When it comes to dog training, Positive Training and training based on rewards are hot topics these days. There are some in the dog world who think training with rewards means you never say “no” to your dog. Is it possible to be a Positive Trainer and still stop problem behaviours in your dog? The answer is YES!
We live in a culture that has, for decades, defined dog training by keeping the dog under strict control. In many cases, this means preventing the dog from doing anything other than what we want them to do. So it’s no surprise that trainers who come out of this tradition are skeptical of an approach that seeks to reward the dog for doing things instead of not doing things.
Unfortunately, many take an additional logical step and assume that if trainers are rewarding their dogs frequently and saying “yes” to their behaviours, these same trainers are unable or unwilling to say “no” to their dogs as well. They make the claim that reward-trained dogs are ill-mannered, badly behaved, and even dangerous to their owners and households.
Behavioural Science To The Rescue
Fortunately, dog training based on behavioural science has more than one trick up its training sleeve. Behavioural science gives us the option to encourage behaviour (reinforcement) or discourage behaviour (punishment) and we can do it by adding things to the situation (positive) or taking things away (negative) from the situation. So behavioural trainers have two general modes for discouraging or eliminating behaviour: Positive Punishment which adds something to discourage behaviour and Negative Punishment which takes something away to discourage behaviour.
Positive Punishment is the method that most of us are familiar with. It’s a reprimand, a smack on the bum when the dog reaches for the hot dogs on the counter. But the polar opposite, Negative Punishment, can be just as effective. When my dog does something unwanted, I take away something she wants — a toy, social time, access to her favorite spot, or my attention.
And just like Positive Punishment, timing is critical to help her know what caused the removal of the desired thing. You barked at me to give you the toy? I’m sorry, we’re putting the toy away now. It’s a remarkably effective way of eliminating behaviours.
Extinction: Not Just For Dinosaurs
There’s another trick up our behavioural training sleeve. The Operant Conditioning model provides for adding or removing things from the training situation to either encourage or discourage behaviour. But what if we did nothing in response to behaviour, not adding or removing anything? What happens then?
Our dogs do things for a reason. We don’t always know what that reason is but they are generally trying to get us to respond to them in a particular way. Providing no response to their behaviour is called “extinction” and it can be an effective way of stopping unwanted behaviours.
The easiest example I can think of is a young puppy who jumps up to greet his owner. When he does that, the owner generally bends down to fuss over the puppy. In the puppy’s mind, jumping up causes mom to bend down and “fuss me”. But if you instead waited until the jumping stopped and the dog sat, what would happen? The puppy would quickly learn that sitting quietly gets mom to bend down and fuss — and the jumping behaviour would be “extinguished” because it didn’t produce the desired result.
Another example from my own life involves a friend whose dog used to bark the entire time she was preparing dinner. After talking with her about the situation, we decided that each time the dog barked during the preparation of dinner, she would simply stop what she was doing and stare into the distance with her arms at her side. Within a matter of days, this dog who had been barking non-stop until his dinner was delivered, would now lay quietly watching until the bowl was put down. Extinction works!
The trick to this one is that you can’t give in — EVER. Had my friend paused in her dinner preparation for a few seconds and then continued while there was barking, she would only have succeeded in teaching her dog that he had to bark LONGER in order to make the dinner prep continue! If done inconsistently, attempts at extinction that give into the dog eventually can build remarkably durable and long lasting behaviours, much to the owner’s dismay!
When “Bad” Is “Good”
There is something else that we need to consider. When is a “bad” thing a “good” thing? Well, let me tell you a story to show you what I mean.
Our dog Vince used to like his space. He would growl a low growl every time one of our other dogs came near him in the house. One weekend a friend was visiting with her two dogs. On Friday evening, Vince growled once or twice from across the room at these guest dogs. My wife, in response, would yell at him “Vince! Knock it off.”
The weekend went on and we enjoyed our friend and her dogs. By Sunday evening, Vince’s growls from across the room were happening every 10 to 15 minutes. Instead of once or twice, our evening was frequently punctuated with my wife yelling “Vince! Knock it off.” He would even come over to “apologize” to my wife who would dutifully pet him on the head and forgive him.
Do you see anything wrong with this situation? While the rest of us were enjoying ourselves, Vince was not the center of attention. His growling was not at all intended for the other dogs in the room, but was aimed right at his mom who predictably payed attention to him (by yelling) each time he growled. And he even took the further step of coming over for some petting after being yelled at!
So was my wife punishing Vince by reprimanding him for growling? Quite the opposite! She was actually giving him something he wanted, attention, in response to an unwanted behaviour. No wonder it became louder and more frequent as the weekend went on. She was using Positive Reinforcement instead of discourage the behaviour!
Trainers who work with behavioural science have lots of options for eliminating or even preventing unwanted behaviours. Our puppy Rizzo, for example, has never chewed on anything he wasn’t supposed to chew on. How did we accomplish that? We never allowed him the opportunity to choose something inappropriate. We managed him and the objects to which he had access so he always had a choice that we thought was appropriate when he wanted to chew.
Contrary to what some believe, many behavioural trainers do use Positive Punishment – we do use reprimands and physical contact to interrupt unwanted behaviours. It’s difficult to teach a puppy house training without picking them up and taking them outside, for example. But Positive Punishment has many drawbacks, and we try to minimize it’s use. We look for alternative solutions in other parts of the behaviour modification tool box.
Between Negative Punishment, creative use of Extinction, and encouraging alternative behaviours that take the place of unwanted behaviours, our dogs are happy, well behaved, and well adjusted. In fact, they may be the best behaved dogs we’ve ever owned and trained. And we have spent far less time and energy making them that way than we did before we understood behavioural science.
So the next time someone tells you that Positive Trainers are “just bribing dogs with food,” you might smile quietly to yourself knowing that the speaker is very likely under-informed about what behavioural science is all about. We have many more options than choke chains and leash pops to teach our dogs. And we need them. After all, we’re teaching our dogs to do a lot more than just STOP doing things. We’re teaching them to behave.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Sit! – Normanack 2009 from Flickr
Smooch! – Mike Baird 2009 from Flickr