Use of physical punishment in training – why it works and the harm it can do (part 1)

Before I start this post, I want to preface it by saying I am now a 100% non aversive trainer and have been for some years now. I can’t remember the last time I shouted at a dog other than my own (which was a long time before I knew any better) and don’t even say “No” any more, rather I may repeat the cue to give the dog another opportunity to respond.

If any of you have read my first post, you will know that I came from a background of traditional dog training. I took my young Dogue de Bordeaux to a sports dog club, where the use of choke chains and prong collars was common place and shock collars were sometimes seen.

The reason I used metal collars was because

1. I wasn’t shown anything different and

2. I was getting results.

My dog Bosco was a terrible puller on the lead and I taught him, in the space of about 5 minutes, to walk to heal using a prong collar. I also taught a great down stay, sit stay and recall, all using a prong collar. Prong collars work, that’s why I used them and that’s why people continue to use them. Now I wasn’t a barbarian who enjoyed hurting my dog. I loved my boy and wanted what was best for him which was to mind his manners and do as I asked of him, I just went about it the wrong way. In my experience this is generally true of most dog trainers (always exceptions of course).

Prong collars work by, according to the operant model, positive punishment. The positive part is a plus sign(+) where something is added to punish (reduce) the undesired behaviour. So in the instance above with Bosco, pulling on the lead, getting up from a stay and not coming back were all punished/reduced by me adding a correction (i.e. painful experience) with the prong collar. The father of operant training, B.F. Skinner did this in a lab using rats. Rats were put in a box where, upon pressing one lever they obtained a food pellet and on pressing another one got an electric shock. It doesn’t take too long before the rat learns which button to press and which to avoid.

As progressive/non-aversive trainers, we need to understand why other “balanced” trainers do what they do. I recently had a discussion on a web training forum on this issue. The other person argued that using force in training doesn’t work. She argued that I hadn’t trained a down stay from Bosco, merely taught him not to get up, that I hadn’t trained heeling, merely punished him for pulling on the lead. My response to this is, really what is the difference? The picture looks that same, Bosco stays down and walks on a loose leash.

I think arguing against the effectiveness of forceful training is futile. What we should be doing is educating about the fallout or effect it has on our relationship with our dogs. I am currently making my way through Steve White’s DVD set, “How Police K9 techniques can transform your everyday training”. Steve is a progressive trainer who has trained police dogs forever. In the seminar, he states that when punishment is being used (he’s not condoning it), the dog should not associate the punishment with the handler. This is because it breaks down the bond of trust between handler and dog. The dog is less likely to trust someone who hurts it, which is hugely problematic when your dog is your police partner. The breakdown of handler/dog relationship is the best which happens. The worst that can happen is that you end up with a dog who is frightened and/or aggressive to the environment.

For instance, I taught Bosco to be super reactive to other dogs. I did this really well. He pulled because he wanted to say hello to other dogs and people he met. The harder he pulled, the more I corrected him. The more I corrected him the more he associated other dogs in the environment with pain and the more reactive he became as he learned that the pain stops when the dog goes away. What could have happened because he knew it was me who was hurting him, would have been to turn around and attack me. That would be among the worst things which could have happened.

By understanding why traditional trainers do what they do, knowing our own craft inside out so that we can produce better results and be able to demonstrate that our dogs are working for us because they want to and not because they fear not doing it, rather than dismissing these techniques as ineffective then hopefully we can continue to change things.

Part 2 –

Bosco without his prong collar, working for the ball and much happier for it
Bosco without his prong collar, working for the ball and much happier for it

Sessions with Serge

Serge is a 7 month old Dogue de Bordeaux who I have been working with recently. His problems stem from not enough socialisation during his puppyhood. If you follow my blog, you will know how important I feel proper socialisation, both at the right times and in the right way, is in the development of your dog.

Serge lives with his owner in a more rural area close to me. He has been brought up around horses and with two other dogs and is more confident when he is out with the bulldog he lives with who is great with other dogs. Serge can react aggressively with other dogs and to some other novel things he experiences but his reaction is fairly mild and he soon comes round.

We have done two session so far. In our first session, we worked on teaching Nikki his owner, proper handling skills so she could use correct distance from other dogs to keep Serge feeling safe and I also taught her how to time her reinforcements effectively.

The second session was a few weeks later and Serge had already started to make good progress. Nikki had been keeping Segre from a safe distance from other dogs and feeding him when he saw them so that Serge builds an association between seeing other dogs and being fed. We met at a local park, which I use often as it is large, and had very large open area so you can see the approaching dogs from a distance of up to 400 metres. The park is always busy with both dog owners and professional dog walkers, there are loads of dogs off leash and because I use it often, I know lots of the dogs and how social (or not) they are. There is also an enclosed dog park where Colin, one of the dog walkers, exercises his dogs.This enclosed dog park has an “air-lock” gate.

We moved round to the dog park and we approached from  a distance of about 25m away from the gate. There were about 15 dogs or so, including several large dark coloured dogs in the park who all ran up to the fence to see Serge. Serge stopped and looked at the dogs. His reaction was a bit too head on but not really “high” so we told him he was a good lad and rewarded him with food and then moved him away. We then approached again. By this time, the other dogs had moved off and were playing with each other again. Because they had moved away from the fence, Serge felt more comfortable approaching the gate. He then looked at the other dogs through the gate without reacting. One dog came over to say hello and then a few others joined this dog and soon there were several dogs at the fence and Serge was greeting them all appropriately.

At this point, I was watching for any adverse change in Serge’s body language. Any stiffening of his body, hard staring or snarling/growling. If he had done this, I would have immediately called him and moved away with him (he was wearing a long line which I was holding without tension). Colin’s dog came out to say hello. This dog has great social skills with other dogs. As Colin’s dog cam out, we called Serge and moved away with both dogs so Serge could say hello to him away from the fence. the reason for this was that Serge was no coping with greeting several big, calm dogs behind the fence and was fairly relaxed but he might not have been able to cope with the added stress of Colin’s dog being so close, so we moved away to reduce the pressure of the bigger dogs and Serge could say hello to Colin’s dog.

This went well. Colin called his dog back in and then a wee Cockerpoo came out to say hi. This also went well. The cocker was really gentle, inviting Serge to play with play bows. Serge was a bit reluctant at first but the cocker persevered and soon Serge was playing. What was interesting here was if Serge became too intense, the cocker stopped the play by lying down, then Serge stopped running. When Serge calmed down, the cockerpoo began to play again.

We ended the session here and called it a day. There is always a tendency to want to continue but I prefer to err on the side of caution in the early stages. A good session from Serge and Nikki and thanks to Colin and his own dog and also the cockerpoo.