Monday, November 12, 2012

Nature's Punishments

Dog trainers who intentionally inflict pain and discomfort to influence a dog’s behavior often refer to Nature’s Rules as an explanation. They argue that Mother Nature punishes missteps, misdeeds, mistakes, and hence we must adopt that template or risk that our pooch turns into an unruly, and perhaps even aggressive, menace.
True, Mother Nature and Mother Dog’s consequences are not always pleasant. Life in itself isn’t. But how does that relate to our life with dogs? Should we emulate Nature?
To answer those questions, we must have a closer look at the results when Nature punishes: The efficacy and fallout.

When we lived in Calgary, one of our favorite areas was Bowmont Park, an interconnected path system straddling the Bow River. We ventured there several times a week, alone or teamed up with friends, all year around. No kind of weather could keep us away for long. Because our dogs are generally very responsive to us, they were mostly off the leash.
Once, during early spring, young Aussie shepherd Davie trailed along the still partly frozen shoreline, spotted a duck on the river, and charged for it. Thankfully the ice didn’t break, but it made an eerie cracking sound that scared Davie so much that she came flying back to me - and for the rest of her life not as much as looked at a duck. One incident led to complete avoidance… of fowl.
The unquestionable intent of a punishment is that something decreases, or ideally ceases altogether for now and for always, and that is exactly what happened here. Equally undisputable is the fact that the connections a dog makes with an unpleasant sensation is not necessarily congruent with what actually happens. In the above example, the only thing Davie linked with the scary sound was the obviously very powerful bird, but neither the ice nor her behavior, which means that she continued wanting to chase wildlife other than ducks, including along iced shorelines.
Nature’s punishments, you see, can be a bit sloppy in eliminating the specifics we’d like to see eliminated.

Outcomes are more precise when another animal deliberately delivers a punishment. Our Newf Baywolf, again when young, had issues with certain dogs and always growled at a female Amstaff we occasionally met at Bowmont Park whenever she came too close to me. Nothing I did curbed that behavior for long, but keep in mind that I wasn’t as dog-wise then as I am now, and finally the Staffie, typically very sweet and tolerant, had it and chased Bay halfway up a hill. He never growled at her again, and for the rest of his life avoided her. The punishment she dished out worked as she intended – for her, and only for her. Bay continued to growl at some other dogs, until we dealt with the issue properly and all dogs became good-stuff announcers.
Last year, at Shubie Park in Dartmouth – our “Bowmont Park” since our move, a Labrador retriever was dumb enough to mount Will. She ejected him in a split second and he got the hint, but I saw him mounting another dog a little later when our paths crossed again.
Nature’s punishments, you see, can successfully eliminate a behavior, but not necessarily in all contexts; it continues elsewhere.

Truth is that Nature’s successes are limited, and sometimes don’t work at all. One aspect that determines whether a consequence is a deterrent is the intensity of the drive.
The cracking sound the ice made was enough to stop Davie from chasing ducks for the rest of her life, but ducks weren’t that big of a deal for her to begin with. Had it been a cat on the river, or even a ball, I am not sure that the result would have been the same.
Baywolf, forever curious and the most social dog I ever met, was so motivated to investigate and greet that being quilted by a porcupine never stopped him from saying hello again. And no, he was not a dumb dog. His memory served him well in other situations, but with this one his hardwired spirit to socialize superseded the pain he experienced.
Will, on the other hand, was never quilted but witnessed when Baywolf was, and she never approached a porcupine, but returned to me whenever she spotted one, and also respectfully stays away from raccoons.

When punishment is effective, dished out by Nature or humans doesn’t make a difference, avoidance is the definite result. That is the whole idea: that the recipient doesn't do whatever it was he was doing again.
When we punish our dog, it is avoidance we create, but what he will avoid, what connections he makes, is impossible to accurately predict. Will he avoid repeating the action he was punished for? Will he avoid any or all details that were present when he felt discomfort? Will he avoid his human?
Trainers who use Nature’s Template as justification to inflict pain and discomfort forget about the social relationship between dog and owner. Yes, mom-dog might correct her pup, but mom-dog doesn’t plan for a future relationship that needs to function; pups rarely live with their biological mother after 10-20 weeks of age.
People do envision an ongoing and mutually rewarding friendship, but that’s not going happen when one is a deliberate and repeated punisher the other will try to avoid as a result.
Let’s say my 5-year-old child is riding her bicycle recklessly. I could intentionally give her a fall-causing shove to teach her to be careful and heed to my warnings, and I bet she would learn her lesson very quickly, but she also wouldn’t trust me anymore, would she? And how would she feel about other activities that include me? It is the same with a dog.

Punishments lead to avoidance and escape. There are dogs that run away every chance they have, and some stay away. “Lost” on purpose. In Nature, every adult animal has the freedom to leave a situation that’s not working for him.
Another escape route is to take the punisher out, which also happens in Nature. In any given situation an animal might retreat or defend itself, and when a dog feels strong and confident enough, a fight can ensue, and bites with real teeth, not a claw-hand or knuckles. Furthermore, when his fight reaction is reinforced, so when the person or other dog backs off, threats and bites can become a habitual way to deal with the environment. Punishments train aggression.

When we choose Nature as our template, we take a gamble. We can’t predict before we start if our envisioned canine companion will: Disconnects from us, aggress against us, or becomes so stressed that he is perpetually guarded, hypersensitive and over-reactive to any stimulus.
Another natural and therefore very possible, and indeed common, side effect is displaced aggression; hostility against anyone perceived weaker.
In Nature, an elder might correct a young animal’s out-of-line actions. Through that, the pup learns self-restraint and deference, but what he also learns is who in the group he needs to be careful of and who he bully in return; who he is more powerful over. Of course, that is also something we do not want in our social group.
It is unacceptable that the dog we correct beats up the kitty, but Nature is not one-sided. The traditional and balanced trainers who excuse their punitive methods with “Nature’s Template” are one-sided: they punish, but fail to acknowledge all possible outcomes. As it is human nature, they take the part that fits their purpose, and don’t mention that there is nothing natural about applying an isolated aspect of complex and dynamic interactions in the wild. They miss the point that balance is when one accepts all facets of Nature, including the dog avoiding, distressing, leaving or aggressing; including the part that Nature kills or ostracizes the one who jeopardizes the survival of the pack. Millan’s red zone dogs Nature would not tolerate. Only humans keep someone alive within their social group who causes ongoing conflict.

We don’t behave like Nature, but use it whenever it suits us. We claim that the dog is a primal animal and we ought to treat him as Nature would, but demand that he adjusts to our refined human expectations.
We have a whole set of rules that are very unnatural - and I discussed several in previous posts: we disallow freedom to communicate, to sniff, to move at will, to get excited and so on.
We don’t permit a dog to defend a resource, but that, too, happens in Nature. According to renowned wolf expert L. David Mech, every wolf regardless of rank has an ownership zone around his mouth he has the right to defend. We want our dogs to release things to us.
In Nature, attacking an interloper is a desired trait. Millan and alike punish the dog who barks and growls at a stranger who enters home territory.
Nature doesn’t micromanage and demand precision obedience. Dogs don’t care if another breaks a down stay or rather chases a squirrel than come on recall. We do care about that.
Nature doesn’t set an animal up for failure just to have the chance to punish it. That is what traditional trainers do when they “proof” the dog. They set a trap the dog innocently walks into, orchestrate situations that guarantee that he will make a mistake, and inflict the unpleasant consequence when he does. It would be like a grade school teacher giving a right and wrong spelling of a word, and then punish the pupil when she spells it incorrectly, so that she never, ever forgets to do it right. Chances are it works, but the costs are easy to comprehend. For a dog who falls in the hands of such trainers, everything he learns plays out that way.

Except battery farmed food and research animals, owned dogs are the only other ones prevented from living out their intrinsic drives. Regarding the former, any person with a thread of empathy feels bad, but justifies it as a sad but necessary requirement so that we can eat and treat illnesses. With dogs, masses believe trainers who allege that the coercive stifling of natural behaviors is Nature’s Template, and that it will lead to a happy and balanced animal. Not only that: The guy who demonstrates how to  do it effectively is glorified on TV, supported by big business, and faithfully followed by millions of dog owners and wannabe trainers.
In Nature, life is ruff sometimes, relationships transient and the outcome of punitive consequences unpredictable. Nature doesn't care if the individual lives and prospers, or dies or suffers.
Our relationship with dogs is a different one. We want consistency and permanency. Most owners don’t want any of the side effects. They want the opposite: instead of detachment, companionship; instead of anxiety, even-temperedness; instead of aggression, friendliness.
To get that, they must adopt a different template as their guide than Nature’s.


  1. Yes Davie and Baywolf now who could forget them!!! Another great article. now also to get the word out to show much greater and more knowledgeable the Cesar you are. Keep,up the great work.

  2. A great post and a really good perspective on how Nature works. You are right--the results are so much less predictable with harsh punishments. Another reason to avoid them!