There are innumerable videos on the internet featuring animals, many of which make me cringe. But, there are terrific examples of positive reinforcement training in a variety of species, which show the incredible (and unpredictable) intelligence of a variety of animals, as well as the power of positive reinforcement training. Here is one that I found on Reisner Veterinary Services of a very smart fish who can recognize a picture of an object and match it to the object itself. Amazing!
These fish can recognise and remember shapes and objects!
Posted by ViralHog on Monday, May 28, 2018
So, you may ask, what does a smart fish have to do with family dog training? Great question! Here’s my somewhat convoluted answer:
I think that we have only just begun to see and understand the diverse intelligence of a variety of animals. I doubt that 30 years ago many people would have thought that fish had any ability to discriminate between images of no relevance to their lives, much less associate a picture of some random object with that object. And, I could be very wrong here, but I also don’t think that many zoos and aquariums were bothering to train fish to do anything at all.
With the rise of food based, positive reinforcement training, however, a whole new window into the animal mind has opened.* Why? My theory is that it is because animals feel safe. Punishment based training is not conducive to creative exploration of the world because the threat hangs over you that if you do the wrong thing, then it will hurt. If animals do not know if a new behavior will bring punishment or praise, then the world is not predictable or safe, and they may avoid trying anything novel.** When dealing with undomesticated animals it is critical to avoid punishment as these animals may completely shut down, unwilling to initiate or even try new things, too spooked to work with any trainer, or they may become aggressive. According to the Wolf Park website:
Wolves will also avoid at all costs anything that they experienced as unpleasant. So using any aversive on a wolf will have lasting consequences that will be very time consuming to overcome. If a wolf is spooked at all during a physical examination, he/she will be very difficult to handle in the future. When working with an animal that will have such reactions to aversives, it becomes critical for the staff to learn how to shape and reward any desired behavior and stay away from any punitive methods.
This applies to the family dog as well. Dogs who are punished are much more likely to be aggressive. Moreover, as I mention in my blog on The Five Freedoms, “with forced based methods (such as shock collars) many dogs learn not to do try new things as it hurts to do so, so they don’t do anything. This lack of behavior is not the same as good behavior, nor is it normal behavior for canines.”
On the other hand, if the only downside for trying something new is simply no treat, then the animal will generally give up on that behavior and try something else. As long as the new behavior is not reinforced, it will quickly fade away, without trauma to the animal. Thus, animals who are not punished for trying new things, but are rewarded instead, remain more curious and inventive. My dog Bingley, for example, picked up a clicker one day and discovered that if he put it between his front teeth, he could click it. This became a great source of fun for him. Whenever he found a clicker, and I was in my office, he would poke his head around the door and click at me. This inevitably resulted in me chasing him down the hall to give him a treat in exchange for the clicker. I doubt very seriously if he would have tried this game if he’d been punished into obedience. Since Bingley knew it was safe to try new things, he remained inquisitive, innovative, and playful, to end of his days.
I have seen the results of both adversive and positive training. Subsequently, I truly believe that for anyone, canine, lupine, piscine, hominid, etc., to be able to engage with it’s surroundings in a curious, intelligent, and robustly satisfying way, it must be safe from fear and harm. Then and only then, can it be free to become the very best version of itself.
** Blogs on punishment: Why be positive, or what’s wrong with a correction? Another blog relating to the effects of punishment: Ouch! That really hurt!, and Trauma, trust, and your dog.
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