Archive for the ‘punishment’ Tag

The Real Reason You Should Never Hit Your Dog

yellow dog looking suspicious

What is that hand going to do to me?

Hitting a dog is a bad idea. Even one of those “Oh it didn’t hurt them,” swats is a bad idea. And here’s why. Dogs notice what things predict. If a hand has ever predicted getting grabbed, scruffed, swatted or worse, the dog learns that sometimes hands do unpleasant things to them. Puppies will learn this quickly, and even older dogs who were never routinely hit will learn quickly that some hands are not to be trusted should they ever be hit. The question for dogs will be to know which hands they need to be worried about. That’s where the danger lies, they may decide that being safe is better than being sorry, and will avoid or even bite any hand reaching for them.

Think about what many people do the first time they meet a dog. Think about what little kids do. They reach out their hand for the dog to get a sniff or give a pet, except that dogs are not mind readers and they don’t know their intentions. A dog who has been reprimanded or corrected by hands, or by something in a hand, may be more inclined to bite hands. Any trainer who suggests that someone uses their hands to do something scary or painful to a dog, whether it’s suppose to imitate another dog’s mouth (which is frankly a load of malarky) or to forcibly restrain or punish the dog, is behaving in a way that as a professional constitutes gross negligence. They should know better. They should know that the very last thing in the world we want is for a dog to have to worry about what a hand is going to do to them.


Better Than Average

Black & white dog looking quizzicalIn my world the reality is that those of us living with a dog with fear-based behavior challenges must be better than average pet owners. I say this meaning no offense to average pet owners. Anyone who chooses to live with an animal is ahead of the curve in my book. Most however do not add a dog to their lives in order to have to become a competent dog trainer. And the majority of dogs don’t need them to be. But many of us are living with Mike Tyson and trying to turn him into a ballet dancer.

Dogs from puppy mills, hoarding situations or who have been isolated or abused will require more than simply time and love. Anyone who makes the statement implying that to be the case has identified themselves as either a novice or sadly misinformed about dogs and behavior. That someone was successful with a dog by providing only time and love is little solace to the owner living with a dog who can’t leave their crate, walk through doorways, or be in the same room with their spouse. And it’s little use to a dog who needs skilled handling. Anyone re-homing, selling or adopting out dogs with fear-based challenges who suggests that all that is needed is time and love should get out of the business, there is no excuse for it.

On a daily basis I receive email and Facebook messages asking for “tips” or suggestions regarding how to help a foster dog or a newly adopted dog who is displaying any number of behaviors due to fearfulness and inexperience. I want to help but know that what is needed goes beyond well-meaning advice. The solution they are after doesn’t exist. There is no answer to “what should I do?” when the question should be “what does the dog need?” and that may not be a short list.

If you have chosen to keep a dog and work to help them have a life that isn’t plagued by anxiety, vigilance and fear, you can be better than average. If you have decided that you are not prepared or have the desire to devote the time, energy and expense required to effectively and humanely work with a dog, plan your next move wisely and compassionately. Fearful dogs are a vulnerable population. They are often subjected to abuse in the name of training or rehabilitation. Every move is stressful and scary and their behavior may degrade. Their suffering does not end just because we can’t see it anymore. It’s not easy to be better than average when it means making tough decisions for dogs we care about and are responsible for.

Getting It Our Way

I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents. lex luthor shouting wrong!

As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.

In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.

What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?

I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.

Ducks Don’t Need Quacks Either

cartoon of surgeon with chain sawThere is a science to behavior change in animals. That most pet owners are unaware of that is not surprising. That there are dog trainers out there who are unaware of it is disastrous.

I know just enough about my car and computer to turn them on and use them, when all is going according to plan. When problems arise, even if my cursing and kicking of tires seems to provide a temporary solution, I know enough to know I should contact a professional who understands the way car engines and computers work. Put the wrong fluid in the wrong compartment, delete the wrong file, and I may be in trouble that will be expensive to fix. Use the wrong approach to training a dog and the price just might be the dog’s life.

As you might imagine I hear from many people trying to sort out how to help their fearful dogs. Yesterday I got a call from a pet owner and had there been a board monitoring the ethics of dog trainers, I would have contacted them. But there isn’t so I am left writing to writing blog posts. The dog, acknowledged as fearful by the owners (and one would assume by the trainer) had started to display increasingly aggressive behavior, including biting the owners. This is bad news. Even worse news was that I was not being contacted for training help, the owners were looking for help to rehome their dog. When I mentioned training, from the owner’s perspective, they HAD been training, and since it wasn’t helping (indeed it appeared to making matters worse) they were done with it.

I was not familiar with the trainer they were using but it didn’t take long for me to find the self-described whisperer’s website. Dog whispering ala Millan (as opposed to Paul Owen’s earlier use of the term) is akin to practicing medicine in a barber’s chair. It should be outlawed. That enough people survived bleeding cures is not enough to continue the practice. Should the patient die, the disease can always be blamed.

Fearful and aggressive dogs need competent training by educated, skilled professionals. They exist, but in the historical muddle of dog training information, they may be hard to pick out among the quacks. The topic of competency in dog training will be addressed in this webinar with Jean Donaldson. It may be too late for some dogs but it’s about time we talked about this for the rest.


boy in chair surrounded by dogs he is training

The neighbor kid has enjoyed learning how to train dogs

For the past two summers I’ve been staying with my mum near Cape Cod. I know that having her youngest, and least fastidious daughter come and stay along with her four dogs is a challenge for her, but it’s a trade-off she’s had to make. Despite needing to spray the couch with Febreeze every day (Sunny’s preferred sleeping spot) I think she actually enjoys having them around. There’s no need to worry about whether she’s locked the doors at night. There’s not an icicle’s chance in hell that anyone would be able to so much as walk to the door, let alone actually open it without a chorus of barking. That chorus is another issue, but it’s getting easier for the dogs to end them when asked. Having a new home for the summer requires some adjustments for them as well.

Overall it’s been good. I have been able to see the skills they’ve developed and which need more work. There are more people coming and going and not only does that require more effort on my part to manage them it actually gives me the opportunity to practice the behaviors I want with them. Both Nibbles and Annie have learned to cut down on their initial barking and Nibbles has also learned that yapping and snapping after someone who gets up or walks by is not a good choice to make. I started by using lots of treats for recalls and sits and then added in a brief time-out (about 5 seconds alone in the bathroom) for infractions. Nibbles was a quick study but Annie has a more difficult time not voicing her opinion on things. Sunny is put in a place where he feels safe and where he cannot move toward people arriving.

A time-out is a form of punishment. We take away the dog’s opportunity for reinforcement (barking is very reinforcing for many dogs) by removing them from the situation and then returning them so they have the chance to behave the way we want them to for some other form of reinforcement, in our case it’s food. It can take a few trials for the dog to figure out why they are being walked off to the bathroom (or wherever you choose to put them) so don’t get frustrated or upset when you have to repeat the process. With Annie it’s a tricky one because if left there too long she’ll start barking to be let out, and I don’t want to have to deal with getting that to stop because I’m doing this when we have guests (which is why they are barking) so I’m juggling welcoming people into my home while I’m picking up leashes and leaving the room. But I would prefer to do this rather than shout at the dogs to shut up, which can also work. One reason is that I don’t like to yell and another is that I don’t want to make the association between guests and being yelled at for my dogs. So long as they don’t bark they are welcome to stay, maybe even get a treat or two from me or a dog-loving guest.

I hadn’t planned on writing a training post this morning. I wanted to share the photo of me in my rowboat (which we’ve had since I was a kid) along with rowboat in lake with 2 people and 2 dogs in itsome friends. Even Sunny managed to climb in for the ride. I also wanted to invite those of you who may not know about it to like the Face book page. I try to post something fearful dog related there every day for education and inspiration.

I will also be traveling this fall offering full-day seminars on fear-based behaviors in dogs and the most humane and effective ways to help them.

For my friends in the northern hemisphere I hope you are enjoying your summer and the living really is easier.

Do You Have Any Business Punishing a Dog?

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallHow would you justify going to a surgeon who claimed to be really good at cutting out tumors but had flunked out of classes on physiology and biology? Maybe some of their patients survived the surgery and went on to live full lives without a tumor, but what about the others? What about that nerve bundle that the surgeon nicked because they didn’t realize how important it was to walking? Or that the tests ordered prior to surgery were read incorrectly and the wrong blood type was requested? If someone was desperate and grasping at straws I could understand how they might use this surgeon. But how does that surgeon explain putting themselves out there as a professional?

At a seminar I was attending a young trainer described how she explains to potential clients how she trains dogs. It was along the lines of; All dogs are different and I do whatever works. It’s a statement I could even make about myself. I had the opportunity to watch this trainer handle a rambunctious, young, male, Labrador Retriever. She had been unable to provide a rate of reinforcement that was high enough to get the behavior she wanted from the dog. She was also unable to explain to the owners how to do this and instead the dog wore a shock collar and was subjected to repeated collar corrections in order to get him to ‘calm down’. I realized that she wasn’t doing what worked, she was doing what she could do.

I understand how challenging high energy dogs can be, but I was stunned. The foundation reward-based trainers build with a dog is finding rewards that are reinforcing enough to the dog they will repeat behaviors to get them. Sometimes this can take some exploring, but with a lab? A lab!? Labs are the poster children for food and play as reinforcers.

Unless you have the skills to teach behaviors without inflicting pain, yelling, or threatening a dog, with a level of proficiency that demonstrates knowledge of how the various types & schedules of reinforcement get behavior, you have no business, as a professional, resorting to punishment as a solution to a behavior challenge. Even if you can demonstrate that skill and knowledge you should also be able to identify the potential risks and fallout of using punishment, should you decide to use it, so you are prepared to identify them should they occur. Knowing how to punish a dog to stop behaviors is not enough, you should be well versed in all the reasons why you shouldn’t.

Think You’ve Tried Everything To Train Your Dog? Doubt it.

cocker spaniel standing on wooden dog looking down at water

Looking for fish is rewarding to Annie. The fish reinforce this behavior.

Dog trainers hear it all the time- pet owners who have ‘tried everything’ or declare that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work because they’ve tried giving their dog treats and still have not been able to get the behavior they’re after. I can say with 100% certainty that if you are among those ranks that you have NOT tried everything. Everything you have tried might not have worked, but that’s different. It can feel as if you’ve tried everything, but take my word for it, you haven’t. ‘Everything’ is a tall order. You might have tried everything you can think of or have readily at hand.

The use of force, coercion or punishment is often justified because someone has ‘tried’ using positive reinforcement and been unsuccessful. Positive reinforcement works when you find something that is positively reinforcing to the dog. That you have not found what it is, does not negate the method. Even if your dog likes something, finds it rewarding, it may not be reinforcing. For something to be used as reinforcement is has to increase the likelihood that a dog will repeat a behavior in order to get it or make it happen. I may find painting my deck rewarding, it looks good when I’m done, but I do not find painting my deck positively reinforcing. I will only paint it again when faced with the possibility (threat) of having it rot, the embarrassment of having guests see an unattractive, peeling deck or the prospect of paying someone else to do it. I wish I found it positively reinforcing, it might get done more often.

A dog may happily gobble down a treat, wag their tail when you scratch their ears or tell them how marvelous they are, or gladly chase a ball, but not find any of these to be reinforcement for the behavior you are after. Or they might. My own dogs will perform some behaviors, but not all, for a food treat. And this is always subject to change. Anyone who has decided to join a gym may have had to play all kinds of tricks with themselves to get the habit started. These tricks often include some kind of reward, a favorite coffee drink after a workout or a new pair of sneakers or clothing. If the ‘going to the gym’ behavior is repeated often enough you might discover that you no longer need the reward to perform the behavior. You go for the sake of going and the workout has become rewarding, and reinforcing, in and of itself. Or whatever you were using to reward yourself no longer is enough and you need to change it in order to keep up the ‘going to the gym’ behavior.

Dog trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement techniques to build, shape or create behaviors think of themselves as detectives. We know, like someone investigating a murder that even though we don’t know who the murderer is, one exists. We know that if a behavior continues to be repeated, ‘something’ is reinforcing it. We also know that if we are having trouble getting a behavior to be repeated, we have not discovered what is reinforcing to the dog. If we decide to use a form of punishment to stop a behavior we are aware that unless we give the dog something else to do to replace the unwanted behavior we are likely to either get the unwanted behavior again, or end up with a stressed out dog who doesn’t know what to do for fear of being punished. When this happens we can see all kinds of bad behavior emerge, and unfortunately it’s a downward spiral if more punishment is applied to end these as well.

The next time you find yourself throwing up your hands in frustration, believing that you’ve tried everything, try contacting a trainer with experience in positive reinforcement and behavior modification. Good trainers see problem behaviors as puzzles to be solved, not confrontations to be won.



Got attention?I never gave much thought to the risks of using corrections when training dogs until Sunny, my fearful dog came into my life. Even the casual ‘uh uh’ that I would use when one of my other dogs’ noses was getting precariously close to the cheese on the coffee table, would have sent him cowering off. I had to find ways not only to get this dog comfortable with me, but I also had to train him. How can you train a dog if you can’t correct inappropriate behavior?

I have come to realize that the answer to the question in most situations is that unless a dog has a crystal clear understanding of what is expected of them and been give the opportunity to practice it repeatedly, there is no disobedience. I may not like the behavior, I may want the dog to do something differently, but the dog is not being disobedient or bad. Some trainers might say that any behavior performed by a dog which is not what was requested of them, is due to ineffective training, the handler’s problem, not the dog’s.

I have more thinking to do on that one, but have learned from my scared dog that his failure to perform a certain behavior usually has to do with something making it difficult for him, something scaring or distracting him. In effect he is not unwilling, as much as unable, to do what I ask him to do. This does not mean that it is OK for him to not follow through when asked for a behavior, it means that I need to think about how to make it so he can perform the behavior, and we can practice it. Raising my voice, snapping his leash or some other form of correction would only turn him into the scared zombie I worked so hard to vanquish from the corner of our living room.

I provide kennel-free boarding in my home. The folks who bring their dogs to stay with me are among the best pet owners on the planet. Yet almost each one assumes that their dog is being disobedient when it does not do what is asked of it. When dogs and owners arrive at my house for the ‘meet & greet’ during which I assess whether we are a good match, I let dogs have a roam around the place and meet other dogs. At some point I want to determine if we share any common language, I offer the dog a treat and ask for a ‘sit’, trying out a couple of common hand signals and body postures for the cue. If the dog does not know how to sit when asked their owner tells me.

Dogs which have been trained and are comfortable may try to gobble up the treat or if I have managed to say or do something the dog understands, they snappily put their butts down. But many dogs will not sit and to date few owners have ever responded with anything other than ‘S/he knows how to sit!’ at which time they usually raise their voice and say, ‘FIDO SIT!’ as if the problem was that their dog did not hear me or needed to be addressed with more forcefulness. Fido may turn his head at the sound of his name and then refocus on me, I am after all the one with the cheese stick, or he turns and goes to his owner, often displaying appeasement body language, unsure why he was just shouted at. For a nervous dog this does nothing to lower their stress level and few dogs can arrive in a new place, be surrounded by strange dogs and humans and not feel somewhat unsure and stressed.

I know that owners feel like they are being tested and that I am checking to see how well trained their dogs are, but I am not. I am looking for common ground to establish a relationship with their dog. I don’t doubt that their dog does know how to sit when asked, but realize that they have not had the chance to practice this behavior in enough places, with enough distractions, being asked by enough people, to be able to perform it their first few minutes with me. But if even great pet owners can be unaware of the fact that dogs do not generalize behaviors easily, what of the other dogs that are living with people quick to assume that their dogs are being disobedient and just as quick to correct/punish them for it?*

When I was growing up, before she headed off to work, my mother would leave pieces of white paper, from small notepads (this was pre-Post Its), on the kitchen counter. After school I would return home to find these pieces of paper with benign chores for me to perform written on them. Dust the woodwork, vac the living room, peel potatoes, and the like, nothing horrible except that they were being requested of a kid who would have preferred watching TV, going outside to play or just do nothing. I began to dread seeing those slips of white paper. It was years later when I realized how I had been conditioned to feel a certain way about those bits of paper.

My mother sent a care package to me while I was away at college. The box made me feel happy and excited to see what was inside. After slicing through the tape that sealed the box I lifted the flaps and there on top of my prizes was a slip of white paper on which she’d jotted a note. I felt my stomach tighten and drop. The note was short and positive, “Enjoy! Love, your mother” yet it had elicited in me the same feeling of dread I had experienced for years as I had when I was growing up and saw those too familiar sheets of white notepaper asking me to do something I didn’t want to do. I knew it made no sense, the box had good stuff in it, but I could not help that initial reaction.

So what, you might ask.

We can create similar feelings of dread in our dogs when we pair training with corrections. For some dogs it may not make much difference, they can tolerate a raised voice or collar yank without so much as batting an eye, but for many other dogs their intial reaction to being ‘trained’ may be an immediate feeling of concern or dread, especially when they do not understand why they are being shouted at or yanked. The timing needed to make punishment effective is not a skill that even many professional trainers have. Unsure of what is expected of them dogs may delay their response, trying to sort out what to do next in order to avoid or prevent the correction. Unfortunately this can create a cycle of increasingly harsher ‘corrections’ which unless the dog catches on quickly, can escalate into a situation which many trainers are familiar with, the owner who professes to have ‘tried everything’ to get their dog to behave the way they want. It’s good for business, but not so good for the dog whose owner throws up their hands and delivers it to the nearest shelter.

While it is important that owners of fearful dogs pay careful attention to how they work with their pets, it’s worth any pet owner reconsidering the use of corrections when training their dogs. It doesn’t mean that you let your dogs go for the cheese on the table, you train your dogs to understand a cue which means stop what you’re doing and check in with me for more information.

As for me and those white slips of paper- I got over it, must have been those peanut butter filled, glazed, chocolate cake treats that began to accompany the notes.

*Punishment is anything that causes a behavior to decrease. Corrections are used to stop behaviors that are not the ones being asked for (stop not sitting!, stop not coming!), so are punishment.