Monday, November 9, 2009

Unpredictable Results of Corrections

I got an e-mail the other day from an owner of a reactive, mixed breed, dog. She is not a client, but visited my website a few times and wanted to share some positive feedback, which is great, cause that is what my website is meant to do – change people’s minds and approaches, and offer a few how-to tips.
The person had hired a local trainer to help her with her dog’s reactive outbursts whenever she encountered dogs on the walk, which is a common problem. The trainer’s method was to put a prong collar on the dog and apply a strong correction each time the dog flipped out. I’m not going to say who that trainer is, cause it’s not appropriate to bash a colleague, but it also doesn’t matter because that method is used by many, especially cause it is also the one Seen On TV, and has become very popular again.
As a good owner should, the person who sent the e-mail followed the “expert” advice - and saw her dog’s behavior deteriorate. Now, she is not only afraid of other dogs, but also of her person. The trainer, so the e-mail says, at that point threw in the towel, stating that some dogs are just like that – are happy alone hiding in the basement.

One of the profound differences between forceful correction training, and purely positive reinforcement, is that when you begin correction training, it is impossible to predict the outcome, and with positive reinforcement, you can always, accurately, predict the consequences.
With correction training, the handler suppresses (or tries to) expressions of fear and stress, and coerces obedience. The unanticipated results are:
The dog lashes out and aggresses – against the owner or others - or
Secondary problem behaviors develop, because fear and stress is increased - or
The existing ones intensify, which requires to correct even harder, and things spiral out of control - or
The dog avoids and tries to escape out of fear, for example hides, bucks, pulls - or
The dog becomes neurotic and develops compulsive disorders like obsessive licking or tail chasing and biting.
Some dogs shut down, deflate, and emotionless and mindlessly obey with precision, but other than that do nothing anymore. They are the ones called well behaved, obedience titled and shown as success stories; the ones the public sees. The fallout, dogs that respond in any of the other ways and are euthanized, dumped somewhere or with someone, surrendered to a shelter, or delegated to a lifelong solitary existence in the back yard, the public doesn’t see.
The person who wrote me the e-mail deals with an outcome that is all too common.
I see it dealing with dog owners. I witnessed it at an aggression seminar where a pooch, reactive to dogs but super friendly with people, at the end of two days also reacted to people.
Even the mighty Dog Whisperer is not immune to that. A beagle mix, a case in season one, was terrified of the garden hose and ran away, but tolerated being bathed in the bathtub. After Millan forced him with corrections to deal with the hose, he began to offensively aggress when bathed in the tub. The behavior changed from fleeing from one trigger, to fighting in a general sense, whenever water was involved.

When Positive Reinforcement is applied, the consequences are 100 percent predictable.
Although changing the reactive dog’s mind about a trigger stimulus can take time, and some dogs need to be managed for life, during rehabilitation following things always happen:
The dog becomes increasingly motivated to work with the owner – and
Stress and fear decreases – and
The dog is learning acceptable coping skills – and
The dog is learning to trust the owner, and once that is accomplished, she begins to feel safe at home and in novel situations - and
The dog is eager to learn - and
The relationship improves and as a result the dog’s behavior.

I commend owners that don’t give up and search for a different way after their last trainer deemed the dog incurable; after the trainer failed the dog, then blamed the dog. Such trainers keep us positive reinforcement pros in business – unfortunately, cause I would rather see all dogs treated kindly, even if I’d have to look for another job.
Whenever I do meet a correction trained “fallout”, the first step is to reestablish the relationship with the owner, cause as long as the dog doesn’t trust that her person is a refuge, she will feel alone when in conflict and express that in emotional outbursts.

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