Junk food isn’t cheaper & punishment isn’t faster

ronald mcdonald waving at camera

Creative Commons image by Jesse Thorstad

There’s an article in this weekend’s New York Times, in the Week in Review section if you care to read it. It compares the costs of fast food vs home prepared meals. There were some who argued that the challenge of getting people to stop eating fast food was the cost. Being less expensive it made sense that people would choose it, except that it isn’t less expensive. It isn’t less expensive at the outset, in the actual dollars spent to purchase the food, nor is it less expensive down the road when the cumulative effects of high fat, high sodium, low fiber begin to exact their cost to our health. The cost to us is in time and the energy required to purchase and prepare it. Some would insist that it is this lack of time in our modern day schedules that promotes trips to the drive-thru, until you look at the numbers of hours we spend watching TV, updating our Facebook status and lord knows, writing blog posts.

Quoted in the article is Dr. David Kessler former commissioner of the FDA and author of “The End of Overeating.” Dr. Kessler’s book is a must-read for anyone battling a food addiction and an important read for dog trainers as well. The first part of the book details studies done with animals to determine how behavior is affected by reinforcement. They were the studies that helped trainers understand how the delivery & quality of reinforcement impacts whether or not a behavior is repeated consistently or not. Or if the behavior is maintained. The reinforcement used in the studies was food.

Take a peek into any training chat group or forum and you will witness the continuing battle being waged about whether or not it is wise, effective, ethical or faster to use punishment to get behaviors from our dogs. Punishment by definition decreases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated, but for many trainers and pet owners punishment is used to attempt to increase behavior, that behavior being something other than the behavior they have punished the dog for performing. It’s a backward approach that works often enough for people to keep using it. Knee Fido in the chest when he jumps on you and it’s likely he’ll stop jumping and do something else. If he’s lucky that something else behavior is one you approve of or else Fido will be subjected to yet another form of punishment until, if he’s willing to keep trying (and let’s face it, dogs don’t have much choice in the matter if they want to keep being fed), he finally comes up with something that passes muster.

This may not be a big deal for some dogs but for others it may be. There are costs to be considered when choosing to use punishment. There are the upfront costs, the cost to the relationship between the dog and handler; the cost to the dog’s sense of safety; the cost to the dog’s willingness to engage in the dance we call training. There are the ‘down the road’ costs. Suppress a behavior and you may find other equally as distasteful behaviors cropping up in its place.

In the article the author poses the question about our behavior in regard to the consumption of ‘junk’ food-How do you change a culture? Dr. Kessler’s response was this-

“Once I look at what I’m eating and realize it’s not food, and I ask ‘what am I doing here?’ that’s the start. It’s not about whether I think it’s good for me, it’s about changing how I feel. And we change how people feel by changing the environment.”

This change will lead to healthier and less costly food consumption habits. I am going to take this and stretch it a bit. Let me rephrase his statement this way-

“Once I look at what I’m doing and realize it’s not training, and I ask ‘what am I doing here?’ that’s the start. It’s not about whether I think it’s good for the dog, it’s about changing how they feel. And we change how dogs feel by changing the environment.”*

We change their environment by removing the risk of being forced, intimidated, scared or hurt. We ensure they always feel safe and that making the right choice is easier than making the wrong one. It may not always seem easy to do, but in the long run it’s the healthiest choice to make. Fearful dogs live with more stress then is good for them, no reason to supersize it.

*Apologies to Dr. Kessler. Hope he doesn’t mind.

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25 comments so far

  1. Leslie on

    As always, spot on. Nice catch of relating the two issues and using the logic of one to support the other.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for saying Leslie, appreciate it.

  2. Jen on

    Interesting comparison! I read the Times article yesterday, and I’ve been reading the comments, which include interesting things like “Well, the McDonald’s Dollar Menu is cheaper, not what he listed!” Missing the point, guys. “Cheaper” is a long-term consequence as well; health effects, etc. The same with forceful dog training; “faster” may have long term consequences as well, so far as trust goes, for example.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s going to be an uphill battle to get people to understand the difference between ‘junk’ food and real food. Part of it is the addiction to the food itself and the other may be the lack of critical thinking skills. I suppose we could continue the analogy and say that the occasional burger & fries isn’t likely to kill anyone, nor is the judicious and appropriately applied use of punishment. Unfortunately for far too many the burgers aren’t occasional and the punishment isn’t judicious.

  3. KellyK on

    Some would insist that it is this lack of time in our modern day schedules that promotes trips to the drive-thru, until you look at the numbers of hours we spend watching TV, updating our Facebook status and lord knows, writing blog posts.

    I think it’s important not to conflate time with energy. Having free time in which you could cook doesn’t mean you’re not exhausted and can’t stand the thought of spending an hour on your feet in the kitchen. Plus, time can’t be rearranged. If someone works until 6 PM and chooses fast food because they’re hungry *right then,* but spends a couple hours watching TV from 8-10, watching less TV wouldn’t make them any more likely to cook.

    I think that one of the main reasons punishment-based training is hard to draw people away from isn’t about time or ease, but just its ubiquitousness. (The previous commenter who can’t find a positive trainer anywhere on Long Island is a good example.) Maybe there’s an analogy there about food deserts where you can’t buy fresh produce, but can buy fast food at half a dozen places.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good points Kelly, thanks for making them.

      When something becomes important to us we are more likely to be successful. A trainer friend once remarked to me that most people manage to house train their dogs in part because it’s important to them, so they ‘bother’ with all the efforts they need to make in order for it to happen. When choosing to use the least amount of force necessary or none at all to get behavior becomes a priority to pet owners, I think they too will be successful.

      • KellyK on

        That’s a good point. You’re right about priorities–the more important something is to you, the more likely you are to make it happen.

      • Alan on

        I have seen that very thing in relation to just about everything people do…if something is important to a person he or she will take the effort to ensure it gets done correctly…if it isn’t important to them, they will be sloppy about what they do or just not do some thing at all…

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I suppose we all try to conserve energy in one way or another. Unfortunately sometimes it’s more like the saying “penny wise, pound foolish”.

  4. Sherron on

    I like to consider myself a positive trainer, but still, I often find myself using punishment. Last night, JoJo (3 yr old lab mix) was getting into all kinds of mischief. And, because I didn’t feel well, my response was to yell at her. After about the third time, I looked at her and said, “JoJo, how about if I stop yelling at you, since it’s not working, anyway?” I swear I got a look that said, “Good Mom!” I think she would’ve clicked and treated me, but the lack of thumbs does get in the way of that.

    But seriously, it’s mostly about noticing, isn’t it? If I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, then I keep doing things that are either bad for me or don’t get me the results I want. That idea (noticing) keeps coming up for me in various ways. I’m happy to report that I’m beginning to catch on.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think you are right Sherron. We have these extra special brains that can notice the choices they make, so we might as well use them. But I also cut mine some slack. It is after all, only human.

  5. donnaandthedogs on

    You always hit the nail on the head with your posts. I especially enjoyed this one, so please don’t stop writing them just so you can cook healthier. Have a salad or something instead…. 😉

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ha! Thanks Donna. I actually bought a juicer because I am such a lazy cook. Figured I’d at least get more vegetables that way.

  6. Jana Rade on

    So true. A good steak dinner comes up at the same price as a McDonnald’s meal. And the long-term fall out comes at even greater price. Anybody watched Super-size Me?

    Same is true for what we’re feeding out dogs.

    We are not that rich so we could afford buying “cheap” food!

    • fearfuldogs on

      And why would we think that people who are not inclined to prepare food for themselves will be inclined to do it for their dogs?

      • KellyK on

        I really like to cook, and I still can’t be bothered to *make* dog food or dog treats. (Maybe if I bake Christmas cookies this year, I’ll do a batch of dog treats while I’m in a baking mood.)

        I guess I’ll have to suck it up and make dog food and treats if I ever can’t afford to buy them the good stuff (I think I may spend more at the pet food store in a week than I do on groceries, but then there are four critters and only two people in the house), but as long as I can afford it, I’m going for the healthy slacker option.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I buy blocks of cheese and cut it up into small bits. Much cheaper than a bag of quality treats. Or I boil a beef heart, or tongue and cut it up into small bits and freeze extra.

      • Jana Rade on

        Because I’m one of those people! LOL Seriously.

      • Jana Rade on

        To clarify, we don’t eat fast food for financial reasons, but many many frozen dinners (when they’re on special) while I cook religiously for the dogs 🙂 We get a good meal when I’m cooking meat for the dogs. LOL So there, it IS possible to take care of the dogs while neglecting oneself. LOL

  7. Frances on

    I read this having just come from the discussions about the recent use of “quick fix” dominance training techniques on BBC television here in the UK. Your analogy is an excellent one – every qualified dog training and welfare body in the country condemned the methods, while the popular press were full of comments from people who simply couldn’t see the problem – very similar to the way advice from doctors and nutritionists is routinely ignored! On this occasion truly expert opinion prevailed, and the series has been dropped.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I also was following that story Frances, along with the very nice response by the trainer to invitations to learn more progressive training techniques. He’s young and hopefully open to change.

      Our brains routinely play tricks on us, some of them quite mean, compelling us to behave in ways that are overall detrimental to our health. I’d guess that as with dogs, creating an environment which makes it easier to succeed by making appropriately choices, people would benefit from the same. It’s why I rarely have hot fudge in the house. 😉

  8. Alan on

    I think I may be working to undo damage caused by punishment based training with Dany D. Dog. The various reactions she has to various things is what leads me to think that.

    One thing I think may have happened is very bad “clicker” training…Dany reacts badly whenever I have an object in my had that makes the slightest clicking or clacking sounds….she has reacted with fear at my cigarette lighter, a soda can, flashlights when I “click” them on, and other items that make such sounds.

    I’m now working to associate those types of sounds with good things such as play time and very special treats…it’s slow going but I do see some slight progress…at least Dany will stick around for more treats instead of slinking off to hide!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Good idea to associate startling sounds with something fabulous. Keep at it!

    • Scott Werner on

      Dogs can develop fears and anxieties to strange things without experiencing traumatic events, such as harsh positive punishment, etc. If they do not get the opportunity to experience strange sounds, smells, sights, etc when they are young, some dogs can develop fear and anxiety to these new experiences later in life.

      As a fearful dog owner, I see how it is easy to lay blame on previous owner(s) of my dog for the hundreds of quirky behaviors in certain contexts, but the truth is probably less dramatic. My dog was probably not scared of trash cans because of some traumatic experience with trash cans; she was scared of trash cans because she was probably isolated in someones back yard for the first year of her life without ever experiencing the world that she experiences with me. So, outside of her original context, she exhibited all types of quirky fearful behaviors such as fears of dogs, people, noises, moving plants, trucks, etc.

      She too was afraid of the clicker, but I can assure you it was not because of bad clicker training. (Only a handful of people on this island even owns a clicker) But one year later, and hundreds of hours of work (2+ hours/day), and enough clicks to wear out a clicker, she approaches new people readily, is able to play with many dogs, is able to walk through moderate sized crowds without fear [still a work in progress for larger and more dense crowds], able to tolerate semi loud music, fireworks, large trucks/cars, and even trash cans with confidence.

      Keep up the good counter-conditioning work! The hard work is worth it, I smile every day knowing how far my dog has come.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks Scott. You are right on. I’d say that most fear based behavior challenges in dogs are the result of the lack of socialization and exposure to novelty during sensitive developmental periods.

        Ditto to you re: counter conditioning. Your pup is lucky to have you!


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