Some of you may have noticed there is a definite theme to my website. I talk about ‘force free’ and ‘positive training’ a lot. I don’t mention ‘punishment’ or ‘correcting bad behaviour’ much. You might be asking yourself why this is: am I a bunny hugger? A softy big girl’s blouse? One of those ‘cookie pusher’ types? The answer, you may be relieved to hear, is ‘No’. I’m none of those things. I am, however, deeply convinced by science.
So, why do I use the methods I do and avoid other options? Because my job is to get rid of the Dog Problems you have, in the most effective way possible, without adding to the mess you are already in!!
Here’s the science-y bit. I’ll do my best to keep it to plain English and digestible – no-one likes jargon!. This is stuff that you need to know so you can make sensible choices about how you train your animals.
Behaviour Always Has a Function.
Animals don’t just ‘do stuff’ for no reason. They do what they do because it gets them what they want, enjoy or need. Or it lets them escape or avoid nasty things they’d rather not have to put up with. That’s it. They don’t do stuff to p!ss you off, get back at you, or sneakily take over the world while you’re not looking. That’s just our interpretation of things, and humans generally suck at making guesses about why others do what they do.
So, now we have that little misunderstanding out the way, we can look at our pet’s behaviour with new eyes. We can ditch the knee jerk reaction with its associated ‘he needs to be told who’s boss!’ counter-action. We can stop and work out exactly why Fluffy is peeing in your slippers when you leave, or what motivates Bongo to turn into the hound from hell when he sees the neighbour. And if we can work out the real reason for the problem, we can do something useful about it – without resorting to whips and chains.
But Why no Whips and Chains?
Don’t get me wrong, whips and chains absolutely work. Applied correctly they will stop a problem behaviour dead in its tracks. It looks like magic! Quick and simple to apply, job done! However, like many magic spells, there is often a price to pay – and you won’t know what that price may be until AFTER you have unleashed your magic correction spell. Here are some of the tariff options:
It’s been clearly demonstrated that animals trained with unpleasant (aversive) consequences are prone to displaying aggression. The aggression doesn’t necessarily happen in the situation where the correction is applied. So now your misbehaving, growling dog is biting people or other animals.
It’s also been clearly demonstrated that animals trained with unpleasant (aversive) consequences are prone to displaying fearfulness. The fearfulness doesn’t necessarily only happen in the situation where the correction is applied, it can be generalised to the point where it becomes the animal’s ‘baseline’ response to just about everything. Quite simply, the animal no longer trusts the world – everything is potentially unsafe. And, even worse, fearful animals often try to defend themselves so now you have a fearful, potentially aggressive animal instead of just a ‘misbehaving’ one.
If everything the animal does results in corrections of one sort or another, many animals will just give up. That ‘well behaved’ dog who just lies on its bed or won’t do anything until given express permission? He may well have a history of ‘strong discipline’.
If your pet associates certain situations with unpleasantness, not, surprisingly, he will try to avoid or escape those situations. If he happens to have decided that YOU are the defining factor in those situations, you’re going to have a lot of trouble on your hands. Forget recalling, catching, handling, or grooming. You’ll have to trap, trick or fight your dog to be able to get anywhere near him.
Punishment works – in the short term. Unfortunately, animals tend to get used to it, the correction that worked yesterday no longer works today. So, you must up the anté; the yell gets louder, the jerk on the collar stronger, the slap harder, the scruff shake rougher. Even more unfortunately, because the initial correction works and the person delivering it sees instant results, they are more likely to try the same thing again, and again, and again. Over time the corrections need to be stronger to get the same result…you can see where this is going I’m sure. No need to spell it out I hope.
Other Hidden Problems Your Correction Trainer Won’t Tell You About
Even if you manage to avoid any of the prices already mentioned, there are some other drawbacks to using corrective training techniques. Let’s assume you apply your correction and your pet is of a very robust nature. He doesn’t show any of the emotional fallout costs like those listed above. So, why not use the quick, easy solution? Here are some practical reasons why corrections may not be the best way to go:
- You have to apply the correction EVERY time the animal does the unwanted behaviour. Yep, EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Until the problem behaviour disappears. And I’m telling you now, that is seriously difficult to do. If you don’t catch and correct every instance, your animal will constantly be playing the slot machine – will it work this time? Or this time? What about now? Ooh, she’s not looking… NOW! YESSSS! Bingo!! And you now have a behaviour that sometimes pays, and sometimes doesn’t. You have successfully turned your pet into a gambler, willing to test the odds. Have fun with that.
- It doesn’t teach the animal what you want him to do instead. So, you successfully stamp out chewing your shoes. Your dog still needs to chew so…. Say goodbye to your brand-new handbag, dining room table legs and the corner of the laundry wall. Was that really what you had in mind? Thought not.
- It often swaps one problem for a worse one. Behaviour is never random, it always has a function for the animal. Whatever ‘badness’ your pet indulges in, there is a very real reason for them doing it. So, you may be successful in stopping your dog from digging up the lawn, but if he was doing it because he needs exercise or stimulation he may well decide that escaping the yard to take himself for a ramble is a viable alternative. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have holes in my lawn than a dog who wanted to leave home all the time.
So How DO I Fix the Flippin’ Problem Then???
I trust you can now see why using ‘quick fix’ methods that rely on corrections rarely work. So, what to do instead? You have a problem, you want it gone. But how? Here is the usual problem solving process that ‘positive’ or ‘force free’ trainers follow:
- Do a ‘functional analysis’. That’s just a fancy way of saying ‘work out the triggers and outcomes for the problem behaviour’. Once you know what the exact triggers are and what the animal gets out of the resulting behaviour, you are in a position to do something useful about it.
- Remove the triggers if possible. This can’t always be done but if it can, a fix doesn’t get any quicker!
- Prevent the problem using management techniques. This is often the hardest bit of the puzzle for owners. It can take a bit of work to prevent the dog practicing something you’d rather that he didn’t. It can involve barriers, leads or rescheduling of routines. It’s incredibly important to go through this step though as its very difficult to train a replacement behaviour if the unwanted one is still in place. Here’s why.
- Remove the payoff for the behaviour. Sometimes that’s very simple to do, sometimes not so much. However, it works in conjunction with the other parts of the problem solving puzzle so even if you can’t prevent ALL the payoffs, removing most will still help you overcome the problem.
- Find a replacement behaviour that can still give the animal the outcome he needs. For example, if the dog is misbehaving to gain attention, what would you like him to do instead – THAT WILL STILL GET HIM ATTENTION?
But What About Cookie Dependency?
Some people are averse to using positive methods because they think they will be carting a bucket load of food around with them forever. Ok, I admit, for the first few weeks (sometimes months, if I’m honest!) you will smell like a delicatessen and all your pockets will have interesting fluff covered edibles in them. But it’s not a permanent affliction. Good reward based trainers quickly swap to using ‘real life’ rewards instead of cookies. There are many, many things your pet likes/wants/needs in a day. You can use anything your pet values as payment for good behaviour. Cookies are just one small part of a Smorgasbord of reward options available to the savvy owner.
Other Benefits of Reward Based Training
Having laid out the nitty gritty of why positive training is superior to correction based methods, here are some other reasons to take into consideration:
- You can build behaviours you like – and you get to choose what they are! Animals love the process of reward based training – and why wouldn’t they? It means you can have a huge amount of control over what your pet does with no conflict or stress involved in the teaching.
- It provides excellent enrichment and stimulation for your pet. All animals need mental and physical stimulation. All animals are designed to ‘do stuff’ to provide control over their environment, to get outcomes they want. Training using these methods goes a very long way to providing outlets for busy brains that would otherwise be thinking up trouble!
- It builds a great relationship and bond between you and your pet. Let’s face it, unless you have insects for pets (and even if you do!), you probably acquired your pet so you could build a bond with him. You had dreams of cuddling on the couch, taking long relaxed outings or having a furry confidant in your life. Whatever your reasons, I bet that the phrases ‘best friend’, ‘family member’ or similar, featured in there somewhere.
- And last but not least, it’s addictive and FUN!!
If you’re geeky like me, check out some further reading:
- Excel-erated Learning. (Explaining how dogs learn and how best to teach them.) Pamela J Reid Ph. D.
- Coercion and its Fallout. Murray Sidman. (VERY geeky!)
- Learning and Behavior. James E Mazur. (Or any entry level learning theory text.)
- The Science of Consequences. Susan M. Schneider
– Sarah and the Gang
PS Want to read more like this? Find out how here.
PPS. New to using food in training? Find out how to use it effectively by downloading the HotDogs guide, Top Tips for Food Use.
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