Some people make claims like the one in the title out of true ignorance. They can’t identify how the behavior change is working. I’ve been there. It’s easy to believe that if one can get a dog to do something without discomfort or physical force in the moment, the training method is benign. We forget what transpired before.
There are others who make claims who, I suspect, do understand the method they are using. For them, it’s a game of “let’s pretend I’m not using force.” Some trainers use those statements to entice customers that their methods are humane or based on positive reinforcement. Some may have an interest in throwing fog into arguments on social media.
These methods are the topic of this post. Here is why waving a stick (at a dog who has been hit with one), or showing the spray bottle (to a cat who has been sprayed by one), and countless other things that don’t touch the animal are working through aversive control.
The Little Whip
When I was a kid, we had horses. I rode from a young age until we moved to town when I was about 15. For gear, we usually used hackamores and perhaps a bareback pad. More often bareback. Very rarely did we actually saddle up the horses or use bridles. Before the equine folks step up to the podium, I now know that the hackamores, with their pressure on the sensitive nose, were likely not comfortable either. But it did appear that the hackamores were less intrusive to our particular horses than the bitted bridles they were also trained to accept.
But don’t be misled. The methods we used were not kindly, except in comparison to those of some of our neighbors. We used pressure/release, yanking on the lead rope, kicking with our heels, smacking the horses with the reins or a whip, and using the reins to turn or stop the horse. I may have had spurs; I know my sister did.
We didn’t use positive reinforcement when riding. There were no appetitives involved except whatever pleasure the horses got from getting out in the world to walk and gallop around, and the feed we gave them before and after, as we were preparing for and cooling down after rides.
I used a quirt, a short whip. It looked something like the image to the right. I don’t remember where I got it or whose idea it was. But I remember using it when I rode.
When I wanted my horse to go faster, I would swing the quirt around so it struck her behind me on her butt. I’d do that a few times until she had sped up to my liking. We all know how to do that with the ends of the reins, too.
I noticed after I had used the quirt for a while that I didn’t actually have to hit her anymore. With her excellent peripheral vision, she would see me swing the quirt forward, winding up to land a blow on her butt. She started speeding up when she saw the quirt moving and before I actually hit her with it. I adapted my behavior, whether out of kindness or efficiency, I don’t know. But I rarely hit my horse after I learned that all I had to do was to threaten her with the little whip.
Even at that young age, I realized what was happening, although I didn’t have the words for it. I do now. In response to my use of the quirt, my horse was changing her behavior from escape (speed up to make Eileen stop hitting her) to avoidance (speed up sooner to prevent Eileen from hitting her).
Escape and avoidance are the two faces of negative reinforcement. My horse’s behavior was under aversive control.
What Did I Think about It?
I could have gone around saying, “Using the quirt isn’t cruel; I don’t touch her with it.” I don’t think I said that because I understood even then that the quirt worked because I had hit her with it, and could hit her with it at any time. The movement of the quirt had become a threat. That’s still aversive control.
If I had never hit her with the quirt, if she hadn’t gained that history, she would have had no reason to speed up in response to the swing of it unless the movement itself scared her. But she would probably have habituated to the movement if there had been no following slap. There would be no threat.
Note: If this post appears on the websites Runbalto, Scruffythedog, Snugdugs, or Petite-Pawz, or frankly, anywhere else, know that they are reposting without permission and in most cases without credit. This is my intellectual property, not theirs. I haven’t had time to file DMCA takedown notices yet.
When I was in my late teens and living on my own, I got a cat. Nobody I knew at that time talked about training cats. We lived with the “cat” things they did or interrupted them in unpleasant ways, usually yelling or using a spray bottle with water. Some people even used lemon juice or vinegar.
I used a spray bottle with water. I found out, over time, that the spray bottle worked the same way as the quirt. I remember using the spray bottle when my cat would get on the dining room table. I’d spray him as long as I needed to until he’d jump off. This was the escape flavor of negative reinforcement. He made the aversive stimulus stop with his action of jumping down.
But the same thing happened with the spray bottle that had happened with the quirt years before. It took fewer squirts to get him to move, and finally, all I had to do was wave the squirt bottle in his direction or even walk over to get it. I didn’t have to spray him at all. This was avoidance. Still negative reinforcement.
Was there also positive punishment involved? Maybe. I don’t remember for sure whether the behavior of getting on the table decreased, but I don’t think so. So there may not have been P+. But there was definitely negative reinforcement, two flavors of it.
It would have been easy to eliminate, decrease, or prevent my cat from getting on the table to begin with. I could have used management and positive reinforcement. I could have provided him with several elevated beds and perches. And I could have taught him to target my hand or a target stick so I could move him off the table using positive reinforcement. I had no idea of those options then.
Is Avoidance Better than Escape?
You will hear people proclaiming that they don’t have to use force anymore.
- “I don’t have to vibrate the collar anymore; he behaves when I just make it beep.”
- “I just show him the spray bottle.”
- “I just start to roll up a newspaper and he shapes right up.”
- “I just walk toward him and he pops back into a sit.”
- “I don’t have to throw the chain anymore; she stops when I wind up to throw.”
Is this force-free training? Of course not. There would be no avoidance if the animal hadn’t experienced the unpleasant thing first. And not usually just once. They likely experienced it repeatedly until 1) they learned how to make it stop, and 2) learned the predictors that it was about to happen and responded earlier.
In learning to avoid the unpleasant stimulus, the animal may be preventing pain or even injury. So of course those are benefits. But is that an advantage to brag on? What about the pain or injury it took to get there? “I don’t have to whip the horse anymore. That was so unpleasant that she learned how to avoid it.” Yay?
How to Tell When Avoidance Is Involved
Avoidance is complex. A lot of behavior scientists have put their minds to the question of why an organism will work for the goal of nothing happening. I’m not even going to get into that here, but if you are interested, most behavior analysis books have a section on it.
Besides being complex, avoidance can be hard to spot. Again, it’s because we don’t see a blatant aversive in use. Think of the videos by aversive trainers of a bunch of dogs on platforms lying very still for long minutes. We don’t see them getting hit, yelled at, or shocked. But they are usually frozen and shut down. They have learned that the way to avoid being hurt is to stay on their platform. Body language is one tell. They are often crouched, not relaxed. Their eyes are either fixed on the human, or they have checked out and are going, “La la la” in their heads. They are not casually looking around the room or wagging their tails.
But the other thing to look for is this. Do you see any appetitives in the picture? Is anyone going around giving the dogs a nice morsel of food every few minutes or even more often? Rewarding them with a game of tug? Granted, some trainers use both aversives and positive reinforcement. So even if you do see food, there still may be aversives involved. But if you see frozen dogs not moving a muscle and no food or toys in evidence, you are probably seeing avoidance.
Another easy place to see it is in traditional horse videos. Horses are so attractive and look so beautiful being put through their paces that us dog people can often be fooled. There will be some nice verbiage about the natural method or the “think” method or what neuroscience proves. But look for the appetitive. Look for the yummy treat or the butt scratches. Something the horse enjoys, not the relief of something uncomfortable stopping. If you don’t see the fun stuff, the good stuff, you are probably seeing aversive control. The horse is performing because of discomfort or the threat of it: avoidance.
Things That Can Work through Avoidance
- Squirt bottles
- Shock or vibration collars, both manually triggered or as part of boundary systems
- Prong collars
- Choke collars
- Bark collars
- Body pressure
- Eye contact
- Citronella spray
- Plastic bags on a stick
- Verbal threats
- Chains or “bean bags” that are thrown near the dog
- Penny cans
- Picking up a stick or anything you might hit your dog with
The use of aversive tools and methods can prompt an aggressive response. Granted, some of the milder aversives are probably less likely to do that with the average animal. But it’s the animal that gets to define “mild” or not. I watched a YouTube video of a domestic cat aggressing at a woman who is threatening to spray him with a spray bottle. I’m not embedding or linking it because I don’t want to give it that support, but it’s among the first hits if you search for cats vs. spray bottles on YouTube. Here’s a description (not an exact transcription):
A small orange tabby cat is sitting on a wooden table next to a potted plant. A woman’s arm and hand come into the frame. She is holding a squirt bottle. The cat squints his eyes when the spray bottle first appears. She shoves the spray bottle nozzle into his face as she says things like, “Back up from the plant.” “I said, back up from the plant.” The cat responds to her movement and statements by repeatedly slapping the woman’s hand holding the bottle with his paw. He meows and whips his tail around. He actually advances on the hand with the spray bottle rather than retreating. She finally squirts him point-blank in the face, and he shrinks back a little and moves laterally but doesn’t get off the table. He goes to the other side of the plant. There are at least three aspects to her threat: the spray bottle itself, her advancing on him, and her verbal threats.
But this cat is not demonstrating avoidance. He only retreats when sprayed directly in the face, and then only a few steps. But instead of avoidance, his go-to method is to lash out. My cat, on the other hand, was more easygoing and merely worked to avoid the spray.
I’m not ashamed to say I was rooting for the cat in the video, but with a mental caveat. He’s lucky he’s small. If this were a large dog or a horse, similar behaviors would be extremely dangerous for the human, and the animal would be in danger of being euthanized for aggression. Even the small cat could be in danger of losing his home of life if he escalates further, except that his owner is making money on YouTube.
I include this story for two reasons: progressing to avoidance is not inevitable, and we can’t predict what kind of aversive use will elicit an aggressive response.
Avoidance Doesn’t Earn You a Pass
Teaching behaviors through escape and avoidance is generally unpleasant for the learner. Even in situations where we can’t see anything bad happening. if the animal is working to avoid something, something bad did happen. It could happen again, and the animal knows it.
Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson