Punishment vs. Rewards, big showdown.

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Everyday someone asks me about or tells me their personal philosophy about positive reinforcement based techniques versus traditional training methods. The problem is everyone has a pre-conceived idea that positive training techniques is simply feeding a dog cookies for performing tasks and anything else must be punishment and consequences. It couldn’t be more wrong. Cesar Milan and this concept of dominance theory and wolf packs have done considerable damage to the way people think about training their dogs (although he did get a lot of apathetic people to THINK about training their dog). Seeing is believing for people, so if a dog is laying on its’ side not moving it must “know” what it should be doing, actually quite the opposite. This is called learned helplessness, a true adaptation technique the dog is simply offering an appeasement gesture to make the unfair human go away. Essentially the dog is smarter than the human, surprised?

What I find even more interesting is clients who trained their last dog or read a book and KNOW the way they plan to train their dog. I hear the question, “when can I stop using treats?” often but no one has ever asked “when can I stop giving corrections?”, interesting. Treats are cheep bribes (when used as such). Trainers use food drive because it is the easiest natural drive to manipulate. We can use high value rewards to increase drive (like hot dogs, meaty treats, turkey, etc.) or with-hold food at meal time. Oh no, cruel and unusual. Actually dogs are by nature fasting opportunistic creatures who would take any meal they could get and gorge themselves anticipating a long time between finding food sources. We tend to feed dogs in multiple small meals for potty training and health reasons. It is easier to tell a vet if the dog is eating and how much when they ask if we are on a schedule. Also never feed the amounts written on the food bag, too much food.

I don’t feed my own dog breakfast, she works for it and I hand feed her. Dinner she gets in her bowl because she is cute and furry and I love her… but breakfast is earned. We head out for our daily AM walk with her breakfast in my treat bag. She is 10 now so the answer to when do I stop using food rewards is never. I don’t use them as bribes and beg her to perform tasks and tricks but I have them as random rewards or to manipulate her into a new command or position.

As we make our way through town, often off leash with me saying “good heel” and a random treat from time to time to keep paying her for the work she is doing. Imagine if you went to work and one day your boss asked if you liked doing your job enough that he/she might stop giving you a paycheck. I like to teach my dog to run between my legs, jump over my leg or an obstacle, climb up on curbs and rocks, doing some freestyle walking and agility. Some call it Parkor, more like Barkor for pooches. This is a fun and fast way to feed my dog, do some training and go get a coffee. She has to Sit and Stay while I go in and get a coffee then she gets a treat from the bowl they have inside of treats for dogs. She starts tied up and eventually she can just hold the position once it has become a pattern behavior. A long leash can give some freedom while following leash laws in city limits. I take one rolled up in my pocket as we head around Seattle. The long leash lets me practice like we are off leash and I make sure there is no tension on the lead. It is amazing how quickly dogs give up pulling on the leash if we do it first.

In operant conditioning the way trainers teach dogs we use 5 categories that are often misused and mis-understood by most people who hear them. But really there are 3 main ones to consider. Extinction- ignored behavior is neither rewarded or punished so it will gradually go away on its own (that’s why trainers always tell you to ignore your dog for jumping up to greet or barking for attention). Reinforcement– Rewarded behavior will be repeated. Punishment– adding something or taking something away to suppress the behavior. Most owners only understand punishment as old traditional training methods taught with leash and collar corrections, swatting the dog on the nose, yelling “NO”. This is adding aversion to try to get a dog to not perform a behavior. The problem with aversion is IF it works, there may be side effects. Like for example, every time the dog pulls on leash to go see a dog, he gets a yank on traditional choke collar, he stops pulling to go up to the dog (appeasement gesture). Human thinks problem solved- well behaved dog on leash. Dog thinks- other dogs equal punishment, keep them away from me, then he develops aggression toward dogs who come up to it on leash. That was most likely not the human’s goal but a side effect none the less.

I think the most interesting thing about watching someone use food or corrections to train a dog is they are convinced they are changing the dogs’ BEHAVIOR. I consider this positive or negative manipulation rather than BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION of any kind. If you are unsure ask yourself, if I removed the reward or punishment, would the behavior change or revert to the way it was before? So the dog who only performs obedience for treats either understands that when your hand moves this way you are asking for a sit or down, or worse he has learned to ignore your first 3 requests because you will go get a treat to make him do it. The dog who is corrected or punished for behavior never learns a positive alternative because the handler figures they will be there to correct when the behavior comes up so this leads to a reactive relationship. Dog barks, owner yells. Dog pulls, owner corrects. The dog has never acquired any skills to be correct. Can you imagine living somewhere where with no concept of how to succeed. Like walking blindly through a mine field, good luck, you will know when you make a mistake. Yikes!

Best thing you can ever do is use play to train your dog. The key to reliable behavior is building muscle memory in the dog, teaching it how to succeed and having a relationship based on trust and consistency. It is actually much easier than we think. Half the time I meet a new dog client, the first day is us going for a walk and playing a game to see what the dog enjoys best. Once I have a bond the dog is happy to work with me. I have re-trained my own dog so many times, her rules change all the time. It is never too late to start fresh and old dogs can certainly learn new tricks.

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