Why Shouldn’t I Punish My Dog?

O and Beskow This is a question that many people ask – either of themselves or their trainer.  And it’s honestly a really good one.  Typically, when people approach me to help train their dog, they have already decided to try positive reinforcement for one reason or another.  Oftentimes someone recommended they try it; sometimes their vets suggest it; other times they’ve done some research themselves- but whatever the reason, they’ve often already chosen he type of training techniques they would be comfortable with using.  But what about the people that haven’t “decided”? They deserve a very clear answer on why trainers like me prefer to use positive reinforcement techniques when training dogs- especially when training aggressive, reactive, or strong dogs.

Terminology.  Terminology is boring.  It’s laden in jargon and tough to decipher.  That being said, it’s also important when deciding how to train your dog.  What is punishment? Punishment by definition means that if a behavior is followed by something aversive the likelihood of the same behavior occurring again is decreased.

Here’s a scenario:

A 6-month-old puppy jumps up on a person at the door.  The person says “NO!”.  The puppy jumps up five more times.

Question: Has that behavior been punished?

The answer is no.  It may not be something I would do, or would like to see other people do, but in reality, this is not “punishment training”.  The future frequency of the behavior did not decrease.  My guess is, the puppy didn’t care and may have even found the attention rewarding!

 

Here’s another scenario:

A 6-month-old puppy jumps up on a person at the door.  The person say “NO!” The puppy runs away and hides in the corner.

Question: Has that behavior been punished?

The answer is Yes.  The exact same scenario- but a different dog.  This dog found the “No!” to be aversive and the jumping behavior decreased.  This is the very definition of punishment.

 

Whether or not this is ethically correct or not is up to you.  From my perspective, given that there are ways to train a puppy not to jump without scaring them, I would classify it as unnecessary and therefore unethical.  Why scare a puppy?  At the same time, I do not think that the person who said no is a bad, dog-hating, person.  They just may not have the variety of training tools and knowledge to handle this behavior in a more elegant manner.  That’s what trainers are here for- to help you find better, more enjoyable ways to help your dog!

But, WHY? Isn’t saying “No!” and scaring the puppy effective? The answer is a definitive yes in the second scenario. I don't use aversives because I don't like scaring dogs, there are better ways, and there are very real side effects to punishment- not because it is ineffective. 

Punishment has several proven side effects.  I would argue that these side effects might very occasionally be worth it if we’re talking about a behavior that may kill a dog or make their life completely miserable, but for most dog behavior problems- up to and including dogs that bite people and other dogs- it is not the best, or even second best, option. Here are three of the main side effects:

Emotional and Aggressive Reactions:

Think of kids that tantrum when they’re told “no”; people that lash out when someone tries to pin them down; dogs that re-direct and bite their handler when they are poked or “corrected”.  This is the biggest reason I avoid punishment.  I don’t want a dog to aggress at their owner or someone in the vicinity due to a reaction to punishment. With a dog that gets yelled at every time someone walks through the door- how long until they decide that people walking through the door are scary and should be chased away?

Escape and Avoidance:

This is the puppy that ran away and hid in the corner.  What about the next time someone comes through door? Do you always want your dog to hide from newcomers? What about a dog that won’t return to their owner when called, because by the time they get there, the owner is always angry and annoyed.  Avoidance is real- and a really big problem with using these techniques.  I want my dogs to want to be near me- not fear that being near me might result in pain or distress.

Punishment reinforces the punisher

This is huge.  It’s also one of the reasons that it is so impressive when “traditional trainers” make the switch to training using more modern and less aversive techniques.  When you punish a behavior- the behavior decreases.  If your goal was to stop that puppy jumping- wow did it work!  Whether punishment works is NOT the question.  By it’s very definition it works.  The question is whether it’s the best way.  But we feel very powerful, very in control of the situation, and very clever when we manage to stop behaviors that we find annoying.  And if it worked in that situation, why not in another situation?  What if I say “No!” when my dog is barking? Is pulling on leash? Is aggressing?  When something effectively punishes the behavior of our dog, it is reinforcing to us.  This is so insidious and is exactly the reason why people that train with these techniques continue to do so.

Punishment is not right or wrong.  It is not good or bad.  It has no value judgment and it’s an important piece of learning.  We know to watch our feet when getting on an escalator because we tripped once and our inattention was punished.  We don’t pick glass bowls full of boiling water out of the microwave because we tried once and got burned.  Punishment is integral to learning in many, many ways.

Where I don’t believe it should be used (at least not without an extremely good reason, several concurring behaviorists, and a very solid plan) is in dog training.  Where it belongs the least is in basic manners courses or in dealing with fearful or aggressive dogs. Train people to be good, effective trainers, and they can enjoy their dogs and build that relationship instead of having to be in the situation of being their dog’s punisher.

 

Here are some good resources about punishment and why modern dog training has shifted away from punishment, dominance in training, and the use of aversives:

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Punishment in Training

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals

Several blogs about punishment written by Patricia McConnell can be found here

Victoria Stillwell of It's Me or The Dog fame, weighs in here

 

What Do You Want Your Dog to do Instead?

It is often assumed that positive trainers, and especially clicker trainers, can’t work with serious problem behaviors.  Critics assume that once you have an aggressive, jumpy, or constantly barking dog, you have to resort to punishment-based training in order to “dominate” your dog and make them stop.  This couldn’t be further from the truth!  In fact, of all the dogs I work with, the ones that display the worst behaviors are also the ones that most desperately need the type of training I offer.  Serious problem behaviors are often a result of fear, anxiety, and/or poor socialization.  Therefore, punishing these dogs is often the worst possible way to train them – you will end up making them more fearful and anxious, even if you can suppress the superficial problem behaviors. Doesn’t punishment work, though?  Yes, in a manner of speaking – if it’s done harshly enough, you can suppress problem behaviors by yelling at your dog, hitting them, jerking on a leash, kicking them, shocking them with an e-collar, choking them with a chain, or any other of a myriad of ways that people have come up with to punish dogs. Unfortunately, when you do this, you are not addressing the underlying problem.  What you are doing instead is teaching the dog that when they bark, growl, lunge, or snarl, they will get punished.  That is all okay until the day when the dog feels like it has to react strongly, and the only option left to it – the only behavior that hasn’t been punished over and over again – is biting.  Ironically, these are the dogs that supposedly “bite out of the blue,” because all of the dog’s warning signs have been suppressed through punishment.  Is that really a viable training route for a dog that you want to feel safe around?

Positive reinforcement trainers encourage you to instead ask the question, What do you want your dog to do instead? Rather than barking at the doorbell, what do you want your dog to do instead? Be quiet and lie on their bed.  Rather than lunging at other dogs on leash, what do you want your dog to do instead? See the other dog and keep on walking with a loose leash.  Rather than jumping on visitors, what do you want your dog to do instead? Sit still and accept petting.  If you want to get into the science behind it, this is referred to as “Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative behavior” or DRA for short.  Simply put, it means, “What alternative behavior do you want to reinforce?”

Once you ask yourself this fairly straightforward question – What do you want your dog to do instead?– the behavior plan for your dog begins to take shape.  For example, instead of kneeing your dog in the chest for being happy to see visitors and jumping up on them in a very natural and exuberant doggy fashion, try training your dog to sit a million times over.  Then start working on the sitting behavior around the door and with visitors.  Now, your dog will still be happy to meet your friends, but will also know how to act appropriately, without any punishment needed.This type of training still takes time, consistency, and a good understanding of the methods involved – it is not a magic bullet.  However, you can see how thinking in this way changes your dog’s problem behaviors from something that you have to punish them for, to something you can fix (and even enjoy fixing) by training your dog to perform different behaviors.I know that when I decided to adopt dogs, my plan was never to live with animals that I would have to bully in order for them to fit safely into my household.  I really don’t believe that most people want to punish their dogs.  However, they have just been led to incorrectly believe that punishment is necessary by well-meaning but misinformed friends, trainers, or what they see on TV.  Rather than resorting to punishment, I encourage you to get creative and ask, What do you want your dog to do instead?  Figure out what behavior you want to reinforce instead of the problem behavior.  You will feel much, much better about the way you are treating your dog, and your dog will love you even more for the many ways in which they can earn treats, pets, and attention for being such a good pup!

Stimulus Control: The Most Important Concept You've Never Heard Of

The fourth principle of behavior I want to discuss is Stimulus Control.  This is probably the least talked about in dog training with new dog owners, but also an incredibly vital piece of training your dog.  I’m going to break it down to its most basic meaning in this post and then in subsequent posts talk about how good stimulus control can be achieved. The definition of stimulus control is when a behavior changes in a particular way depending on whether a given stimulus is present or absent.

To make sense of that definition, let’s start with the word “stimulus.”  A stimulus is anything that affects the senses.  Examples include the sight of a red traffic light, the sound of a loud honk, or the feeling of rough pavement underfoot. Stimuli are exceedingly important when talking about dog training because they are the reasons dogs behave a certain way.

People, like any other animal, perform certain behaviors in the presence of certain stimuli.  If you were driving down the road and suddenly saw a red light, a stop sign, a rolling ball, or a pedestrian – or if you heard a loud honk, or your passenger yelled “stop!” – you would probably apply the brakes quickly! All of these stimuli change your behavior.  You have learned, through rules or experience, that stopping is a really, really good idea in the presence of those stimuli.  You will be rewarded with your passenger’s approval, or you will avoid the punishment of an accident or a ticket.

In other words, stimuli like red lights and stop signs act as signals to you that some type of reinforcement or punishment is now available. This is the “control” piece.  The stimulus “controls” whether a behavior will occur if it acts as a signal that reinforcement or punishment is available for that behavior.

How does that apply to dog training?  Well, your dog sits all the time, for various reasons – fatigue, the need to scratch an itch, etc.  However, you can control your dog’s sitting behavior by teaching her that the cue word (stimulus) “sit” means reinforcement is now available for sitting.  In the beginning, reinforcement is almost ALWAYS forthcoming when you say, “sit”; it is the green light to your dog that if they plonk their butt down right now, they will get a cookie. My dogs are well advanced in their training and might get a cookie only every hundred times I say sit, but they still know that the best moment to sit is when I cue it, because that is the time when reinforcement is a possibility for that behavior.

Without the cue, the likelihood of getting a cookie for sitting is slim.  If there were no clear cue (or stimulus) to tell the dog when sitting will likely receive reinforcement, the dog would end up sitting all the time just on the off chance that something would appear.  Oftentimes, the cue becomes a person holding a treat- and that is something we don’t want!

This is where good stimulus control comes in.  If you’ve done your training “right,” with good stimulus control, you’ll get a dog that sits immediately upon being cued, but at other times during training won’t “try it out” in hopes of getting a treat without a cue.  This is how you avoid having a dog that “throws” random behaviors at you.  When you say, “down,” they won’t first sit, then touch, then spin, and then finally lie down.  With good stimulus control, the dog will perform the correct behavior – and nothing else – when cued for that behavior.

These are the four features of a behavior with good stimulus control as listed on Karen Pryor’s ClickerTraining.com.

The response is said to be 'under stimulus control' when presentation of the particular stimulus fulfills these four conditions:

      1. The behavior is always offered when that cue is presented
      2. The behavior is not offered in the absence of that cue
      3. The behavior is not offered in response to some other cue
      4. No other behavior occurs in response to that cue.

(from http://www.clickertraining.com/glossary/17#term21269)

Which of these elements of good stimulus control is the most problematic to achieve?  Well, that depends on your training method and is a subject for another post!

Extinction: Not Just for Dinosaurs

One of the four principles of behavior that govern how all organisms learn is extinction.  This is a separate principle from punishment and reinforcement, but it can work in tandem with them to change your dog’s behavior. What is it? Extinction is when a behavior that was previously reinforced isn’t reinforced any longer.

Some examples would be:

  • Your dog used to bark and get let outside; now you don’t let him outside when he barks anymore.
  • Your dog used to whine to come up on the bed and you would invite him up; now you don’t invite him up anymore.
  • Your child used to be praised every time he cleaned up his toys; lately you’ve been forgetting to do so.

Extinction can be used to stop a behavior we don’t want occurring- which is good for training our dogs! But it can also put an end to a behavior we like, if we neglect to reinforce it- which is not so good for training our dogs.

Like anything with behavior, extinction is not inherently good or bad, and understanding the principle can really empower your training.  However, it is frequently misused and misunderstood because of two major features: the extinction burst and spontaneous recovery.

To explain those, let’s use the example of a golden retriever mix, Polly, that jumps on everyone that she meets.  As a puppy this dog was, of course, ADORABLE.  Nobody minded when she jumped up on them to say hello.  In fact, they encouraged the jumping with cuddles, pats, and lots of high-pitched baby talk.  Who could blame them? Unfortunately, like all puppies, Polly started to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.  Suddenly, the jumping up went from adorable, to uncomfortable, to downright dangerous to kids or unstable adults. At this point, the jumping up had been thoroughly reinforced by hundreds of experiences.  The owners took Polly to a trainer and the first piece of advice they received was to ignore the behavior- turn around, walk away, close a door between them and the dog- whatever they had to do in order to completely ignore the behavior.  In other words- they were told to put Polly’s jumping behavior on extinction.

Polly’s owners went home and dutifully began to ignore her jumping.  They managed to recruit their friends as well, and nobody reinforced Polly’s jumping any longer. But instead of getting better, Polly’s jumping got worse! She was now flinging herself at people and jumping, jumping, jumping until they manage to get out of her reach.  What happened?! Very simply put, this is a classic Extinction Burst.  An extinction burst is when a behavior is placed on extinction and it gets worse (often much worse) before it gets better.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  In the past the jumping worked, so now when Polly jumps and doesn’t receive attention she tries harder and harder, just like a person presses the elevator button over and over again when it doesn’t immediately light up.  The good thing is, this means extinction is working- you just have to power through until the burst is over.  It can be tough, but the worst thing Polly’s owners can do at this point is to give in- if they do, they will have to start over and the extinction burst will be even worse the next time.

As you may be able to tell, a trainer has to be careful when recommending extinction.  If the behavior is something that could be dangerous to people or the dog if it worsens, like rough play, biting, nipping, or really even something like jumping, then extinction might not be a good idea.  There are lots of other things you could try instead that will be discussed later.

A couple months later, Polly’s jumping has almost completely disappeared! Her owners managed to stay the course and not respond to her jumping, the extinction burst passed, and she’s a much easier dog to have around these days.  Then, one day, they invite several friends over for brunch and as soon as they walk in the door, there’s Polly- jumping all over them.  WHAT?! They worked so hard! The behavior was so much better! Where is this coming from? Polly is exhibiting a Spontaneous Recovery of the jumping behavior.  Basically, any behavior that has been exhibited and reinforced in the past and has gone through extinction, always has the possibility of recurring at an unpredictable moment. Luckily, Polly’s owners know just what to do- they instruct their friends to ignore her, and in just a few minutes, Polly is back to her new normal un-jumpy self- hurray!

This is a great example of why I’m writing these posts.  If you don’t understand what’s happening when you start ignoring your dog, it can be incredibly disheartening when the behavior suddenly worsens or recurs- but if you know to expect an extinction burst, you can respond accordingly, know that it is working, and not get discouraged- your training will be that much more effective!

Negative Punishment- Much Better Than It Sounds!

Out of the four types of behavior change procedures in the quadrant, negative punishment sounds like it must be the worst of the worst, right? Well… not so much.  In fact, as a humane, positive reinforcement-based clicker trainer, this is probably the next type of approach I’m likely to use if I can’t figure out how to use positive reinforcement.  Why is that? Let’s look at what it actually means. Negative Punishment means removing something from the dog’s environment in order to decrease the future frequency of that behavior.

That means that all of the typical “punishment” procedures you might think of- hitting, yelling, prong collars, choke collars, or shocks- fall outside of this realm.  They all add something and so are positive punishment techniques.  What types of things are negative punishment?  The most obvious is the “time out,” a procedure that many people happily employ with their children as a humane method to decrease inappropriate behaviors.

Here is an example:

Suppose you’re playing tug with your six-month-old Labrador retriever mix.  It starts out well; the dog is tugging nicely and because you’ve trained a great “drop it,” she is releasing the toy and then tugging with you again.  But as you play, the dog is getting more and more excited.  Her eyes are shiny, her ears are up, and she even has some piloerection (hair on the back of her neck is standing up).  Suddenly, she misses the tug and nips your hand.  BIG no-no!  So, you drop the toy and walk out of the room.  You just put your dog in time out- you removed the game of tug to reduce the behavior of biting. If the biting decreases in the future, this is classic negative punishment.

Time out can also be achieved for an over-stimulated dog by doing any of the following: crating them for a little while (if they like their crate); closing the door between you and your dog until they calm down; or removing a toy until they have settled down enough to play appropriately.

As you can see, this type of training does not teach your dog what to do- it teaches them what not to do.  It is not an effective method for teaching your dog the tugging and play behaviors you do want- that still has to be achieved through positive reinforcement.  Remember, punishment should always be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement to teach your dog what you do want. But humane forms of punishment do help them learn which behaviors to avoid, because those behaviors make the game stop.

I used negative punishment with my dog when she was extremely “sniffy” on the agility course.  She loved playing agility by the time I used this.  When I would take her to class she would get very excited about the equipment, start a run, and then get extremely distracted by the smell (perhaps of rabbit) that was in the grass.  She would sniff and sniff and sniff and wouldn’t respond to anything I said or did.  Rather than using positive punishment (i.e. correction) to stop her sniffing, which might also have made her a less enthusiastic agility dog, I used negative punishment.  As soon as her nose dropped to the ground she got one call to come back; if she didn’t respond, I would walk over, calmly pick her up, and remove her to her crate.  She apparently was not a fan of missing her agility run, because after just a few times, the sniffing behavior stopped! So, did I “punish” my dog? Absolutely- the behavior decreased, and that’s what punishment means.  Did I hurt her? No, no, no! And, because I was careful, I have not (as far as I can tell) suffered any unwanted side effects from that punishment.

Positive Punishment - Not Really So "Positive"

Positive punishment is a term that is often misunderstood (much like negative reinforcement).  Once again, it is important to recognize that in behavior terminology, “positive” and “negative” are not value judgments- they are more similar to math terminology.  So with positive punishment, the “positive” really just means you are adding something to the environment.  The “punishment” part of the phrase means you are planning a technique that will decrease the future occurrence of the behavior. The formal definition of positive punishment is when you add something to the environment to decrease the future frequency of the behavior.

This differs from both types of reinforcement, because with reinforcement, you are always planning to increase a certain behavior.

Let’s look at an example. This is a hypothetical situation and it is not how I would recommend responding. In this example, the dog’s owner walks into the bedroom to discover Puppy chewing up a pair of very expensive shoes.  The owner yells and smacks the puppy’s nose. The puppy scampers away, hides, and never chews on shoes again.  Why is this positive punishment? Because the owner added something (the yell and the smack) to the environment and the puppy’s chewing behavior decreased in the future.

There are several ways to look at this situation.  You might think- “Oh my goodness, I would NEVER hit my puppy!” Or, you might think- “Hey, it was only one smack and the puppy never chewed shoes again, so isn’t that worth it?” To answer that question, let’s look at some possible consequences of this scenario.

  1. The puppy never chews shoes again (this is the good consequence).
  2. Every time the owner walks into a room for the next week and the puppy is there, the puppy urinates on the floor out of fear.  This is because the puppy has learned owner + entering room = smack.
  3. Every time the owner goes to pet the puppy’s head, the dog ducks his head, turns away, and/or just scampers away, having developed a fear of approaching hands.
  4. The puppy will not walk out the front door past the shoes that are next to the door because he has learned that shoes = pain.
  5. The puppy now growls, barks, and lunges whenever he is chewing on something and his owner comes near him, anticipating another smack.  In doggy language, he quite clearly tells his owner to STAY AWAY.  The owner becomes afraid of the dog.
  6. Use your imagination- once you start really thinking about all the things the owner might have actually taught the dog with that smack, the possibilities are endless.

 

This is one of the major issues with punishment-based training.  Does it work? Absolutely – though, as noted above, often not in the intended way.  Is it humane? I would argue it is not humane, but that could be a personal opinion that differs from yours.  I also have no interest in treating my dog in any way I would not treat anyone else I love. But, one place where there is no argument is in the consequences.  Before punishing your dog for something, ask yourself- Is it worth the possible side effects?? 

The known side effects of punishment include aggression and avoidance.  These side effects are not only very common, but also incredibly difficult to avoid, even if you have knowledge and experience with positive punishment techniques. Do you want to risk creating a dog that is either fearful or aggressive?  If not, it is much, much safer to use positive reinforcement and avoid the chance of creating a dog with serious behavior issues through the unintended side effects of punishment.

Negative Reinforcement - Isn't that an Oxymoron?

Negative reinforcement is a term you don’t often hear unless you’re in the business of training and behavior.  It can sound like an oxymoron until you realize that in behavior terminology, negative is not a value judgment- it simply means something has been removed from the environment.  Let’s look at a scenario and then I’ll break down the definition. Sometimes, my toddler starts getting really wound up towards bedtime, as he gets more and more tired.  Occasionally, he’ll even do something like pull my hair to get my attention (I know, I know, even my child isn’t perfect… sigh...).  When he pulls my hair, it hurts and hurts and hurts, until I manage to uncurl his little fingers and remove them from my hair.  Then it stops hurting.  This means that something that really, really hurt me was removed from my environment when I uncurled his fingers.  In the future, I will be much more likely to uncurl his fingers as quickly as possible.  In other words, the frequency of me performing that behavior will increase.

This is exactly what negative reinforcement is: When the removal of something increases the future frequency of the behavior.

How does this impact dog training?  Well, negative reinforcement is still used by some trainers to train a dog to come back to their owner.  The owner says, “come,” and then either they or a trainer applies a shock to the dog through a shock collar until the dog turns back towards them.  At that point the shock stops.  So the shock is removed to increase the behavior of returning to the owner.   (Please note that this is only an example- I do NOT personally use or condone this technique.)

You can also see negative reinforcement in action with a dog’s behavior towards children.  Suppose your toddler is running around and squealing, and the dog doesn’t like it.  If the dog suddenly jumps up and barks at the toddler and the toddler then goes very quiet and still, the dog’s “barking at the toddler” behavior will be reinforced by the cessation of movement and squealing.  The dog might be more likely to jump and bark at the toddler in the future.  This is a challenging situation, and punishment could make the situation even worse.  There are humane ways of addressing it that are outside the scope of this post.

As you can probably tell, most instances of negative reinforcement are not particularly pleasant for the person or animal being trained.  This is why you have to be very cautious when throwing around a term like “reinforcement.”   When choosing a trainer, it’s important that you look for someone who doesn’t just “use reinforcement” but also emphasizes humane training methods.

Are there instances where negative reinforcement can be used humanely?  That’s a tricky question, and I’d love to hear if anyone out there thinks of any viable training scenarios.  The problem is, whatever is being removed from the dog’s environment really has to be something the dog doesn’t like, and thus is probably something you would not want to purposefully introduce to their environment in the first place.  I think one instance where I use it is in getting my dogs to shake themselves dry after their bath.  As soon as they shake, they’re allowed out of the bathtub- and they hate the bath.  But, I’m sure they wouldn’t classify giving them baths as humane treatment to begin with!

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Many people train dogs without understanding exactly why what they are doing works.  My toddler trains our dogs constantly without knowing anything about training techniques or the science of behavior.  For example, he has trained them to hold a down-stay (i.e. stay for a long period of time in a down) under his chair whenever he eats.  How has he achieved this feat at just 18 months of age?  By intermittently dropping food on their heads, of course! Granted, this was not an intentional training of the animals, but it was training nonetheless.  Understanding why even toddlers can train dogs can help all of us be better and more thoughtful trainers. The four core principles of behavior are:

  1. Reinforcement (positive and negative)
  2. Punishment (positive and negative)
  3. Extinction
  4. Stimulus Control

Today I’m going to delve into the world of positive reinforcement. This is a term that is used constantly in dog training- people are often termed “positive reinforcement trainers.”  But what does “positive reinforcement” actually mean?

Definition: Positive reinforcement is when you add something to dog’s environment that increases the future frequency of the behavior.  Adding something is what makes it “positive,” and the increase in behavior is what makes it “reinforcement.”

In other words, when my son drops food on my dogs’ heads, he is adding something (food) to the dogs’ environment that is increasing the length of their down-stays in the future.  In short, he is positively reinforcing their down-stays.  We can give our dogs loads of cookies for just about anything, but that isn’t enough to say we are “reinforcing” their behavior, unless it actually increases the future occurrences of the behavior.

How does this impact dog training? Well, if you are trying to train your dog to sit, and giving them a Milk-Bone each time they sit, but they are not actually getting better at responding to the “sit” cue, it could be that the Milk-Bone is not actually reinforcing the sit- it’s just a tasty treat they’re eating. Maybe by switching the treat to something stinkier like freeze-dried liver, you might have more success.  If each time the dog sits on cue, you give it a piece of liver, and the dog starts responding to the cue more frequently, you will know the liver is actually reinforcing the behavior.

This means that positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.  If your dog LOVES tennis balls, asking for a down and then throwing a ball (adding the tennis ball to your dog’s environment) could be positively reinforcing.  If your dog LOVES to tug, asking for a sit and then letting them tug could be positively reinforcing for a sit.  If, on the other hand, your dog doesn’t care for toys, giving them a ball or tug in exchange for a behavior won’t increase the future frequency of the behavior and is therefore NOT reinforcement.  This shouldn’t discourage you from playing with your dog; it just might not be the best way to train a specific behavior.

Although clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement training, I call myself a behavior analyst rather than a “positive reinforcement trainer,” because my training techniques are not limited to positive reinforcement.  Positive reinforcement using treats or toys is often the best and most enjoyable way to train your dog, but it is only one of numerous humane techniques you can use to change your dog’s behavior.  I will discuss more of those techniques in the upcoming posts.

It's Science, Not Magic.

Dog training is not magical.  It is not “whispering.”  It is something anybody can learn to do, if they understand the science of behavior. Just as there are laws of physics, there are laws of behavior that work for any behavior in any species. What is behavior?  The definition I learned as a behavior analyst is “the activity of living organisms.”  Essentially, anything any organism does to interact with the world around it.  So, if you lift your arm- that’s behavior.  If your dog barks- that’s behavior.  But, if you just think about lifting your arm, that doesn’t count, because you don’t actually interact with the environment.

As a behavior analyst, if you tell me your dog is anxious when there are visitors are in the house, that is useful information, but it doesn’t tell me enough to help you.  “Being anxious” isn’t a behavior.  What I need to know to help you is what behaviors you see that suggest your dog is anxious.  Usually these are things like barking, whining, chewing, hiding, growling, or other behaviors you’re not used to seeing in your dog when you don’t have company.  In other words, I treat behaviors that can be seen.  At the end of the day, if we can help your dog get past those behaviors, everyone will be happier.

In the next series of blog posts, I will cover the four basic principles of behavior science, how those principles relate to dog training in general, and examples of how each principle can be employed in dog training. This will give you lots of information on how to help your dog learn new behaviors and some more insight into how I work as a trainer.  I hope you enjoy these posts- as a behavior nerd, I think this stuff is not only incredibly helpful, but also fascinating!