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Category: Punishment culture

Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Aggressive, dangerous dogs (a.k.a. Red Zone Dogs) should be trained with positive reinforcement, desensitization, and counterconditioning. Here’s why.

Training with pain, startle, and intimidation carries huge risks. Decades of science tell us that aggression begets aggression. It’s that simple.

Continue reading “Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training”
Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Correction is a term used in certain segments of the dog training world. It commonly applies to jerking the dog’s leash (also called a “leash correction). Sometimes “correction” refers to other physical things people might do to a dog.

Trainers who use corrections do such things when a dog is performing an undesirable behavior. For example, they will perform a “leash correction” when a dog is pulling on the leash, is in the wrong position, or is not focused on the handler. The magnitude of a leash correction can range from a twitch of the leash to jerking hard enough to lift the dog partially off the ground or knock him off balance.

Continue reading “Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)”
It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only for the purpose of “getting the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

If only! This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using learning theory. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.

Glumph

Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

 

No Magical Attention Signal

If someone says that Tool or Method A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also, ask them what happens if the first implementation of the tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

Many promoters of aversive methods in dog training don’t want to say that they hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

 

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

Related Posts

 

Why Prong Collars Hurt

Why Prong Collars Hurt

Please see additional note at the bottom of the post.

14 inch prong collar

Prong collars, also called pinch collars, are metal chain collars for dogs that include links of prongs whose ends press into the dog’s neck.

When a dog pulls on leash, moves out of position, Continue reading “Why Prong Collars Hurt”

World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

What should a dog trainer be willing and able to tell you about his or her techniques? And how valuable is it to get that information in clear, concrete language?

Renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson has put a lot of thought into this. We live in a world where dog training is a completely unlicensed industry, and it’s total chaos out there.

There are a dozen euphemisms for what is commonly known as an electric shock. Some trainers make positive reinforcement approaches out to be extremist.  There is plenty of talk of packs and wolves and being a leader, but sometimes little specificity about what these “leaders” do.

When asked about their methods, trainers who employ punishment and negative reinforcement often throw up verbal smoke screens about it. Some may talk about magical leadership powers that can solve problems all by themselves and will insist that they do nothing to hurt, scare, startle, or coerce the dog, claiming knowledge of the Magical Attention Signal  that works without having any consequences. Others will admit to using “corrections” but not punishment, which is overtly dishonest.

This latter is unlikely to be true. There are trainers all over the world who can train behaviors to fluency and solve behavioral problems without those corrections. I think it would be a huge step in the right direction if trainers who used methods such as  throwing things, kicking, poking, and hitting dogs, and of course “special” collars, would simply say so, and not hide between the buzz word of “positive.” Using aversives in this day and age is a choice, not a necessity, and that is what many trainers do not want people to know.

Jean Donaldson has developed three questions for consumers to ask prospective trainers before ever handing over their dog’s leash to them. The purpose of asking the questions–and continuing to ask until one gets a straight answer–is to insist on transparency of methods from anyone who purports to be an expert on helping a four-legged carnivore live in close proximity to, or even as a member of, a human family.

The Questions

Three questions

So these are the questions:

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

Informed Consent

Ms. Donaldson has also proposed that trainers describe their methods specifically, and inform the consumer of alternatives in written consent statement.

Here is a sample consent statement from Ms. Donaldson, quoted with permission. This is what a statement from a trainer who used a prong or shock collar exclusively might look like if they were truthful and transparent.

I propose using pain and fear to motivate your dog. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are X, Y, Z.

There are alternatives to what I propose. You could employ food, play, access to smells and patting as motivators. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are A, B, C. You could also seek the opinion of a veterinary behaviorist. Our goal is that you are fully informed before consenting to any dog training or behavior modification.

When I first heard these words in her webinar, I got the shivers at the boldness of the statement. Nobody says, “I propose to use pain and fear to motivate your dog.” But it shouldn’t be bold to suggest that at all, if it’s the truth. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to ask for–or be confronted with–with honesty from all trainers.  Can you imagine if the norm for discussing a medical procedure with a doctor were that she deliberately withheld possible side effects, didn’t tell you of alternatives, and wouldn’t be specific about what exactly she was going to do? And that there was no code of ethics or regulatory body to prevent that?

The Video Transparency Challenge

John McGuigan took Ms. Donaldson’s three questions and started a challenge for all trainers to answer them in a video.

So below I’m featuring a video that I believe does this well, and I’ll switch to a new one now and then. (You can find others on YouTube by searching using the title of this post.) You will get to hear from many different trainers who actually do use “modern, evidence-based, humane methods,” to use the language from the poster above.

Direct link to the video page for email subscribers.

Commonalities of the Answers

It’s fascinating to me how much these videos can have in common, but also how every trainer’s answer has a different “flavor.” The most important commonality to me is that trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement based training uniformly mention continuing education. In response to the third question, many will say that there are probably not any less invasive methods than what they use, but if they are out there, they want to know about them. They state that they are always educating themselves and learning more. Some mention that if they feel that a case is beyond their skill set, they will consult colleagues or even refer the case on, just as a family doctor might refer a patient to a specialist if she had a certain type of medical problem. This kind of honest self-assessment is a strong indicator of competency in my opinion. The truly skilled know their skills and are honest about both their breadth and limitations.

You will also hear almost all of them state that if a dog makes a “mistake” when working on a training task, it is their mistake, not the dog’s. This is not some romantic woo. It is the literal truth. It is up to the teacher to set the pace and difficulty of the learning for the student.

The video of my own answers to the Transparency Challenge can be found on the following page: My Training Philosophy.

Further Information on Transparency

This blog post from Pawsforpraise, Finding the Right Dog Trainer: Harder than You Think, delineates some more of Ms. Donaldson’s thinking on the questions consumers should ask prospective dog trainers. In her webinar “Out of What Box?” she further detailed her thinking on this, suggesting that trainers put the plans in writing for clients, informing them of the methods they will use, the risks and benefits, and whether there are alternatives. The webinar was a discussion on the development of standard operating procedures in pet dog training. Here is a link that describes the webinar, and here is a link to register for and purchase the recorded version.

And how about we all add to the information out there? This is a call to all trainers, professional and amateur, to think through and answer these questions for themselves. Publish your videos, graphics, or written answers online.  Be transparent, and challenge others to do so.

List of Previously Featured Videos

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

An updated version of this post.

Zani head tilt
Zani keeps her eyes on me a large part of the time

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or slip collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only to “get the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately,  the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

Nonsense Clue #1

We almost never want only our dog’s attention.

Let’s say that your Magical Attention Signal is tossing a lightweight coaster towards your dog. Your dog doesn’t particularly care about coasters. (Folks with disc-crazy dogs, hang on, I’ll get to you.) So you toss the coaster and the dog looks up. Yay, success! You’ve got the dog’s attention. Mission accomplished!

Um, no. Of course we don’t want only the dog’s attention. When we want their attention, it’s for a reason. The reason is almost always one of two things: to get them to do something or stop doing something. Getting their attention is only the bare beginning.

Nonsense Clue #2

Non-predictive stimuli are subject to habituation.

Habituation: A decrease in response following repeated exposure to a non-threatening stimulus.–Klein, Thorne: (2006) Biological Psychology

Virtually all of us have experienced habituation to something that was initially novel. Let’s say you move to a new house. It’s barely within earshot of an elevated train or metro track. When you first move in, you notice the sound of the train regularly: maybe a whistle, or just the rumble.

Elevated trainAt first it gets your attention. However, it gradually sinks in that there are no relevant consequences to that sound for you. The train schedule doesn’t affect vehicle or pedestrian traffic in any way. You don’t have to arrange your day around it. None of your loved ones ride it or work for the railroad. The noise is faint and there aren’t any noxious fumes. It doesn’t predict danger. In fact the train noise doesn’t predict anything for you, good or bad.

So what happens to the stimulus of train noise?  Habituation. You stop noticing it. It fades into the background. Our minds sift through stuff all the time to determine predictors of good and bad consequences. Things to seek and things to avoid. Low-intensity stimuli with no consequences fall to the bottom of the priority stack.*

Animals, including dogs, do this sifting too. Some dogs are noticeably good at it, like my Clara, who often knows my behavior patterns better than I do. And when you think about it, loads of the stuff we humans do has some kind of predictive value to our dogs. Turning on the TV. Getting dressed. Opening the refrigerator. Sighing. Even pulling down a book from the bookshelf.

I had a hard time thinking of a regularly occurring non-predictive stimulus in my life with my dogs, but here’s one. For my own dogs, the automatic switching on and off the the central heating and air means nothing. They hear it intermittently all day long, but it is just background noise to them. If the temperature weren’t well controlled, or if one of them was extremely hot- or cold-natured, she might start to notice and take the opportunity to go lie next to the air vent. Then the sound of the heat and air clicking on would become predictive, and start rising up in the stack of “things to notice.”

So the upshot is that if we want our dogs to keep responding to a stimulus, it generally has to be quite strong in itself, or have a consequence. Good or bad, your choice. But not neutral.

What Really Happens?

So how might our thrown coaster stimulus work? We have determined that if it were non-predictive, it probably wouldn’t continue to get the dog’s attention. So if it works consistently to get the dog’s attention, what’s going on?

There are four relevant possibilities:

  1. Yay!
    Yay!

    Having a coaster suddenly land nearby could be intrinsically desirable to the dog. Maybe you have a loopy goofy retriever and he loves having something thrown near him, even if it’s just a coaster. He probably grabs it and plays with it. However, it may have failed as an attention-getting device. He’s playing with the toy, not looking up at you. And if you threw it when he was doing something you didn’t like, you would have accidentally reinforced the bad behavior. “Yay! I got a toy when I barked at Grandma!” (This can happen when people try to interrupt or punish with squirt bottles. Some dogs think being squirted is wonderful.)

  2. Startled boxer
    Yipes!

    It could be intrinsically aversive to the dog. I would wager that this is the case for many dogs, especially at first. Something flying through the air, appearing suddenly close and making a noise could startle them. Some dogs would habituate to it, and some might never do so. If they didn’t habituate, this could work as a way of getting your dog to pay attention to you. There’s a big drawback though:  that startled, fearful response would likely become associated with you. You become the scary person who throws stuff.

  3. It could predict something desirable for the dog.

    Good stuff coming!
    Good stuff coming!

    Maybe your dog is not turned on by coasters. But what if, every time you tossed the coaster, you then threw a treat or a toy? The dog would quickly learn that the coaster toss predicted great stuff (in the same way that clickers are typically used). If you were to toss the coaster a number of times, pairing it with good stuff, after the dog learned to the association you could use it to interrupt undesirable behavior. This is the principle of the “positive interrupter.” But you don’t have to throw anything. If you are close enough to toss a coaster, a simple noise or word would do. And it’s pretty clear that the promoters of the Magical Attention Signal are not using it this way.

  4. Oh oh!
    Oh oh!

    It could predict something aversive for the dog. Like Cesar Millan’s “Tsst!,” it could predict a kick or a jab in the neck. Or something less dramatic, like being yelled at or handled roughly. This might not have been the trainer’s or owner’s intent from the start. But if the startling effect of the thrown coaster wears off (version #2), a stronger consequence will need to be added. Then the thrown coaster would become either a punishment marker (“Fido, you are about to get it”) or a threat (“Fido–hop to it or you are going to get it”). This is also how most shock collar training works. When a trainer brags that he uses only an extremely low, non-aversive level, that is because the dog has already been taught that the shock can easily be escalated if he doesn’t comply. Otherwise we are left only with the Magical Attention Signal.**

By the way, #4 illustrates the concept of the “punishment callus.” One of the paradoxical problems with using an aversive is that most people want to start out light. But if you try that on strongly entrenched dog behaviors like barking, digging, or jumping up, the behavior may well prove to be too strong. Then you will be in the position of having to escalate. And often the dog’s ability to tolerate the aversive will escalate right alongside.

No Magical Attention Signal

Many promoters of aversive tools to use in dog training don’t want to say that they ever hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

If someone says that Tool A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask them what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also ask them what happens if the “painless” tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

The Magical Attention Signal is not going give any lasting help on its own. Learning theory and common sense (if only we could apply it when we think about dogs!) tell us that behavior has consequences. We take actions for a reason. We act to get stuff we want. To avoid stuff we don’t like. All creatures with a brain stem, and more primitive creatures as well, from what I hear, do this.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Rapt attention in the back yard

But the good news: if you keep conscious control of the reinforcers in your life with your dogs, use those reinforcers to strengthen behaviors you like, teach alternatives to behaviors that you don’t, you will have a head start on getting great attention from your dog.

All photos except the one of my dog Zani and the one with my three dogs are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The boxer photo was cropped.

* This is a simplification of habituation. The extent of habituation depends on several characteristics of the stimulus and organism. Here is a review article: Rankin, et al. [2009.] Habituation Revisited: An Updated and Revised Description of the Behavioral Characteristics of Habituation. Neurobiol Learn Mem. Sep 2009; 92(2): 135–138.

**We could also add, looking at the four quadrants, that the thrown coaster could predict the cessation of something aversive, or the removal of something good.  But I think these are pretty unlikely usages.

Related Post

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

When I first published this piece in 2014, I had no idea of the firestorm it would create. I thought (and still think) it was a pretty mild critique. It’s an analysis of what Bark Busters’ own written materials say about their training philosophy. They weren’t pleased, though. But it’s still here, and draws a fair amount of traffic. I’ve edited it for clarity and hope it is helpful. —Eileen Anderson, September 2019

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a franchise dog training business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. 

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.

The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them. Some of the phrases are: 

  • “Positive relationship”
  • “Lasting emotional bond”
  • “Communicate effectively”
  • “Consistency and natural techniques”
  • “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
  • “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
  • “Happy lifelong buddy”

But is this consistent with the training methods they use? If we look harder, there are some red flags:

  • “Pack leader”
  • “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
  • “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”

Hmm, the analyses on how to judge dog trainers by their own business descriptions show that we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.

  • Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
  • Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers who are educated in behavior science know there are many factors out of their control when working with a dog and her family. They don’t make guarantees of magical transformations. They know that success is affected by the dog’s history and the client’s buy-in. This kind of guarantee is almost always made by trainers who will suppress the dog’s behavior through pressure and startling techniques, if not outright painful punishment. This can have the appearance of immediate success, especially in a first visit when the trainer has novelty on his side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar to most of us since we live in a punishment-based culture. They can show immediate, although temporary, results.
  • Without treats? Oh-oh. Food is the main primary reinforcer we have at our disposal. If there are no food or toys in use, behavior change depends on the use of aversives. Don’t get distracted by the red herring of “praise.” Sure, some dogs like praise. Most won’t work nearly as hard for it as they will for a hot dog, though. The focus on praise masks what methods are actually changing behavior: aversive ones. (See the photo below.)
  • Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table. And of course the company is the one defining what constitutes “harsh” punishment. The dog’s opinion might be different.

So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use. They aren’t tools that help create a lasting emotional bond with a happy lifelong buddy after all. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags with chains in them to throw. Bark Busters also teaches a special growly way to yell at one’s dog, using the word “Bah!”. This is another red flag, the idea that a particular word or sound has some intrinsic magical power to communicate. 

Note: the round things are not disc toys

The items in the photo above were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.

The disc-shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. The air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. 

The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.  

Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking

The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign the dog is stressed. But then in the first bullet point, it says that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.

You can be pretty sure that a company bragging about using no treats does not use desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and most widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.

There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is the idea that dogs can come to distinguish and alert you to true threats to your family. You just have to get rid of the “nuisance” barking first. The flyer includes the following:

As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…

Why, oh why can’t they join the 21st century and learn about dog behavior?

So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you supposedly have a dog who will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been punished for barking, will magically know that in a stranger danger situation (and only then), he should bark.

The idea that all dogs can intuitively recognize a threatening human dies hard. I have no doubt there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, some breeds have been selectively bred for protection.

But that probably isn’t true for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. And any undersocialized dog (and there are tons of them) is going to see threats everywhere. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that Bark Busters is promulgating the idea that we should leave it to dogs to decide when aggression might be acceptable.

This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home. All by your throwing stuff and yelling when he barks.

Another problem is the inclusion of “demand barking,” in the list of problems. Bark Busters fails to point out that demand barking is maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. Dogs do what works. One of the first things I successfully trained my rat terrier Cricket was to stop barking for her meals. After I learned some basics about behavior science, I stopped reinforcing the barking (which was being reinforced by her whole meal!) and started reinforcing her for being quiet. I, a novice trainer, did this in a few sessions over a week’s time. No more demand barking after four years of it. But the idea that we humans need to change our behavior doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. The result is especially sad. As long as humans don’t become aware of the ways they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive reinforcement and punishment alternately for the same behavior.

The Biggest Myth

But the biggest myth is the idea that the training methods Bark Busters focus on are benign ones. They are not benign. Using some basic premises about behavior science, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.

If you startle your dog with a throw chain, an air horn, a penny can, or by yelling, “Bah!” as Bark Busters instructs:

  • Your dog may become scared of you;
  • Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
  • Or scared of the area in which this happened;
  • Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
  • Your dog may shut down in general, as you suppress behaviors without teaching alternatives.
  • Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
  • Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly when they use an aversive method. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to get the same result. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare or hurt your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them,  no matter what the instructions are.

References on fallout from aversives. 

Oh, and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just interrupt it momentarily):

  • You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
  • You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above about the punishment callus). Barking is a natural dog behavior and difficult to suppress successfully.

Our best friends deserve better than this.

Note: This post is based on what Bark Busters say about themselves in their promotional materials. You can view the flyer and website yourself. It’s about the tools they promote, and includes information (based on principles of behavior science) about the general, known effects of such tools. I haven’t directly experienced training from Bark Busters and make no claim that I have. 

Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

Haters

Haters

A black and white cartoon of an angry looking man shaking his fist
Photo Credit–Wikimedia Commons

We interrupt this dog blog for a rant about rhetoric and civil discourse. 

Here is why I plan never to call anyone a “hater” or refer to them as such.

History: Haters Gonna Hate

It’s a good bet that the contemporary use of the term “hater” was taken from the song lyric, “Haters gonna hate” from the song “Playas Gon’ Play.”  A  history of the phrase is here on the Know Your Meme site. The “Haters gonna hate” phrase came to be a call for people to disregard hostile criticism. It supports strength, individualism, and in the early usages, being true to romantic love. Most current usages are similar to the older phrase,  “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” It gave rise to some cool artistic applications (do an image search on the term if you are interested).

So far so good. I’ve got no problem with that as an inspirational meme, especially for a downtrodden individual or group. I do have a real problem with extracting the word “hater” and aiming it at one’s opponents in a discussion or argument.

Reviewing the Dictionary Definitions

Here’s the traditional dictionary definition:

A person who hates.

Here’s a transitional one from Dictionary.com:

1. a grudging or spiteful person, esp one who disparages others: “a woman-hater”; “a cop-hater”; “Don’t let the haters get you down”

a. someone who hates a specified person or thing: “a passionate hater of tyranny”

Here’s the one from Urban dictionary.com, which is said to be the earliest version of the “comtemporary” definition:

A person that simply cannot be happy for another person’s success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person.

Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesnt really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock someone else down a notch.

And finally from Wikipedia:

A derogatory term in reference to critics of a person or object. Associated with jealousy/envy. 

And the Online Slang Dictionary:

A person who disapproves of something; a person who is jealous; a person who criticizes something.

Here’s Why I Won’t Use the Word Myself

1. Traditional Definition

First, by the traditional definition, I am a hater. I hate racism, sexism, animal abuse, bullying and plenty of other attitudes and behaviors. I’m human so sometimes I hate the people who do those things. I have hated people who have wronged me or ones I love. I don’t think it’s wholesome to dwell in hatred, and hating can make a terrible motivation to action. It easily becomes infected and unwholesome. But I think it can be a natural reaction to a horrifying act. I won’t pretend to be immune to it.  And I believe that there are worse things than being honest about hating something or someone. Waaaaay worse things.

2. All the Other Definitions

Second, every single one of the other definitions, when used in argument, are ad hominem attacks, or even plain old name calling. The worst sorts of arguments in civil discourse. They are basically insults that try to discredit one’s opponent in discussion (or behind their back) rather than address their points. And I think they are particularly insidious because they have a Polyanna quality of characterizing oneself as innocent and wounded, while one is actually slinging an insult. It’s an attempt at claiming the moral high ground and simultaneously throwing a cheap shot. And incidentally failing at rational argument.

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement--credit Wikimedia Commons
Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement–credit Wikimedia Commons

Calling someone a “hater” is calling someone a name while pretending you’re not. It’s an insult, like “jerk” or “asshole.” I’m not fond of name-calling, but I admit to a preference for someone who calls another person a jerk over calling them a hater.

Some people actually accuse others of being divisive of a community and call them haters. But to me, calling someone a “hater” is the epitome of divisive. It is “otherizing” someone. Calling someone an asshole comes across pretty much as your opinion. There are lots of different “asshole” qualities. Calling someone a “hater” attempts to put them deliberately in an inferior group and dismiss whatever they say.

Like all name calling, it goes circular very fast. “No, YOU are the hater!” “No YOU are the hater!” This gets a discussion nowhere.

Finally, to me it often comes across as juvenile. I admit to some bias here, since the first place I heard the term was by fans of Cesar Millan, who often have an instantaneous defensive reaction of the slightest criticism of Millan’s techniques.  They cry, “You are haters; you’re just jealous of his success and all the money he makes!”

That’s a great way to avoid arguing actual issues.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

But I Want to Use All the Tools in the Tool Box!

Have you heard the one about the toolbox?

This is the sixth in a series that details and rebuts fallacious arguments against force free training. Today’s erroneous argument is directly related to “But Every Dog is Different!” in that it claims that training without punishment (certain “tools”) is just too limiting. But since it centers on the potent metaphor of the toolbox, I’m treating it separately.

OK, about that metaphor. Naturally, I went and got a public domain graphic of a toolbox for an illustration. Here it is.

Toolbox
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thought experiment. Is this really a good metaphor for our methods when training dogs? Tools for cutting, prying, banging, twisting? Yipes!

This led me to do a little research. It may well be the great trainer and author Terry Ryan who originated the toolbox metaphor with her two books, “The Toolbox for Remodeling Your Problem Dog,” and “The Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog.”

The blurb for the “Remodeling” book says,

The toolbox is a set of principles and practices you can use to analyze and address any behavior problem you encounter.

She goes all the way with the building metaphor in those books, with chapters on raw materials, building supplies, the foundation, etc. But I think something really interesting has happened.

Ms. Ryan’s metaphorical toolbox was a “set of principles and practices.” The metaphor caught on, but started to change a bit. The expression came to mean a set of training methods. Get the difference? That’s a little narrower and more concrete. Methods rather than principles. And finally, nowadays for many trainers, the tools they are referring to are often, well, physical tools. Gear including correction collars of various sorts.

I personally may be done with using that metaphor–if only I can think of something else!

Who’s Got a Bigger One?

But on with the discussion. First, I would wager that the average trainer who relies mainly on positive reinforcement and negative punishment already has a much bigger toolbox than someone who uses aversives. The aversive “tools” (for instance prong and shock collars) are pretty one-dimensional. Not that they can’t be used with more or less skill. Sure they can. But as I’ve mentioned before, it takes no special expertise or devotion to figure out how to hurt an animal. Countless Joes and Joannes on the street have figured out how to do it.

But trainers who seek to use positive reinforcement would already have a big toolbox to begin with, and if they found the dog difficult to motivate, the onus would be on themselves to expand it. They would be working hard to find all possible wholesome motivators for their dog, with the goal of getting reliable behavior with a happy dog, free of fear and threats. So this image of the big gleaming toolbox with certain wondrous tools “off limits” for force-free trainers is not accurate.

Please see “But Every Dog Is Different!” for an expansion of this point.

Are you back? Great!

See if you think the following logic holds.

(Almost) Everybody Has A Limit

I propose that the problem with a force or balanced trainer saying, “I don’t want to limit myself to only certain parts of the toolbox like you do”  is that in almost every case there is another trainer further down the line who can say that to them.

I put forth that almost every trainer knows about some aversive techniques they will not use. It is not only the force free trainers who ignore certain sections of the huge fictitious toolbox. Most trainers have their limits.

I would guess that most balanced trainers would not use Koehler’s method to remedy digging: filling the hole with water and holding the dog’s head under. Neither would most use a method I read about in a bird dog training book on teaching the dog to hold steady:

“You’ll need your checkcord, a choke or spike collar, and an assistant who is strong enough and willing to jerk a dog over backward with the checkcord at the proper moment…  When he hears the shot and sees the bird fall, the dog will break. Don’t say a word, and be sure your assistant remains silent but braces his feet and gives the dog the somersault of his life when he hits the end of the check cord.”–Ultimate Guide to Bird Dog Training, Jerome Robinson

You certainly could find people who still do these things.  A quick perusal of YouTube can show these methods and worse. But even for those trainers–there might be a method they wouldn’t employ.

Next time a trainer says they want “access to every tool in the toolbox,” try asking them whether there is any method in the world they wouldn’t use. If they need prompting, you could name some. The point is not to be aggressive about it.  The point is that you might get across that it is not at all “limiting” to avoid methods that don’t fit into your ethical stance. Especially when your “toolbox” is gloriously full and varied already.

If someone uses the toolbox metaphor to you, I think you could get in some really interesting discussions if you asked them why they don’t employ certain methods. Doesn’t the same metaphor apply? If it breaks down, then why are they saying it to you?

A Different Metaphor?

Like I said above, the toolbox metaphor is much too entrenched to fight. But for me, the more I think about it the less it fits. Besides the harshness of the idea of applying hardware to dog training, the whole tool thing fails to highlight the mutual learning that goes on between a trainer and a dog. I’m really not as interested in sculpting my dog into some ideal as much as I am interested in that magical partnership that is born when we learn together.

So I thought about it. I tossed aside “cornucopia,” “toybox,” and “treasure chest.” My new metaphor is a “bag of tricks.” And it’s a bag that my dogs and I can both open.

Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth!  http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/
Photo credit: Kenneth Rivenes. Thanks Kenneth! http://www.flickr.com/photos/sprengstoff72/3294941579/

This post is part of a series:

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

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Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Force-Free Training and the Continuum Fallacy: Defining Ourselves

Although this post is about discussions and accusations about humane training, it doesn’t provide fodder for pithy sound bites or snappy answers. The whole point of it is why it can be difficult to explain succinctly our position as science-based, humane trainers in the face of opposition.  I hope it can be helpful for some folks. Gathering information, thinking this through, and writing about it has settled my nerves about a lot of things regarding the conflicts between trainers. Here we go.

Here’s something that force-free trainers hear a lot:

“There’s no such thing as force-free training because…”

  • “You use leashes and that’s force, the same or worse than a shock collar”
  • If your dog ran out into traffic you would grab him or pull on the leash”
  • “You all use force too, you’re just hypocrites about it”
  • “Harnesses are more cruel than prong collars”

Here Comes the Continuum Fallacy 

Color spectrum, from left to right (in order of frequency): red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet ROY G BIV
There is no such thing as green because we can’t say precisely where the green starts. Really? (credit Wikimedia Commons)

I have previously written a bit on the continuum fallacy, in But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic? I wrote:

Likening pulling on a leash (in an emergency no less) with the habitual use of a shock collar to force a dog’s compliance is an example of the logical fallacy called the continuum fallacy… The continuum fallacy erroneously claims that because there is a range of possibilities between two extremes, there is no meaningful difference between them. In this case the extremes are pulling on a leash one time to remove a dog from danger, and using a negative reinforcement protocol with a  shock collar as a training method to teach them via force to come when called…

The examples cited above both employ negative reinforcement, or at least aversive pressure (we can’t really say if reinforcement occurred in the emergency situation since it’s a one trial example). Therefore there is a continuum of such usages between them.

More commonly the extremes cited are two types of training:  training based as much as possible on positive reinforcement (along with desensitization and classical conditioning), and training based almost entirely on negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and flooding, such as shock collar training.

You wouldn’t think there was any common ground between these two. But there is, or rather, there are intermediate states between them. Please bear with me if the idea offends you. My point is that they are absolutely different in essence, even though there exists the continuum.

So on the continuum,  next to the trainers who use shock exclusively are the ones who do use some food or play as positive reinforcement in addition to the shock used aversively. Next to them are the “balanced” trainers who combine positive reinforcement with “corrections.” Next to them are the ones who use a shock or prong collar for proofing only. Then the ones who use a shock collar in only one specific situation. And so on. (These could be split more finely of course.)

Going past the middle to the R+ paradigm side are the folks  who don’t intentionally use any aversive tools, but carry old habits (Eileen raises hand). We occasionally do something that is aversive to the dog, for instance, taking a step forward to apply pressure if a dog breaks a stay. We do this because of old habits or lack of knowledge of other ways, but no matter why, it’s still aversive to the dog.

I’m not going to describe every step from here on out. But we can travel farther and farther into R+ territory as other methods drop away.  But truthfully, most people don’t get to the point of never using negative reinforcement or negative punishment or extinction. As I’ve mentioned, that necessitates an almost godlike ability to predict every possible behavioral interaction if you live with your animal. And even if we consider only formal training sessions, it depends on the dedication and creativity of the trainer to unlearn our human punishment programming and get more and more fluent in humane methods.

Because of the infinite gradations between the two extremes, there are those who would argue you can’t make a distinction between them. They would be employing the continuum fallacy.  This link has a good definition and some nice examples of it.

One common application of the continuum fallacy is to claim that the concept the other party is describing does not even exist. Does that sound familiar? Punishment based trainers, particularly shock collar trainers, like to claim that there is “no such thing as force free training.” Since we use things like leashes and collars that are naturally agents of force (although we take pains to ameliorate that), and because some aversive situations are just going to occur in life, they claim that there can be no distinction, none, made between what we do and what they do with their specifically-designed-to-hurt tools. This argument is incorrect (especially when they throw in the straw man of “purely positive”), and a way of trying to talk us out of existence. I’ve written an entire post on it.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. The continuum fallacy is connected to something called an “open concept.”  This really enlightened me about why it’s so hard for us in the force free community to come up with a single name for ourselves, and why we are repeatedly told we don’t exist. What we are trying to describe is a complex combination of a training philosophy, methods, and a mesh of practices. “The kind of trainers we are” is an open concept.

Open and Closed Concepts

So many things fell into place when I read about this.

A closed concept is something that can be exactly defined, such as a triangle. But many of the most important things in life can not be exactly defined. From “Open and Closed Concepts and the Continuum Fallacy” by Sandra LaFave:

An open concept is one for which the connotation cannot be precisely specified; rather, we recognize members of the class by their resemblance to paradigms of the concept.

Here are some examples. Vegetarian. Christian. Pacifist. Have you ever heard someone arguing about the definition of any of these or over who belongs to the group? I thought so. Yet the various individuals who identify with these terms can define their habits and belief systems beautifully, and they are often at the core of the person’s identity.

A portrait in pencil of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His face is angular and he looks intense and pensive.
Ludwig Wittgenstein worrying about open concepts (credit Wikimedia Commons)

The philosopher Wittgenstein (Austrian, 1889-1951) wrote about open concepts. His example was the concept of “game.” He advised the reader to think of different games and to try to think of what was common to them all. (My suggestion: use the examples of patty-cake, football (American or world), board games, and the often deadly games played in the Roman Coliseum, and try the exercise.) He wrote that you cannot identify one single characteristic common to all examples of games.

But that doesn’t negate the concept of game. He analyzed the similarities and differences in several types of games and concluded:

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing; sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. –Wittgenstein  in his Philosophical Investigations as quoted by Donald Palmer in “Does the Center Hold?”, p. 394

Glupling Training

As I mentioned, I think the lack of a commonly agreed upon name by all in the community is one bit of evidence that “the kind of training we do” is an open concept. For that reason, for brevity, and to introduce a little levity into a heavy subject, I’m going to call force-free, science-based, humane, primarily positive reinforcement training “Glupling Training.”

It would be easier to live in a world where we could say, “If you do these five things, and don’t do these five things, then you are a bona fide Glupling trainer.” Nice clean line in the sand. But we don’t live in that world. Glupling training is a philosophy; a group of methods; a paradigm. I strive for it. I think most of you out there reading this are striving for it. I’ve got certain great trainers and thinkers in mind as my role models and perhaps you do too. But we need to acknowledge that the edges of the definition are not universally agreed upon.

For instance, within the Glupling community there are heated discussions about head halters and front attach harnesses, and whether these are OK as permanent solutions, temporary management aids during training, or never OK. People disagree about the use of Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) and Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT). Some people seek to be two-quadrant trainers (positive reinforcement and negative punishment). For some trainers negative reinforcement protocols are OK in general, others go case by case, still others try for “never.”  How about No Reward Markers? Or whether it’s OK to yelp as a training technique when a puppy bites you?

I have watched other groups in similar throes of self definition. Organic gardening discussion groups talk about whether the use of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) disqualifies someone from the group. “Childless by choice” people argue whether people who never had kids of their own but then marry people with children still “count.” There is discussion about whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to people who are or have been dependent on alcohol. This is just a completely typical situation with open concepts. I would even argue that these discussions can be healthy, as long as they don’t start to eat up your life.

The bigger troubles start with the people outside of the particular community who object to it. With regard to Glupling training, these are the folks who want force-based methods to be socially acceptable and so attack the Glupling paradigm. These folks have two main strategies.

  1. Some trot out straw men and the continuum fallacy and simply claim that Glupling training does not exist. These are the ones whom I describe in my blog post, “But Purely Positive is a LIE!
  2. Others jump onto the Glupling bandwagon and market themselves as Glupling trainers, prong or shock collars included. This method has the effect of diffusing the definition of Glupling training and confusing the public. You can find lots of folks on the Internet who salt the word “positive” throughout their website, even if they use physical dominance techniques, prong collars, or shock. These folks accomplish several things by adopting the term, “positive.” First, it is popular right now and it sounds wholesome and good. Second, they add to the confusion (some groups have actually created credentials and initialisms that are identical or similar to established organizations). Third, they help maintain the public’s confusion about the processes of operant learning, since “positive” in the behavioral sense absolutely does not equal “wholesome and good.” And fourth, as added by an early reader of this post, who would want to market themselves as someone who will throw things at your dog and yell “bah”? “Positive” sounds much nicer, doesn’t it?

One observation I have about these continuum fallacy arguments: it seems to always be the side with the less restrictive definition that is arguing that the other side doesn’t exist, not the other way around. Vegetarians never argue that omnivores don’t exist. Organic gardeners never argue that gardeners who use non-organic techniques don’t exist.

This disagreement is typified by a group of people (or an individual) seeking to distinguish themselves from others who are simultaneously trying to negate the distinction.

Static vs Dynamic

I said above that it would be nice to live in a world where Glupling training was easy to define. But actually…one of the hallmarks of Glupling trainers is that we are always using the science to find ways to be more humane, more fair, and better trainers for our animals. The research moves us forward.  So perhaps two of my (fictional) five things that might have defined Glupling training in 1998 are completely out of date in 2013. But that’s a good thing. Given a choice between an approach that is static and claims to know everything and be perfectly complete and definable, and one that allows room for growth and speculation and doesn’t claim to be perfect this very instant….well, you know which one I would choose.

By the way, that is one of the reasons I keep my hand in the discussions and arguments on the Internet. I learn stuff that way.

Conclusion

I have recently written a handful of posts with a deliberate intention of publishing talking points for Glupling trainers who are confronted by the same rhetoric from force-based trainers over and over. The posts are listed below.

I had hoped for this post to join that group, but I’m not sure how  helpful it is. It has been very helpful for me as I mentioned above because it has clarified some difficult things in my mind. Like, why do these fights keep going on and on? But this post is not the kind of thing a person can quote in an argument and say, “Hah! Read this! It proves my point!” Not even close.

But I will throw in some tips on dealing with the continuum fallacy when confronted with a version of it in debate. Dr. LaFave suggests a simple statement that even if there may be a continuum between extremes, the concepts at each end are meaningful. I mean, nobody really believes that black and white are the same because there are shades of gray in between. And she suggests that people who use words in eccentric ways (my example: like shock collar trainers who say the method is positive and force-free) should be called on to defend their eccentric usages of these terms and give good reasons for them.

And this from me: When I have encountered the continuum fallacy, in my observation it has not usually been an innocent misunderstanding. It is usually from someone who, in my opinion, is determined to obfuscate. If I find that to be the case, I will state my position once, if at all (and for the benefit of others who may be reading, and not with the hope of convincing the other person) and move on. In short, as my grandmother used to say, “Don’t argue with someone you have to educate.”

This post is part of a series:

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