The Misuse of Training Tools

Whenever the issue of training tools or equipment comes up in an online discussion, trainers who advocate for a vast and varied range of methods always throw out the following argument:

“If used properly, *insert chosen tool* doesn’t hurt/harm/cause stress to the dog.”

The more dogs and people i work with, the more i am realising that this argument is not enough to justify the ongoing use of potentially harmful equipment, whether the potential for harm will be physical or psychological.

My professional experience and ongoing continuing education lead me to use and recommend training methods based on the principles of learning theory and behavioural science. Current best practice(1,2,3) in the world of professional dog training is to use reward-based training methods and thoughtful environmental management to encourage the learner to make desired behavioural choices.

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Photo by Irresistible Desires

Training is a skill that we humans have to practice, and humans make mistakes! When i make recommendations for equipment or methods, i want to feel confident that even if my client completely buggers it up their dog will not suffer from the mistakes of their handler. If your treat-delivery and timing is off, training won’t be particularly effective but your dog is unlikely to suffer any long-term stress or discomfort (except perhaps obesity if you’re not accounting for treats in their daily food intake). If you haven’t got the hang of your front-attach harness, then your dog will still be comfortable while you figure it out. If you stuff your Kong too tightly, your dog might experience some frustration (or they will walk away).

The ethical dilemma lies, in my opinion, with equipment that relies on avoidance in training. Aversive training relies on the dog wanting to avoid or relieve an unpleasant sensation or experience(4). That could be a raised voice, a jab with a finger or foot, or a specific training collar. Not all of these things necessarily hurt your dog, but they have to be sufficiently unpleasant that your dog wants to avoid them or they would simply not work.

A dog trainer with exceptional timing might deliver corrections at such a level that the dog makes the desired association and the target behaviour reduces, however it is important to remember that a trainer has years of practice to be able to work as effectively as possible with the equipment they choose to use. What happens if the timing is off or the level of correction is wrong? This is something i see frequently when dog owners try to follow recommendations of some professionals and use aversive equipment on their own dog.

A leash kept short and tight can increase stress, create negative associations, and gives a dog no opportunity to learn loose lead walking. A choke or prong collar that is applying near-constant pressure is causing ongoing discomfort in response to a wide range of stimuli. A electric barking collar that is inconsistent in timing, or causes a dog to scream in fright or pain, is not effectively reducing barking. But what’s worse, if aversive tools continue to be used with poor timing or execution, the potential for long-term stress and discomfort (or even injury) is great(5).

Dogs make strong associations with their environment depending on how they feel. If they learn that the appearance of other dogs, people, vehicles, etc consistently result in them feeling uncomfortable then you may end up with a more serious behavioural problem than you started with.

By definition, if a behaviour is being reinforced it will increase – you will see more of it. If a behaviour is being punished it will decrease – you will see less of it. If you are working with a trainer, or on your own, and your dog’s behaviour is persisting without change, then it is time to stop and review the plan! When you are using reward-based methods you will feel frustrated if nothing is happening, but if you are using correction-based methods then your dog’s physical and psychological well-being may be at risk.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein

As a professional dog trainer, my goal is to equip you with the tools and methods to allow you to work happily with your dog towards training success. I want both you and your dog to enjoy the process! Remember, training is a skill that takes practice to master. By choosing a force-free trainer you are investing in long-term behavioural change for your dog, using scientifically-proven methods that will improve communication and teamwork between you and your furry friend.

 

References

1 AVA Reward-based Training Guide

2 AVSAB How To Choose A Trainer

3 PPG Australia Humane Hierarchy

4 Definition of Aversive – Cambridge Dictionary

5 AVSAB Position Statement on the use of punishment in dog training (including adverse effects of punishment training)

 

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Treat the cause, not just the symptom

When working with any pet with a behaviour problem, it is important to look not just at what the problem is (e.g. barking, biting, scratching) but why the problem is occurring.

Traditional training relies largely on waiting for the animal to display the problem behaviour, and then reacting to this with some kind of aversive (or punishment). You might pop the dogs leash, flick the birds beak, or squirt the cat with water. Often this results in the animal stopping what it was doing…temporarily. By focusing only on the problem itself, without addressing the underlying cause, the animal will resume the problem behaviour.

Modern, force-free training looks at when the behaviour occurs, what triggers it, and how we can go about changing things so that the behaviour is less likely to occur in future. We also think about what we would rather our pet be doing, so that we can teach it how to behave correctly (using positive reinforcement) and by providing plenty of motivation when it gets it right! The combination of changing the environment to make the problem behaviour harder, and increasing the motivation to offer good behaviour, results in a pet that is eager to spend its time practising the good stuff!

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If the animal is behaving a certain way because it is uncomfortable, or even frightened, by something, then we can gradually change its association with this trigger (using desensitization and counter-conditioning) so that it begins to feel good instead of frightened when the trigger is presented. At all times the animals behaviour is observed and respected. Believe it or not, the fastest way forward is to move at the animals pace rather than pushing it!

Next time your pet does something you don’t like, instead of being reactive try looking at the whole picture. What could be causing your pet to behave like that, and how can you help your pet to behave in ways that you like? By teaching your pet what to do, rather that what not to do, you are giving him the tools to be successful in a human world!

Train smart, not tough!

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!

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!

Why is punishment so addictive?

For a long time, before I became terribly interested in animal behaviour and training, I used what is often called “traditional” training methods with my pet dog and birds. Never anything particularly harsh, but nothing that was particularly constructive for my pets learning new things either. From using a check chain on dog walks, to pushing into my birds belly until it stepped onto my finger, I achieved some training goals…eventually. Some i never achieved, because i had no way to teach them with the tools i’d been given. Considerably more time was spent reacting to what my pets did wrong. There was the “UH UH!” and “NO!” as well as the squirty bottle, tin of 5c pieces (to make a loud noise), and a loud clap behind the head.

The more i learn, the more dust these methods gather in my “training toolbox”. As i “crossed over” from traditional training to training with positive reinforcement the hardest thing to drop was the reactive punishment-based methods when my pets would do something i didn’t like. Why is punishment so addictive to so many pet owners?

One thing that comes to mind is that punishment is often great at suppressing behaviour, albeit temporarily. How satisfying is it when your dog is barking and barking and barking, and you finally crack and bang on the window while yelling “NO!”, and your dog goes quiet. Ahhhh!! It worked!! Peace and quiet. I bet you that your dog will start barking again though. Why? Because you haven’t taught it what to do, nor have you addressed the reason it was barking. In the same situation, with you present or not, your dog will bark again.

While punishment is often great at suppressing behaviour, our pets often become surprisingly resilient to the deterrents we throw their way. The first time you just said “no”, then it got louder, next you had to stand and move threateningly towards your pet, then swat at it, smack it, etc. For punishment to continue working it has to escalate, often beyond the point that we feel comfortable (we pet owners aren’t heartless after all).

stress signals dog training

To be proactive in training, we have to plan ahead and put the effort in before the problem occurs. This is part of setting our pets up to succeed, making it easy for them to get it right. Sometimes all the good intentions in the world aren’t enough to motivate us to get off the couch and train our pet to do some useful basic behaviours. After all, if they’re not misbehaving then chances are they aren’t annoying us. Humans are often very reactive in nature, waiting for a problem to crop up before fixing it. Learning to be a proactive trainer can be hard, just like learning any new skill set, while being reactive with punishment often comes very easily to us.

Another addictive quality of using punishment-based methods is that they often work really well initially, and then variably, and eventually not at all. Why is this addictive? For the same reason that gambling is addictive! Once we feel we can achieve a result using punishment, we become addicted. Even if it stops working so well, we know it used to work – maybe it will work again. It keeps us trying, even in the absence of long-term results.

So there are a few reasons why it might feel really hard to rein-in your reactions to your pets misbehaviour. It is hard to change a long-term habit! But it is worth putting punishment in the “last resort” category when training. The more you learn about positive, force-free methods, the more you will realise that those “last resort” situations are incredibly rare. Anything that can be achieved with punishment can be achieved more kindly, and with more resilience (the results will LAST), using positive-reinforcement.

Train smart, not tough!

Why “shut down” is different to well-trained

With the reign of popular dominance/punishment-based trainers on television and in book stores, force-free trainers are faced with the challenge of educating people on the differences between having a “shut down” pet and a well-trained one.

When you use punishment-based methods in animal training, what you are essentially doing is suppressing behaviour. You are saying “no, don’t do that…not that either…or that”. The result for many pets trained this way is that they simply “shut down” and stop offering behaviour. These pets lose interest in their surroundings. If they don’t interact with their world, then they won’t get punished. They withdraw into themselves.

Dog TrainingUnfortunately, many people, in the absence of the problem behaviours, see their pet as “cured”. Does it matter that their pet is now a shadow of its former self if they are no longer having to put up with annoying problem behaviours?

For anyone who has experienced the delight of training with positive reinforcement the answer is obvious, of course it matters! Our pets, whether they are dogs, cats, birds, or any other species, rely on us – we influence their whole world. When they eat, play, exercise, and rest are all largely controlled by our decisions. We should be committed to enriching their lives in our care, which means providing them with plenty of opportunities to behave and act on their environment in a meaningful way. We can do this through positive reinforcement.

Rather than punish our pets for behaving in ways that annoy us, we can take a moment to plan and set their environment up to encourage good behaviours. We can purposefully train them to do behaviours we like, and motivate them with things they like so that they actually want to listen when we ask. And we can provide them with physical and mental stimulation so that when our lives call us away (to work, or social activities) our pets can rest happily in our absence. This is a well-trained pet!

Positive dog trainingIt’s time that we pet owners take a modern, force-free approach to pet training and ownership. If our pets are misbehaving we should see it as a training problem, not a pet problem. Training is our responsibility, and we should approach it with our pets welfare as the number one priority!

Why train with positive reinforcement?

We live in a society that has traditionally relied on using punishment based training methods for decades. With such a long history doing things one way, it is only logical that some people resist trying something new. Here are some reasons why you should consider positive reinforcement.

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Goblin the princess parrot learns that touching this chopstick with his beak results in him earning a treat

1. Positive reinforcement teaches your pet what to do. Traditional training methods depend on our pet doing the wrong thing so that we can then punish it to teach it not to do that again. The problem with this is that punishing a behaviour merely suppresses it without changing the underlying factors that led to the wrong-doing in the first place. By using positive reinforcement you can stay one step ahead of your pet by teaching it what you actually want it to do, keeping both your pet and yourself happy.

2. Positive reinforcement increases the human-animal bond. Traditional training methods require your pet to experience negative stimuli to work (e.g. pain, fear) which often leads to a state of mind called “learned helplessness” where your pet simply ceases to try new things for fear of being punished. Positive reinforcement teaches your pet that its behaviour can lead to good things coming from you. Not only does this create a pet that is keen to try new things, but it creates a strong association between you and good things happening. Now that’s what you want for your pet!

3. Positive reinforcement applies to all animals. Traditional training was limited to animals that we were able to physically intimidate or control. For animals that easily become frightened or aggressive these methods were not practical (which is why cats have a reputation for being hard to train). Positive reinforcement can be used easily on all animals, you just have to figure out what motivates them.

4. Positive reinforcement is great fun. Nobody wants their pet to see them as the bad guy! Training with positive reinforcement is fun for both the trainer and the trainee. Nothing beats the moment when you shape your pet to do something cute like a wave or high five. The scope of things you can teach with positive reinforcement is endless, limited only by your imagination and patience.

Whether you own a dog or a cat, a fish or a bird, i encourage you to give positive reinforcement training a go. If you are unsure about how to get started, or are having trouble finding out what motivates your pet, then don’t hesitate to contact Treat. Play. Love. for more information.