Friday, July 27, 2012

If You Punish Your Dog, Make it Negative

My chosen method how I train and relate with dogs is positive reinforcement/negative punishment combination (plus plenty of other things that are in a positive trainer’s toolbox). Trainers worth their money know exactly what I mean, but laypeople often don’t. Folks that follow my writings regularly  might even be a bit puzzled that I put the word “punishment” in my mouth.
Behaviorally speaking, punishment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means that a behavior decreases in frequency and intensity, eventually ceases. And negative means that something is removed. Applied, we remove something the dog wants to make a behavior we don’t want disappear.
World-renowned veterinarian, behaviorist and puppy guru Ian Dunbar illustrates negative punishment wonderfully: Whenever he plays with a pup, and the babe is too rough with his teeth, Dunbar steps out of the exercise pen. By removing himself, he also removes what the puppy seeks – social interaction. The removing part is the “negative” aspect, and the goal that the pup won’t bite down that hard the next time, the “punishment” one. Since the pup is still learning, he will get another chance momentarily, and if he blows it the person steps out again, and so on.
Ian Dunbar uses the same approach to stop his dogs from making a ruckus in the house. When their roughhousing becomes annoying, he yells “outside” – threatening them with being figuratively kicked in the yard, and because his dogs rather stay inside with him, they tone it down.
Negative punishment is effective if indeed, in the future, the undesired behavior decreases, and is replaced with a better one: the pup becoming softer and more self-controlled in play, the rowdy dogs toning it down a bit inside the house.
Although in real life negative punishment works, one must use it wisely. Let’s say your dog is hogging the place next to you on the couch and growls when his canine cohabitant wants in on the loving. Intuition dictates that the grump should lose his favorite spot as a consequence for behaving undesirably, but in that scenario there is a drawback: If punished, the already competitively feeling pooch will dislike his furry companion even more and will increasingly become more suspicious. And not just regarding the couch or bed, but in other situations as well, and from a greater distance. Although the growling might stop, the anxiety and/or aggression is still there, and if you confirm to the offending dog that the other’s appearance is indeed bad news, true animosity can form. Punishment, negative and positive = inflicting pain, although intuitive, would be counterproductive.

Equally counterintuitive to not punishing a growling dog is, for many owners, the advice to ignore a bad behavior. And there are situation where ignoring is also counterproductive, despite the operant conditioning law that states that behaviors ignored become extinct.
The problem is that life with a dog doesn’t happen in the controlled conditions of a laboratory. In real life, just because you ignore a behavior doesn’t mean that it is ignored. Something or someone in the environment might reinforce it, plus there are natural drives that are intrinsically reinforcing.
Let me explain that. When I teach “leave-it”, I have the dog leashed so that he can’t access the treat I tossed out. There is only one way he can get it, or an even better reward: he has to completely disengage from the loot on the floor and connect with me. I don’t help, don’t give the dog any clues. He has to come up with the solution, and I can wait until he does exactly because I control the situation, and therefore can ignore any pulling, barking or staring at the treat – any and all behaviors I don’t want when I say “leave-it”. Don’t worry: it is not as mean an exercise as it sounds - it takes most dogs only about 20 seconds to figure it out.
It is a different story when a dog barks out the window at a passerby. That I can’t ignore, because the person’s natural moving along is reinforcing if the dog wishes distance. In addition, barking itself feels good to some dogs, beagles and Shelties come to mind; it is in their genes, intrinsically reinforcing. The result of me ignoring the barking in that situation is that the barking will worsen.
In that case, and any other one when the dog’s undesired behavior is reinforced by something that is beyond my control, my choice of action is to interrupt the behavior I don’t want and direct the pooch into one I do want.
The interrupter is verbal, for the obvious reason that a dog focused on something else but me will not see my hand signal.  “Oops” is the word many trainers use. My dogs understand “ah”,  “knock it” and “oh yoohoo”.  Whatever word it is, it should never be a warning sound that announces your wrath, but information for the dog that he’s strutting the wrong trail, and that he should pay attention. Once he does, I guide him into a behavior I like better, and he likes a whole lot too. That the new, better behavior feels good is important, because then it will become the one the dog will choose in the future.
That’s the plan anyway, and typically it works - other than that the very clever pooch, when bored, might deliberately use the undesired behavior to elicit an “oops” and the followed treat or game. Our Aussie Davie mastered that. On an off leash walk, whenever she felt snubbed, she’d find some deer poop to sniff, eyeballing me from the corner of her eye, checking if I see her and interrupt her behavior, so that she could obey and reap the reward of fetching the ball or finding tossed treats.
Thinking dogs amuse me, and so I never minded, but it can be a problem if such brilliance involves another animal. One of my clients has a sweet-natured collie/retriever cross who “mauls” the cat to get his owner’s attention. Never aggressively, he holds her with his paws and gums with his mouth, and although the kitty doesn’t struggle or vocalize in distress, my client feels that she is not always a willing participant, and so she stops the pooch with a “no”, and he promptly releases, gets a treat, just to catch the cat again to elicit another. In that case, I would not wait till he has the cat in his mouth, but condition a new response when he sees her.

Repetition creates a new habit, and the stimulus that once triggered a bad behavior can become the cue for the new one. Anything is possible. The sight of a deer became Davie’s cue to play a chase game with me, and not the deer.
Especially during the learning stages, and depending on the dog’s degree of motivation, you want to redirect into a prolonged activity. With a dog who’s fixated on the Sunday dinner ham, an “oops” followed by a piece of kibble when he stops ogling it, won’t cut it. If the redirected interaction is too brief, the dog will be left in a mental “now what?” vacuum, and return to the last behavior, or stimulus, he found important.
The prolonged alternate activity can be anything the dog likes, and is not limited to food, but can include food. Should include food. Don’t be afraid to use food. It is handy, and most dogs are motivated by something they can devour or gnaw on. There is nothing worse that a work-driven dog not motivated by food in a pet home. He will forever pester you to be on task together: to play Frisbee, or train, or locate birds, and you can’t even redirect him into quietly emptying a Kong or finding “hidden” kibble or cookies.

So, if you catch your dog doing something you dislike, instead of: “no” ignore, punish or even click and treat when he stops his behavior, try: don’t do this, but do that instead.
Ensure that the dog receives a lot of social attention when he redirects and behaves desirably.
Interrupting and redirecting is also your best shot with a dog that is compulsive. I don’t mean to trivialize a complex issue; of course stereotypies have many facets that need to be considered and addressed, but studies with people locked in a behavior showed promising success when they are redirected into a different activity. Not just any activity – it had to be one they liked.

Disciplining someone for wrongdoings is deeply ingrained in our culture. It is intuitive and emotional, and regarding dogs there are two contributing factors: we expect that they are grateful for the care we provide, and we have an innate fear of teeth and worry that the pooch might harm us if we slack off. Not surprising then that people find it easy to follow the “rewarding the good behaviors” part of training, but have difficulty not disciplining him for his misdeeds. But withholding access to something the dog wants until he pleases you, and removing something the dog cherishes as a consequence of unwanted behaviors, should be your dog’s worst punishment. Humans don’t have to correct. Really.
Neither negative punishment nor interrupting a behavior is oppressive, but constructive. It effectively influences behavior and has a great impact on the dog without the risk of instilling or increasing fear, anxiety or avoidance. It fosters social cooperative bonding, learning, and voluntary attention and obedience. Don’t correct, but redirect. It is absolutely possible to have a well-mannered dog who has never been corrected.

I'll be focusing on other dog stuff in August, so the next post won’t be published till September. It'll deal with a problem so many owners are struggling with: barking and lunging on the leash.


  1. Such great info Silvia. Nice to know I'm not the only one getting played on the "leave it" command. There are times I barely get the words out of my mouth and they come running joyfully as fast as they can with a sliding stop into a perfect sit right at my feet. That's when I know I'm being played (especially when it happens a little too often)because they are never that happy to leave something they are REALLY interested in.

  2. Oh, my pup has a lot of stuff figured out. He hangs out at the office and all the time he would get into the garbage or recycling bin, walk over to my cubicle with a hunk of paper in his mouth, a glint in his eye and a tail wagging, and when i went to take it away would start a game of tag unless I brought out another toy. I couldn't just ignore the behaviour either because he would just eat whatever it was instead. Having a plentiful supply of other toys didn't help, but it's gone way down lately (unless there's a wrapper from a Timmies' bagel in the trash, because he's OBSESSED with bagels for some reason). Instead of instantly getting up and interacting with him I just give him a hard stare until he drops whatever he's gotten into. I then take it away and don't interact with him at all for a minute. He'll usually just flop on the ground and after a minute or two I'll go over and give him a pet. Now we can go days at a time without him getting into anything (instead of the small pile of paper and scraps I'd have to go through by the end of the day).