Revised April 2014. I would advise a little differently now, being more aware of the dog’s need for social interaction.
Before I start with the topic of this blog, I’ll define punishment in terms the science of learning theory. Punishment is anything which causes a reduction in the intensity, duration and/or frequency of the immediately preceding behaviour. If it doesn’t cause a reduction, then by definition, it is not punishment.
We all have busy lives, some more than others. When we bring a dog into our lives, we owe it to our dogs and to ourselves to ensure we have adequate time to take care of all our dog’s needs. Fitting daily walks and exercise, mental stimulation, grooming and training into lifestyles already packed with work, our own exercise requirements and looking after children can be difficult. When we have a dog with a serious behaviour problem or training issue, finding the time can be even more problematic.
If you are a returning reader to my blog, you will be aware of my ethos regarding dog training and behaviour modification. I use no physically aversive training methods and don’t use fear or intimidation to train dogs, nor do I teach it. Now, given unlimited time and resources, which many of of wish we had but few have the luxury of, we would train our dogs with the absolute minimum stress possible. We would have the time to always train our dogs to do what we want them to do in every scenario. Unfortunately, this isn’t realistic for the vast majority of us.
An example of this is a dog I worked with the other night. The clients are a couple who both work and have two young children of school age. They have a friendly young retriever who is great with people and other dogs. She is well cared for and healthy. The issues with the dog are that she greats people inside and out of the house by jumping on them and she barks for attention at her owners in the evenings when they are watching television. The dog has all of her basic requirements met in that she is walked and played with everyday among everything else. It would be possible for us to teach this dog to lie down or sit with no distractions and then gradually move up to the level where she is able to cope with the distraction of people coming into the house without jumping on them. This takes time and a lot of effort on the part of the owners, and they probably don’t have the time to do this. The course of action I suggested was to have the dog on leash when people came into the house and not allow her to greet them until she calmed down. When she offers calmer behaviour, the leash is dropped and she is allowed to go and say hello. If she acts up again, the owner quickly picks up the leash again without any fuss or talking to the dog, and removes the dog from the visitor. The dog learns that the faster she calms down, the faster she gets to say hello to the visitor, which she wants to do, and that excited behaviour causes her to be removed from the guest. All of this is done without hitting, shouting, spraying the dog or scaring her, but if we are consistent and do it every time, the dog will get the idea and behave more appropriately.
Now, this method of teaching her has the potential to be more stressful for the dog, as removal of the chance to say hello is the motivating factor, rather than the dog being solely rewarded for good behaviour. Good behaviour causes the dog to say hello, “bad” behaviour means she doesn’t. It’s simple and easy to apply, and will work in many cases as long as we are consistent in it’s application so the dog learns the rules. When using any punishment (in the strictest behavioural sense as defined above) the consequence needs to be unpleasant enough for the dog to want to avoid it – here it is unpleasant for the dog to be removed from the guest – and because it is unpleasant, it has potential to cause the dog stress.
As long as we are minimising the stress involved, and pairing it with rewarding the dog for good behaviour, the effects of the stress are reduced. Given that the less stressful alternative of teaching the dog under increasingly more difficult distractions takes time, which the owners don’t have, we need to come up with a plan which they can implement and has the lowest stress levels. There is no point in advising a stress free course of action which they cannot or will not follow. The dog doesn’t get trained, the behaviour doesn’t change and the overall stress to the dog over it’s lifetime doesn’t reduce. Appropriate use of physically force free punishment is a necessary part of learning. Frequent evalution of all training methods to ensure the dog is learning what we want it to learn and changing things which don’t work will help to minimise stress. That said, it is unrealistic to attempt to completely eliminate stress from our lives. All living creatures in nature are under some sort of stress, whether that is finding food or a safe place to sleep away from predators.
Dog training is sometimes about a compromise between what is realistic for owners and minimising stress for the dog while always being guided by our own moral compass as to what we are willing to do to our dogs in the name of training.
In part two, I’ll offer more practical tips on how to make time for constructive, effective dog training.