Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement

I found an interesting article (www.urbandawgs.com/divided_profession.html) by Jean Donaldson that talks about the divisive opinions amongst dog professionals. Indeed, the inside joke goes that the only thing a room full of dog trainers can agree on is that everyone else doesn’t know what they are talking about.
I don’t envy lay owners who get passionate, but conflicting advice how to best raise, train and live with their dog. On one end of the spectrum are the positive reinforcement advocates, on the other positive punishment and negative reinforcement trainers who choose pain and discomfort to stop “bad” behaviors, and to elicit desired ones.

In operant conditioning, positive means to add something and punishment that the behavior decreases. In regards to dogs you see that on TV all the time. The dog growls and is pinned with the goal that pinning stops the dog from growling next time he encounters the trigger that evoked it. Sometimes it works, and often it doesn’t: the dog either growls again, which proves that pinning is pointless for this dog, or he stops growling and bites right away, because he still doesn’t feel any differently about the trigger, just his warning communication signal is oppressed.
So, behaviorally positive punishment is only positive punishment when the behavior actually disappears. If your dog still pulls despite choke collar corrections, or barks on a prong collar, you’re not effective and all you do is nag, and as an unwanted consequence your dog tunes you out.
Negative, in scientific terms, means to take something away and reinforcement that the behavior increases. It is, for example, Koehler’s famous ear pinch to convince the rookie retriever that holding a dumbbell is a good idea. Handler pinches the dog’s ear, which hurts and he opens his mouth, dumbbell is shoved in and the pinching stops. In case you’re not thinking with me, the pain ceasing is the negative and the dog holding the dumbbell on command and for longer periods of time is the increased behavior.
Ear pinching is still done today, but the negative reinforcement tool of choice these days is the shock collar, and its many nicer sounding guises like remote training device, or e-collar. In essence, the dog is fitted with the collar, the handler holds the transmitter and turns on the juice, and makes it die away when he gets immediate and precision accuracy performance. Dogs learn very quickly to come as speedily as their legs allow, or drop into a down anywhere, anytime and around distractions. Shock collar trained dogs’ performances look amazingly impressive, and many owners want that for themselves, and because of that it is a very lucrative business. Anybody can jump on the bandwagon and buy a shock collar training franchise, take a several weeks’ course, and henceforth use that nifty device to teach dogs of all sizes, and puppies, basic obedience, or jolt an unruly pooch into toeing the line.

No problem as long as the dog behaves, right? Wrong! The old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, is spot-on regarding dogs and training. The fallout punitive methods and shocks create are well documented. For example, Murray Sidman’s 1989 book, “Coercion and its Fallout”, refers to studies that showed that shocked rats will be aggressive when a second one is placed in the same box. And not ritualized status aggression or momentary dominance over a resource, but violent attacks followed through to a kill. Furthermore, punished animals did not only redirect aggressively, but were seeking opportunities to be aggressive.
A one-year-long study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that aversive and intimidating methods, including the stare down, scruff shake and pinning, do little to correct behavior, but elicit aggression in dogs.
Studies with baboons showed that corrections by a higher ranking member did not create better behaved baboons, but ones that passed on the aggression to even lower ranking monkeys.
A study with Belgian military dogs showed that they performed worse on obedience tasks if their handlers used punishments instead of rewards.
Steve White, K9 cop with 30 years experience, stated in a seminar I attended that tracking dogs have much fewer false positives when trained without punishments.
And a study done by the Departments of Ethology and Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals in Utrecht, Netherlands, showed that shock collar trained German shepherds are more stressed on the training grounds, and the park.
Those findings are congruent with my experiences and don’t surprise me a bit. Negative reinforcement gives the dog only momentary relief when the discomfort ceases, cause the shocks will happen again. They are experienced and anticipated with every training session, and by conditioning cues: the collar, the handler, the training facility, or whatever details, in the dog’s mind, predict the zaps. And that creates anxiety, which will be expressed, because not releasing pressure is biologically impossible.
Not all dogs I see who have gone through that totalitarian style of training, aggress; only some do. But I have yet to meet one who is relaxed, voluntarily attentive, motivated, keen to learn new things, placid, and generally well behaved when not under surveillance. What I see instead are dogs who have a very low stress threshold, are hyperactive, hyper alert and trigger sensitive to stimuli, and express that with barking, mounting, pacing, chasing, avoidance, and/or destructive behaviors, and if those are repressed with more of the same punishments, neurotic behaviors such as obsessive spinning or self-mutilation.
Today’s shock collar trainers claim to be dog friendly and humane, gentle even, and compare the shock with a tap on the shoulder. If that were the case, one would not get the results one can watch on video clips. No dog, no animal, obeys mindlessly and with a yes-master precision, often against his nature, unless they are driven to obtain a much-desired super reward, or to avoid and stop something very unpleasant, and my bet is with the latter.

People sell what is profitable: alcohol to teenagers, substandard food, overpriced medication to the sick, and shock collars for dogs. That is just the way it is, and I get that. Who can blame the trainers who want a piece of a popular pie, or retail stores that sell that stuff? And I certainly don’t expect lay owners to waddle through behavioral laws, studies and their results.
But I do expect influencers like veterinarians, humane societies and dog associations to take an unequivocal stand with a policy against positive punishment and negative reinforcement. Many do, for example the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. But others, who comprehend the damage intimidation, force and deliberately inflicted pain causes, or at least should, don’t and continue to support it, and that is really disappointing.


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  2. Very good Blog. Thanks for speaking out about the ones who should know better but don't care.
    Because as you say it's all about that big pie and who can get the most before it is all gone.
    Maybe more will step up to the line and take a stand and ensure that it stops.
    Your biggest fan always.

  3. Thanks for such a detailed and excellent post Silvia! I was pleased to see even the wikipedia entry for shock collars shows studies which discredit their use. Hopefully more literature against them hits the mainstream.