Dog agility competitions are interesting places for a training “geek” like me. Dozens of dogs and their handlers are brought out onto the course one after the other and I get a glimpse into how training goes between the dog and the human. As someone who studies behavioural science and animal learning, it’s fascinating to see the variety of approaches that handlers use when working with their dogs. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. And many times the handlers don’t really understand the science, they just do what they think will work.
One handler at a recent trial told her dog to SIT and STAY at the start line and began to walk out on to the course to her own starting position. As she arrived, her dog stood up. Her response was to lean back toward her dog and yell “SIT!!!” in a loud, no-nonsense voice. The next handler began much the same way by asking her dog to SIT and STAY but when she began walking on to the course her dog suddenly sprang into action and cleared the first two jumps. This handler simply said, “Ohhhh! Too bad sweetie” and leashed her dog and walked her out of the ring.
At first glance, the second handler’s action may seem like a kinder approach to correcting a disobedient dog. But I know Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment when I see it. Here I had an example of each. Both have their “pros” and “cons” but the second handler’s solution of denying her dog the fun of playing agility for leaving the start line without permission may be more confusing for the dog and less effective in the long run.
A look at Negative Punishment
The scientific definition of Negative Punishment is to “remove something the dog values that results in a decrease in a behaviour.” That definition may seem a little puzzling in the example of the dog leaving the start line early. What exactly was the behaviour we want to decrease? The obvious response is that we want to decrease the “not staying” behaviour but that’s a bit odd, isn’t it? There are hundreds of behaviours that qualify as “not staying.” Which one exactly are we trying to decrease?
What the handler was really doing was trying to indicate that there are unpleasant consequences for not offering the correct behaviour when asked. That’s more complicated than just saying that THIS behaviour will be rewarded and THAT behaviour will get you something unpleasant. As humans, it seems an obvious concept and we use this kind of communication with each other every day. But we have big brains and our dogs are not as capable of complex thought and reasoning as we are. What do they make of this?
Providing that unpleasant response when our dog doesn’t do what we ask is called applying an “aversive.” An aversive is simply something our dog would prefer to avoid. In the case of the handler in my first example, the dog would prefer to avoid the stern, scolding voice of her upset handler. So she sits to avoid any more of that scolding. The second handler is counting on her dog making the connection that her leaving the start line without permission has resulted in the penalty of not being able to play any more agility for now.
But, for me, this always raises a question – when does the use of aversion turn into simple retribution? We ask for something, the dog does something else and “Flag on the play! Penalty!” the dog is punished. The opposite approach might be to reward the dog for doing what they are asked and many trainers do reward their dogs in practice. But once in competition where there are spectators and judges and entry fees involved, human emotions change and it’s possible that that punishment, that retribution comes out of the handler’s frustration.
Taking the dog off the agility course for disobeying is a form of a fairly common training technique – the “Time Out.” When my dog is doing something I don’t like, for example barking or jumping up on me, I take away something she values like looking out of the window or my attention. The science of behaviour says that removing something my dog values in response to unwanted behaviours can decrease the chance of the behaviour happening. That’s Negative Punishment.
Using this technique depends on two critical things. First and foremost, my timing better be really good. This kind of punishment can only be effective if I remove what she values at the exact moment that she is doing the thing I want to stop. I learned this from marking and rewarding behaviours I wanted to teach. If my timing wasn’t good, I could get very different or even extra behaviours instead of what I intended. Second, I need to be very consistent. If I don’t apply the “time out” in the same circumstances in response to the same thing, my dog could fail to make the connection to what is causing the time out.
Punished or not?
One of the features of using “time outs” seems to be that the punishment needs to fit the crime. The more “wrong” the dog has behaved, the longer their deprivation will last. I’ve seen handlers decide that their dog was being so disobedient that they were “done for the night” after the first few minutes of an agility practice. Other times the transgression seems to only merit a brief pause while the handler turns their back to drive home their disapproval. The idea seems to be that the length of the “time out” will make the point more or less effectively based on the dog’s misbehaviour.
One of the things I see handlers fail to consider is just how much the dog values the thing that they are taking away in this “time out” scenario. Interestingly, a study done in 2001 with Rhesus Monkeys showed an interesting finding. The duration of the “time outs” used in this study had no effect at all on the effectiveness of the training! The factor that seemed to matter most was how much the individual monkeys valued the thing that was removed. This raises an important point; do I have a clear understanding of how much my dog values whatever it is that I’m going to remove as her punishment?
When it comes to activities like agility that I want my dog to enjoy, it seems counter productive to use this “time out” strategy. After all, if it happens too frequently, these punishments are going to make the agility less valuable to my dog. If I believe that the length of the “time out” effects how this training works, I could get into a dangerous spiral. My dog misbehaves so I give her a short time out and then the next time she fails to respond because this is less fun for her so I give her a longer time out. The activity then becomes even less fun and the time outs get longer still and the spiral goes on until I just decide that it’s not worth doing agility any more. And the sad part is that I’ve see this exact thing happen to some handlers over time.
The wrong fix to the right problem
To me, the fundamental problem with deprivation responses (Negative Punishment) is that they seem to be backwards. If you ask the dog to do something and they do something else, how do you clearly indicate that “something else” was wrong? When I attempt to punish an incorrect response, it could be that I’m punishing any one of hundreds of possible incorrect responses. That makes it nearly impossible to be either precise or consistent in what behaviours I’m punishing! It’s the wrong fix for the right problem.
The real answer here is to find a way to get my dog to do the right behaviour and reward her for that. If my dog is failing to perform the correct behaviour, that tells me that the problem is in how I have trained her, how I motivate her, or some confusion in how I’m communicating with her. Those are all things that it is my responsibility to fix.
In his book “Coercion and Its Fallout”, psychologist Murray Sidman makes the point that “punishment reinforces the punisher.” That momentary compliance we seem to get when we use time outs or other aversives feels good to us because it’s retribution. We have made the dog “pay for their mistake”, so to speak. The question is, does this kind of retribution really make for good dog training? Is the compliance you get worth the loss of enthusiasm in your dog that comes from repeated punishment? It’s a question all of us have to answer for ourselves.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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