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Dog Tales

Punishment works, but should you use it?

In the 1980s when I first started training dogs, everything was taught through the use of punishment. If the dog moved out of heel position, he got a swift and meaningful “pop” on the metal choke chain. If your dog didn’t respond to the choker, you used a prong collar. Prong collars have metal spikes on them that jab into the dog’s neck when you pop the collar. Many dogs vocalized the first time they experienced the pop of the prong collar.

If you were into obedience showing and wanted your dog to retrieve a wooden dumbbell, you used the ear pinch. An ear pinch is when you dig your thumb nail into the under side of the dog’s ear and dig your nail into it.

Does ear pinching hurt? You better believe it does, which is why it works. Does poppin” the choke chain hurt? Yes, and it works. Does popping the prong collar hurt the dog? Yes it does, and it works.

Punishment works, but at a large cost. Every animal on the planet, including you and I, will work to avoid things that are unpleasant and painful. Ever touch a hot stove top? I bet you only did it once. One time was meaningful enough to cause you to avoid it again. I’m sure you can think of other consequences that were unpleasant in some way that you now avoid. This is B.F. Skinner’s science of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning says that if behavior is followed by a pleasant consequence, you’ll get more of it; if a behavior that is followed by an unpleasant consequence, a punishment, you’ll get less of it.

The other important piece of learning theory that you need to know is called associative learning. Associative learning is about prediction and it’s about emotion. When my dogs see me pick up a leash, they jump around in excitement (emotion) because the leash predicts the walk. Years ago I had a dog that got deathly carsick almost immediately upon getting into the car. When she saw the car keys come out, she ran and hid (emotion) because car rides predicted nausea. All living beings make both positive and negative associations.

The science of operant conditioning, where animals learn to repeat behaviors that are reinforced and to stop behaviors that are punished, is what makes popping the metal choker, popping the prong collar, or pinching the dog’s ear work. If the pain is bad enough, the dog will learn not repeat that behavior. However, associative learning is always happening and, if you aren’t aware of it, you can make the behavior you are trying to stop worse, much worse.

Let’s take the example of the family who couldn’t get their dog to come when called. They went out and bought a shock collar. As the dog ran up the street towards the neighbors, they called her home. She didn’t come, so they shocked her. She leapt into the air, vocalized, tucked her tail, and ran around the back of the house. The family was thrilled because the dog came home. What they didn’t count on was the associative learning that also took place. Remember, it’s about prediction. The next time the dog was out and saw the neighbor, he ran full speed at him and bit him. The family was horrified.

What they didn’t realize was the dog made an instantaneous association; people equals the shock, so I better get them first. The dog that simply wouldn’t come home was now offensively aggressive and biting. The family just wanted the dog to come when called, but the power of associative learning was greater. Every time the dog saw people on the street, he started charging at them.

How is the animal supposed to know what to do when faced with the stress and fear of punishment? The risk of forming a negative association using punishment-based training is real and has powerful consequences, oftentimes unintentional ones. The risk of aggression or increasing aggression is also real. There are so many better ways to get the behavior you want. The power of positively reinforcing behavior can get the results you want. Better for the animal, better for you. You decide.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of Denise Mazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been training dogs and people for over 20 years. She offers private lessons, group classes in Rindge and Swanzey, board and train as well as day training services. She lives in Keene with her partner, Amy Willey. They share their home with five dogs and three daughters. For more information, see www.everythingdognh.com.

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