At a Christmas party, I was challenged on how I work if I don’t work like Cesar Millan. Too many people have learned what they understand about dogs or dog training from television, and many dog trainers–not to mention trainers of other species–don’t train animals in the ways depicted by television personalities.
There are several terms that might be used for how I work: reward-based, positive reinforcement or science-based training. In a nutshell, I focus on setting animals up to perform behaviors I like and I reinforce those behaviors with something the individual animal wants, whether that animal is a dog, cat, horse or bird. Behaviorally speaking, a behavior has been reinforced when it continues or increases. If I reinforce the behaviors I want, I will see more of those behaviors. If those behaviors are incompatible with behaviors I don’t want, and I restrict the animal from performing the ones I don’t want, I will see less of what I don’t want while getting more of what I do want. The classic example of this is teaching a dog to sit rather than jump up on people. First I train the dog to sit and to stay in the sit. I do this incrementally and keeping track of the dog’s progress. Then I teach the dog to sit when people approach. And I make it worth the dog’s while to sit rather than jump up by paying him for sitting with awesome treats.
We practice this over and over again and in many contexts, reinforcing every time for quite awhile. After all, if it takes thousands of hours of practice for a person to master something like playing the violin, think how many repetitions it may take a dog to master sitting instead of jumping up in all the contexts of his life. Jumping up is natural and often fun for the dog! He wants to do it. So, I have to make doing something else more reinforcing for the dog than jumping up would be. Additionally, I have to prevent jumping up as much as possible by keeping the dog leashed or otherwise restrained so that he can’t jump on a person until not doing so is second nature. And, if I mess up, because I’m human and my dog is, well, a dog, I remove my attention from the dog (usually by turning away from him) or the dog from the context (possibly with a time out). That is the consequence. Removal of the possibility of reinforcement for the unwanted behavior.
Why, many ask, not just punish the dog for jumping up? Wouldn’t that make more sense? No, for many reasons. Again, behaviorally speaking, a behavior is punished when it decreases as the result of a consequence, one the animal does not want. Often the punishing consequences that people use are physically harsh or scary to the dog. Just as with children, using force, fear, or intimidation in interactions with a dog can have unhappy repercussions. Punishment can strengthen undesired behavior when not applied correctly. It can also have side effects such as stimulating or causing aggression in the dog. Additionally, the level of punishment may creep up in intensity as the dog habituates to the one originally applied or as the person is reinforced for getting immediate results from initial punishments.
These are among the reasons the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends against the use of aversive-based punishment in dog training. If you would like to learn more about this, see the AVSAB Position Statement: The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals (1). The statement contains links to many other information sources. A study questioning 364 dog owners about the results of their training methods found that punishment-based training, including verbal punishment of dogs, was associated with a greater incidence of problematic behaviors compared with reinforcement-based training (2). Another concluded that dogs trained with punishment were less playful and those trained with rewards were more eager to learn (3). These are just a few examples of the logic against using punishment to train a dog. The reasoning applies to other creatures as well.
So, I avoid aversive punishment. Removal of the opportunity for reinforcement is, behaviorally, a punisher as well: it results in a decrease in the targeted behavior. But no animal is hurt or frightened by its application. Regardless, I set animals up to have high levels of success and reinforcement. New behaviors are efficiently trained with animals receiving things they want. Human-animal relationships are strengthened. People are reinforced with happy, better-behaved pets.
(2). Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. ANIMAL WELFARE-POTTERS BAR THEN WHEATHAMPSTEAD-, 13(1), 63-70.
(3). Rooney, N. J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132(3), 169-177.