Positive dog training using rewards has taught me some interesting lessons. One important lesson I learned is that you get the behaviour you reward. So if you reward a crooked “sit” or your dog accidentally turns her head before you can reward her, that crooked sit or turn of the head might become part of the behaviour you are teaching.
You see, timing is important when teaching your dog new behaviours. In fact, timing is very important when your dog learns anything. This leads me to an interesting question: if timing is so important in teaching behaviours, isn’t timing also critical when you punish your dog for unwanted behaviours? If your dog can inadvertently learn something you didn’t intend because of bad timing during training, can your dog also get the wrong message when you punish without proper timing and context?
I think that’s a question worth looking at. The classic example of this is the “leash pop” so often taught by trainers. A “leash pop” is a quick tug at the leash that quickly pulls against the dog’s neck. It appears to be more of a “hey, pay attention” gesture and less of a learning experience for most dogs.
Correction or Interruption?
Most dog trainers refer to the unpleasant (aversive) things you do to stop unwanted behaviours as “corrections.” This is intended to convey that you are “correcting” your dog’s improper behaviour to one more suited to the behaviour you want. But are you really correcting your dog, or merely interrupting what she is doing at the moment? Are you communicating that what she is doing is “not ok”, or are you just stopping that behaviour right now because it’s not what you want?
There are other interrupters too. The loudly yelled “NO!” or “Hey!” are popular with many people. I have also seen people grab collars and pull, poke, push, clap, stamp a foot, and barge into the dog. Even an unexpected smack on the nose or rump to interrupt a behaviour is sometimes used. This might move your dog away from the thing you don’t want her to be doing, but the timing and severity of this kind of “correction” can have unexpected and potentially damaging consequences.
To find out why this approach can be damaging, we have to turn to Ivan Pavlov, a Russian researcher who lived at the turn of the 20th century. Pavlov’s work in understanding the involuntary physical responses of animals to environmental sights, sounds, and actions has evolved into the behavioural science of Classical Conditioning.
Many of us are familiar with the story of “Pavlov’s dogs”, who were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, even in the absence of food. This involuntary behaviour came about because lab workers had inadvertently sounded a bell just before feeding the dogs. In a short time, the dogs associated the ringing of the bell with the delivery of food and would salivate at the sound of the bell even if no food was present. This is what we now call Classical Conditioning: the involuntary pairing of something in the environment (e.g., a bell) with something else in the environment (e.g., the food).
What this means to us as dog owners is that our dogs are always watching, always learning, always making correlations between the things they experience in their environment. They are trying to make sense of their world.
The important thing to remember is that our dogs are completely unaware of our intentions. They only see our actions and try to make sense of them in the context of what else is going on in the environment. Pavlov’s discovery is always present: Classical Conditioning is always happening with our dogs whether we choose to be aware of it or not. What we risk by not keeping this basic behavioural fact in mind is the creation of unexpected behaviours in our dogs.
Coercion and Its Fallout
In his book Coercion and Its Fallout, Dr. Murray Sidman describes three general behavioural responses to unpleasant (aversive) events in the animal’s environment:
Escape behaviours are behaviours a dog will develop to try to stop or escape the aversive action that is happening in her environment.
Avoidance behaviours are behaviours a dog will develop once she recognizes the signs that an aversive event is coming. The behaviours are designed to successfully avoid that unpleasant event before it starts.
The null state is the third type of response, and it’s actually no response at all. The null state occurs when the dog has given up on any escape or avoidance behaviour and simply accepts whatever punishment is delivered because she cannot work out any way to successfully avoid the punishment.
I think most of us recognize these situations with our own dogs. For instance, if my dog is drinking out of the toilet and I angrily barge into the bathroom, she might immediately stop drinking, lower her head, and slink toward me in a submissive posture. If I think this is cute or my dog shows appropriate remorse, I will probably stop being angry and my dog will have successfully escaped from my angry behaviour.
After I do this enough times, my dog may notice some warning behaviours from me (e.g. getting up, saying “no”, etc.) as she approaches the bathroom door and will turn away instead and lie down or move away. My dog successfully avoids an unpleasant situation with me by recognizing the signs that I would not react well to her heading for a drink from the toilet.
But my timing is important here! Both of the situations above are dependent on my dog recognizing that it is her “drinking from the toilet” that is the cause of my unpleasant reaction. If my timing isn’t good, my dog can get a very different message. For example, if I had not caught her in the act and delivered a punishment while she was just standing in the bathroom with water on the floor around the toilet, what could she make of this? Does “water on the floor” make me angry? Is her presence in the bathroom the problem? What escape or avoidance behaviour could be successful now?
The only thing my dog would learn for certain from this scenario is that the potential exists for me to be angry with her in the bathroom with water on the floor around the toilet. So the next time I step out of the bath tub and drip water on the floor, it’s possible that my dog will slink out of the bathroom. And I might be confused by that if I didn’t think about how my previous actions may have affected my dog’s perceptions.
The fact is, the dog is simply avoiding what she has experienced previously as an unpleasant situation. In fact, any further attempts to get my dog into the bathroom if there’s water on the floor might make her more stressed and uncertain. Then she may start to search for successful behaviours to escape the stresses of me calling her into the “scary” bathroom. A successful lowering of the head or rolling over might get me to come out the bathroom to reassure her. And my dog has now learned how to turn off the stress of being called into that wet bathroom. All the while I may be thinking to myself, “What the heck is going on with Fluffy?” Especially if that initial poorly-timed punishment for drinking from the toilet occurred days or even weeks ago.
Ultimately, for a dog, it’s about being successful. She is just looking for ways to be “right” in her environment. Poorly timed punishments are confusing. If your dog can’t make sense of why she is being punished or if that punishment seems inconsistent (e.g., sometimes she gets punished and sometimes she doesn’t), then she can’t find a way to be successful. No response seems to work.
This leads directly to Sidman’s third kind of response: simply accepting the punishment without understanding what is causing it. The dog becomes less and less willing to behave in any way because a punishment could be coming at any time. So she waits quietly until she is certain the next thing she wants to do is going to be okay with you.
Realistically, we will all need to punish our dogs at one point or another. There will be times when our dogs are going to do something we don’t want. As positive trainers, we don’t avoid punishing our dogs, we just try to be as careful and clear with our punishments as we are with our rewards.
A Recipe for Happiness
There are alternatives to “corrections” that can be effective. Ideally, you make your point clearly and your dog can learn to change her behaviour with a minimum of unpleasant “corrections.” After all, the one thing your dog learns for certain from every correction is that you have the ability to make things unpleasant for her.
So “correcting” your dog can and does have a cost. The cost can range from a momentary drop in mood to confusion and frustration so great that your dog is unwilling to try anything with you just to try to avoid punishments.
What that cost is and how it manifests itself in your dog is something very much under your control as her owner. If you recognize that Pavlov’s discovery is always present and your dog is always watching, you can try to be clear and precise so you don’t have to “correct” your dog that often. If you pair this approach with a training program designed to teach your dog what you want before she gets into trouble, it can be a recipe for a long and happy life together.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Choke Chains © Airwaves1 – Creative Commons
Dog on Beach © Steve Parker – Creative Commons