Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bad Dog. Bad!

This is his "Who, me? I didn't do it!" face
It would be unrealistic, not to mention hypocritical, to expect a person to never use some form of "punishment" on their pet at one point or another. However, the act of punishment and the interpretation of its meaning often vary wildly from one individual to the next. The concept itself is often misunderstood and then carried out in a way that is either ineffective or even harmful to the animal.

The topic of punishment and reinforcement can become fairly complex but here is what's important to remember for now: In animal training (and psychology in general) the word "punishment" basically means to either add or remove a stimulus in an attempt to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. Here are some simple examples of situations involving punishment:
  • You have a puppy who tends to get a little too rough with you during play. Like the good dog parent that you are, you calmly but immediately stop playing as soon as the pup gets too rough. You've removed play so that (after some repetition) your puppy learns that something she enjoys (playtime with you) will be taken away if she plays roughly.
  • Your dog pulls horribly on the leash every time you try to walk him. Even though you are actively working on teaching him the appropriate way to walk on the leash there are some instances that don't really allow for real practice time to reinforce the appropriate behavior. For those situations, you use a special harness that clips in the front and prevents him from being able to pull. You've added the harness to the situation to decrease the pulling behavior. (For more information on leash training, see this earlier blog post.)
Of course, those examples don't really cover the more controversial end of the subject. Is it ever ok to yell at your dog? Is it ok to hit your dog? What about shock collars, choke chains, or prong collars? How far is too far?

The answers boil down to communication and the relationship that you want to have with your dog. People rely on results and you can get those (of varying degrees) with any of the tools or techniques mentioned above. This is why they remain very popular. However, they aren't the only way and they aren't always the right way. I try not to judge methods but it's impossible for me to not be bothered when I see certain methods used absolutely inappropriately. If you don't understand the reason why some of these things work (or seem to work) as well as the overall effects that they have on you and your dog, then you may want to rethink your position. Please see the following examples to get an idea of what I mean:
  • Yelling/Scolding: I don't think there's a dog owner in the world who hasn't yelled at or at least scolded their dog at some point. I believe that we can communicate a lot with our tone of voice when we use it correctly. I could call Cricket a bad dog all day in a sweet tone and she'd love it. But there is a certain tone I can take on that immediately tells her to stop in her tracks. It's important to remain calm but firm when using your voice to communicate that your dog is in the act of something you don't like. It is also important not to make that moment of sternness last too long (i.e. lecturing or going on a furious tirade.) Timing is also the key. It is pointless to yell at a dog for doing something that you did not immediately catch. At that point, you've lost the chance for clear communication. You'll only serve to confuse the dog (he knows he was bad but isn't exactly certain why) and fuel your own anger. Learn when to let it go. Also, never forget the importance of calmly and quickly showing your dog the appropriate behavior if you have the chance. For instance, if he's just grabbed a shoe to chew on, tell him no and then give him an appropriate chew toy to redirect him. In that scenario, it will also serve everyone well to keep shoes out of his reach so that this does not become a habit or so an already-bad habit cannot be reinforced when your back is turned. Teaching the "leave it" and "drop it" commands will greatly help you to communicate what you want in these situations as well so a good obedience class with an experienced trainer can be of great value.
  • Shock Collars: Sometimes these are simply referred to as "training collars" and their concept is easily understood. The dog does something bad and then gets a shock...right? I used to train at a pet store where these were sold and often received the question, "But it doesn't really hurt them, right?" My answer was always, "Well, that's kind of how it's designed to work. The pain discourages them from performing the undesired behavior." This just goes to show that people usually don't want to harm their dog, they just want behaviors such as barking or aggression to stop. Unfortunately, misuse of this type of tool can lead to terrible consequences. Let's say you want your dog to stop attacking or barking at the mail man so you shock him every time you see it happen. How are we to know that your dog understood exactly what caused the shock? For all the pooch knows, the horrible mail man is even more of a threat because now he comes equipped with psychic shocking powers. You would be much better off teaching your dog that the mail man is not a threat by treating him right before the barking fit even starts. Reinforce your dog heavily for calm and desirable behavior and you'll have communicated clearly and in a way that will not exacerbate the problem or harm the relationship you have with your dog. 
  • Choke Chains/Prong Collars: These items cause pain in order to decrease pulling. There are much more humane products on the market such as those mentioned earlier in this post. Head halters or harnesses that clip in the front can be very effective in decreasing or eliminating pulling without causing damage to the trachea or pain to the dog. In addition to this, teach your dog the appropriate way to walk on a leash. 
  • Hitting: This is one method of punishment that can go from communication to relationship-destruction in the blink of an eye. I honestly can't think of a single situation where it would be better to spank your dog than to redirect or otherwise use another form of training. The act of physically hitting your dog often stems from anger and can too easily lead to eliminating any chance of real communication. It can cause the dog to only focus on the fact that he's being hit rather than acknowledging why it's happening. Because of this, you're instilling fear and losing the opportunity to teach an appropriate behavior to eliminate the undesired one. It can be ineffective at accomplishing anything other than teaching your dog to be afraid of you. And even a quick, harmless swat to the backside is often far less effective than a command such as "leave it" or "out" (which will be discussed in detail next week). Needless to say, full on beating your dog is never, ever, ever an appropriate way to handle a problem. (I rarely say "never" about anything but this is one issue I stand firm on.) You'll quickly be on track to create a very difficult case of fear and aggression.
It is so important to remember that while dogs can be very similar to people, they often interpret things very differently than we do. What makes perfect sense to you can be extremely confusing to your dog. It is unfair to harshly punish your pet when there are much better ways to handle a situation. It is even more unfair when the poor pup doesn't even truly understand why he's being punished in the first place. You'll hear me repeat this often, but I prefer my dogs with their spirits intact. Communication and real training accomplish this while giving you the results that you seek. Fear and pain are often disguised as "quick, easy fixes" because they initially stop any person or animal in their tracks. That fear can be misinterpreted as "respect." Your dog already respects you; he has since you first brought him home. It's very possible that he was already very familiar with fearing people as well. It's up to you as the (usually) more intelligent species to take the time to understand his "bad" behavior and how to fairly, calmly, and mindfully teach him how to be a good dog.

No comments:

Post a Comment