If you’ve looked around my website or any of my ads you’ve seen that we use humane training methods. You may be wondering what exactly that means. How is it different from other training methods that you’ve seen employed? And why is it better?
Let’s start with what it means. When I say humane training methods, I’m talking about using psychology and learning theory to achieve the kind of relationship you want with your pet. The main method is operant conditioning. This means using consistent consequences to encourage or discourage behaviours, which allows your pet to have a sense of control over their environment and life because he or she gets to choose or “operate” the consequences. I think everyone agrees that life is better when you have choices. The consequences are very important and if used incorrectly can actually lead to frustration in yourself and your pet. Let’s talk about the basics of operant conditioning, but first we need to clear up some vocabulary. Throughout this article when we talk about “positive” and “negative,” we’re talking about adding (positive) or removing (negative) something from the environment. When we talk about “reinforcement” and “punishment,” we’re talking about increasing (reinforcement) or decreasing (punishment) a behaviour. With the options listed above, we have two options for increasing behaviours (positive and negative reinforcement) and two options for decreasing behaviours (positive and negative punishment).
This is probably the best-known part of operant conditioning these days. The concept is simple: if your pet does something you like, you give them a reward. An example of this in humans would be if a child completed all their homework without having to be told and because their parent wanted them to repeat this behaviour, they gave them permission to watch an extra 30 minutes of television. Giving is the positive aspect and the reward is what is going to reinforce the behaviour. You will probably have seen or heard of positive reinforcement referred to as clicker training as well as positive reinforcement. Keep in mind there are still three other ways to effect behaviour and if someone says that they use only positive reinforcement training, please be suspicious. Learning does not happen in a vacuum and someone who says they use only positive reinforcement either doesn’t truly understand how to train, or their ability to train more than basic behaviours is limited. In order to be able to be an effective trainer, you need to understand the other three aspects of operant conditioning as well as classical conditioning (we’ll talk about that another day) even though positive reinforcement is going to be the staple of teaching any new behaviour.
Continuing with the goal of increasing a desired behaviour, the next aspect to discuss is negative reinforcement. This type of reinforcement occurs when something is removed from the environment, and its removal increases the likelihood of the desired behaviour being repeated. An example of this is would be opening the door to the back yard as a reaction to your dog sitting politely at the door. Or, a child cleans their room without being asked, so their parent tells them they don’t need to wash the dishes after dinner. Removing the door reinforces the sit and removing the dishes reinforces the room cleaning.
The opposite to our last example would be if a child didn’t clean their room after they had been asked to and their parent told them they weren’t allowed to play video games for three days. Removing the video game is the “negative” and not cleaning their room is the behaviour that we don’t want repeated. In terms of dogs, an example would be your dog liking being outside but barking at people when they walk by the yard, and you reacting by bringing him into the house. Barking was the undesirable behaviour and “taking away” outside was the negative action. People generally do not like the term punishment as it brings with it negative feelings, but as you can see from the example above there is no harm to your pet, just consequences for behaviour. They get to choose whether or not to present that behaviour; you just set and enforce the rules.
Finally, we have positive punishment, which is adding something to the environment that will decrease the chances of a behaviour reoccurring. The examples that you are most likely familiar with will stem from what I call “shove and tug” training. This is training that was typically used about 25 years ago and normally involved choke chains and physically making your dog do what you wanted. We are currently transitioning to the more humane methods and this is normally only seen in trainers that were mentored in their training by people who didn’t keep up with the latest advances. This doesn’t mean that positive punishment doesn’t have a place in training though. It must be used with extra care, because depending on the consequences being chosen and method of application, it can devolve into abuse. I’m going to show you some examples of positive punishment that do not require corporal pain, but like all training methods, it does require excellent timing and should probably not be used as the sole method. Let’s start with a human example. Let’s say a child throws a temper tantrum because they don’t want to do their homework. As positive punishment, their parent tells them that on top of their regular chores, they must also now do additional ones. You’ve added chores to reduce the chance of another temper tantrum. This is positive punishment. Your dog is not paying attention to you so you bump into them by changing direction into them. This would be a positive punishment because you’re invading their space to reduce the unwanted behaviour (the dog ignoring you).
You’re probably starting to see that all training methods can be traced back to one, several, or all of the above portions of operant conditioning. However, if you try to use just one you will find yourself in a situation where the motivation and options for consequences aren’t going give you the results you want. Generally when people use only one of the above options it’s either positive reinforcement or positive punishment. On its own, neither is a good solution. A dog trained with only positive reinforcement has a higher chance of becoming spoiled. What happens when the behaviour you don’t like is self-rewarding? For example, your dog pulls when you walk him on the leash. Obviously you’re going reward him when he’s walking nicely beside you, but what are you going to do when he sees a squirrel and takes off after it? If you’re truly using only positive reinforcement there’s nothing you can do until he does what you want again, but there is no part of this method that teaches him to control himself. It teaches him that he can do whatever he wants and when he feels like having the reward you’re offering, he just needs to walk beside you, but if something else is more interesting then he can do that instead. If you’re using all options at your disposal then you might put the brakes on by stopping walking until the dog gives you some slack on the leash. Stopping the forward movement is negative punishment. The dog wants to go forward but you prevent that (negative) because you want to stop (punishment) the pulling behaviour. Then you’ll reward the release of tension on the leash by walking forward. As you can see, we’ve used positive reinforcement and negative punishment in this scenario with the humane training method (operant conditioning). If we look at the positive punishment, which is almost the opposite of positive reinforcement, you may end up with an aggressive dog or one that has what is called learned helplessness. We’re going to continue with our pulling on the leash scenario. If you’re using only positive punishment you would tug on the leash when the dog is pulling and do nothing when the dog is walking properly. This sounds pretty simple and seems like it should work. But what happens if your dog gets off the leash? You’ve never taught her to control herself because you’ve always done it for her, so the instant she gets off the leash she’s not going to have to listen to you because you can’t tug on her. She’ll take off and not look back for quite some time because she’s free. The lack of tugging when she’s walking correctly beside you doesn’t explain to her that this is actually the behaviour you want; she just knows that it’s how to avoid getting tugged. Physically punishing a dog that is learning a new behaviour can lead to learned helplessness, which is probably where the expression ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ comes from. A dog suffering from learned helplessness will not want to try something new because that could lead to pain and discomfort. She’ll think it’s better to do something that doesn’t normally get her physically punished than to try something new. She might subsequently be punished for not trying the new behaviour, which will just prove her point that it doesn’t matter what she does, she’s going to get punished so there’s no point in doing anything. Though this may be the least used of the options when we’re talking about humane training methods, it does have its uses. Let’s say that your dog is counter surfing/stealing. You bait the counter with something that looks and smells yummy but you lace it with an anti-chewing concoction. Your dog thinks she’s just found a great treat but when she eats it, it’s really not a treat. You adding that anti-chewing to the food is positive and the fact that she won’t like it is the punishment which will hopefully mean she won’t do it again. Put yummy food in her dish and she’ll learn that the good stuff only comes from her dish and not the counter.
Please keep in mind that this is a somewhat simplified explanation of operant conditioning and that choosing the right method always depends on the motivation behind the behaviour we want to keep or get rid of and the impact of the consequences. Since I always want a mentally and physically healthy dog who wants to work with me, I use the most appropriate consequences or combination of consequences to help my dog understand what I expect of them. This leads to a wonderful communication system and if you take the time to listen to your dog you can truly understand each other.
Your perfect pet really is just a little training away.