It’s Real for Them

It’s very common to see and read about pets being punished for trying to let their owners know they are uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re so fixed on what we’re trying to get done, or what we think our pets should be doing, that we forget to  look at the picture that’s right in front of us.

When your dog barks or growls at an approaching dog or person, your cat hides when visitors enter the room, or your parrot lunges or bites when you reach into their cage, stop what you are doing and review the situation. Don’t pop the leash, drag your cat out, or flick your parrot’s beak. They are telling you they’re worried. Listen.

I recently read a light hearted news article that got me thinking. A postman in Canada was unable to deliver a parcel. On the delivery notice he ticked “Other” as the reason for failing to deliver the parcel, and he elaborated with “Bear at door” as the reason. I wouldn’t have delivered that parcel either! But what if his boss told him to stop being silly and just do it? Or told him he was being unreasonable, the bear wasn’t going to hurt him? That wouldn’t seem fair would it?

Bear

When it comes to things humans are afraid of (or cautious of) we can often empathise easily, because chances are that we might be afraid of something similar. Our pets, on the other hand, are often scared of things that we perceive as being benign. This makes it harder for us to take their fears seriously and even harder when it might mean we have to put in actual time and effort to help them come around.

Next time your pet tells you they are worried about something in their environment, don’t punish them, and don’t try to move them closer. They are telling you they are not ok. Help them to increase their distance, help them to feel more comfortable, and set them up better next time so they can feel safe from the start. What they’re experiencing may seem silly to you, but it is real for them.

Not sure how to help your pet? Consult with a trainer! That’s what we’re here for.  Train smart, not tough!

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Training Talk: Punishment

This instalment of “Training Talk” is going to look at punishment. This might seem an odd topic to find on the blog of a force-free trainer who utilises positive reinforcement, but it is my belief that it is important to understand not just what you recommend, but also what others recommend.

Punishment is a word that holds a lot of unpleasant associations. When we hear the word we tend to think of a smack or harsh words. In the world of training it isn’t quite that simple.

Dog Training

Punishment is simply something that decreases the chance of our pet repeating a certain behaviour. When our dog barks or our bird squawks and we yell “NO!”, we are hoping that they will stop the noise and hopefully not do it again. This example, and many other commonly used “punishments” are rarely as effective as we would like.

Just like reinforcement, there are two types of punishment we can utilise in training. The first is the most well known, positive punishment. This sounds contradictory, but all the positive means is that we add something to decrease a behaviour. We might add a loud noise to stop a barking dog, a squirty bottle to stop a scratching cat, or a yank on the leash to stop a pulling dog.

We can also use negative punishment. This sounds silly too, but like the positive means to add something, the negative means we take something away to decrease a behaviour. When we use negative punishment we take away something our pet likes in response to their misbehaviour, it’s like a time-out. This is what people are hoping to achieve when they “ignore” their pet for doing something naughty, they are taking away their attention, but often there are environmental factors outside our control that may be undermining our efforts.

Timing is everything in training, and this is true of punishment too. If we want our punishment to affect our pets behaviour, it needs to happen immediately following the behaviour we want to see less off. This means if you discover your pets misbehaviour hours after the event, you just need to move on. Punishing you pet will be damaging to your relationship, and completely irrelevant to your pet. Also consider how hard it is to properly “time-out” your pet immediately following something naughty – by the time you get them to the naughty corner or back in the cage, 10 things have happened since the behaviour you want to punish, and the lesson is lost!

If we get our timing right we can stop unpleasant behaviours, but we have to realise why punishment works to decrease a behaviour. It works because our pet doesn’t enjoy the outcome, most often because what we do is aversive (or unpleasant). Training with aversive’s create stress and anxiety for our pets, which can lead to bigger problems long term. We would do better to look at why the problem behaviour is occurring, and looking for ways to prevent it happening again while teaching our pets more acceptable behaviours that we can reward. This is much more enjoyable for both us, and our pets.

Train smart, not tough!