aggressiveness…
  2. Avoidance behavior…
  3. Modeling…
  4. Learned Helplessness…
  5. Temporary Suppression…
  6. Increased Aggression…

Carpenter, Siri (2009-10-12). Visualizing Psychology, 2nd Edition (Page 155). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Is this the relationship you want to have with your dog?  An adversarial one?  One where, if he behaves, it is because he is afraid of you?  I like to think not.  So in the next few posts I am going to discuss these side effects and how they will damage the relationship you have with your dog.