A professional dog trainer said to me recently that most dog owners “just want the dog not to jump, nip, yap nonstop; don’t snap, don’t fight and don’t take a dump on my Persian rug.” I’m sure that from the perspective of most professional dog trainers, that appears to be the case. People come to them daily with this problem or that problem and these people simply want the problem to stop. I’m sure that most professional dog trainers will tell you that they make the bulk of their money telling dog owners how to get their dog to stop chewing on furniture, stop barking out the window, stop pulling on their leash, stop peeing in the house, stop guarding their toys and so on. Cesar Millan has made a career as a dog training media celebrity doing exactly that.
I cannot tell you the number of dog owners who use traditional force training methods with their dogs who have shown me how “good” their dog is by demonstrating what their dog will NOT do.
Having raised three dogs using behavioural science and reinforcement based training, I am at something of a loss to understand the logic of that. None of those three dogs soiled the house after house-training, none has ever chewed anything but the toys we have given them, they don’t bark non-stop, they don’t fight, and they are generally very good companions.
But my description of them is that they can tell me when they need to go out, they have learned to chew on the appropriate items when they want to chew, they have learned to be quiet if asked, and they will listen to a number of commands to “drop” items, “leave” things alone, or “come” when called.
This may sound like a small semantic distinction but I believe it speaks to a larger mind set. I think it’s a significant shift in perspective to define your dog by what they are instead of what they are not. Unfortunately our prevailing culture sets up the dog as an adversary rather than a student. We are challenged as dog owners to make sure our dog doesn’t do undesirable things. We are to keep the dog from behaving badly and he is only supposed to behave on command. A “good dog” is one who sits quietly, taking no initiative, unless summoned by his owner to perform.
Lessons from the Psychology Lab
In reading Dr. Murray Sidman’s book Coercion and Its Fallout, I was struck by the section on “conditioned suppression.” Throughout the book, Sidman describes the responses of laboratory rats to various behavioural experiments involving punishments, usually in the form of non-lethal electrical shocks delivered through the floor of the cages. He describes our culture as so familiar with the use of punishment in daily life that we are rarely surprised to find ourselves in either the role of the punisher or the punished. In previous chapters of the book, experiments are described where behaviours are “taught” by having the desired behavior turn off the shock (“escape” behaviour) or to prevent the shocks from being delivered if the desired behaviour is performed after some warning sign (“avoidance” behaviour).
But what happens when the shock becomes inevitable? What if the rat can find no behaviour that successfully escapes or avoids the shock? The experiment was simple. The rat was shown a lever that would reliably produce food. At intervals, a tone is sounded for one minute. At the end of one minute, the tone stops and a shock is delivered to the rat. It’s important to note that during this one minute, the food lever continues to operate normally and will produce food if pressed.
The shock was unavoidable. The tone was simply information that the shock was coming. One might expect that after a few shocks the rat would simply note the shock was coming and work through the tone so long as food was availalble. That was the surprise for me — it didn’t. After only a few repetitions, the rat stopped working for the food as soon as the tone sounded; it’s behaviour became “suppressed” in the presence of the warning tone. In human society we call this condition “anxiety” — when something bad is going to happen and there is nothing we can do to escape or avoid it.
This is a video re-creation of the experiment above. In the video, the green musical note indicates the tone sounding and the yellow arrow indicates the shock.
A Frightening Parallel
At that point, I had to put the book down for a few minutes. A frightening prospect had flashed across my mind. What if I were the shock? What if my tone of voice or even my presence was the warning tone for my dog? Is it possible that dog trainers had confused conditioned behaviour suppression for good training? I thought back to the traditional training I had done with our Vince many years ago. Until he died, Vince behaved differently around me than he did around my wife. In retrospect, I believe that this is because I was the one who did most of the punishment with Vince. In some ways, I never stopped being the warning tone to Vince, his behaviour was always subdued around me.
If we look at some of the traditional methods of training a dog, the “escape” and “avoid” options become obvious. In training “heel” in traditional training, choke chains allow the dog to avoid having the chain tightened if they respond to the sound of the chain as we “pop” it. If they do not comply, pressure is applied with some authority. That pressure is usually kept there until the dog complies with our wishes and we release the pressure allowing the dog to “escape” the unpleasant feeling by doing what we want. In the linked video, a shock collar is also used to continue the “heel” training without the leash present. It’s an interesting approach given the rat experiment we saw above.
And you know what? It works! Traditional training has worked for decades. It has been systematized and new equipment has been introduced for the dogs to avoid or escape. And we tend to do more of what works.
In his book, Sidman describes a behavioural therapist who successfully used electric shocks to prevent an autistic child from tearing at his skin and eyes. That therapist then went on to suggest electric shock as treatment for any number of behavioural problems. If some is good, more must be better, right?
Maybe not. Behavioural suppression may not be as specific as you might think. I’ve learned from my work with reinforcement training that being less than precise can produce differences in behaviour. The animal simply tries what it thinks will work to get the reward. The reverse must also be true. The less precise we are with punishment, the less likely the dog is to behave for fear of being punished. This is particularly true if the dog is trained using escape and avoidance training to produce the desired behaviours. In the end, the dog only behaves when he is sure the will not be punished for what they do. Good dog.
What Most Dog Owners Want
I remember reading a post on an internet forum from behaviourist Kellie Snider when she described a dog she had been called in to work with as “clinically insane.” Snider knows what she’s talking about. With both a bachelors degree and a masters degree in behavioural analysis, she has over 20 years experience with animal behaviour. Her statement took my breath away. I had never considered that animals could go insane but her description of an animal that could not make sense of its world or its life fit perfectly. Here was an animal driven mad and its behaviour showed every indication of it. Snider’s recommendation in that particular case was to have the dog put down.
Is it possible that the effects of all this inappropriately applied punishment causes some of the very behaviours that owners then want to stop? I think so. Is it possible that some of the remedies suggested by punishment advocates and traditional trainers can make the situation worse or create new problems? If I understand what Dr. Murray Sidman and other behaviourists say about punishment, I think it’s very likely.
Popular trainers like Cesar Millan may be very experienced and gifted in their application of punishment as a behaviour modification technique but they are also demonstrating their talents to a public that does not posess their professional level of skill or experience, to say nothing of their knowledge of dogs. They are, in effect, selling a quick remedy to the common dog owner. Behavioural Snake Oil to cure all your canine problems.
But like the Snake Oil sold over the centuries, let the buyer beware because force and intimidation based training can cause more harm than it cures. Not only could it not address your problems but it could cause new problems in your dogs. If you don’t believe me, head down to your nearest dog pound or rescue shelter. Every dog there came from somewhere. Many are from good homes with well intentioned owners who didn’t have all the facts before doing what some professional dog trainer told them.
We live in the age of information. Be sure to check out all of your alternatives when working with your dogs. Science is providing a wealth of information on dogs and dog behaviour and much of it is available at your local bookstore, library, and even free on the internet. If a trainer makes a suggestion to you in working with your dog, make sure you understand it and that it makes sense to you. Remember that your dog has his or her own view of you too. Don’t become the warning signal.
I want to dedicate this article to my beloved Vince who made me look at myself and at dogs. I miss you, my friend, and I hope that wherever you are, you can forgive me.
“Caution” @ Flickr – Allyaubry 2008