Results for: punishment
From that first introduction to the clicker, we have used it with all of our dogs. Though each dog is unique in his personality, interests and skill level, each one has responded with gusto to the clicker and to positive reinforcement training. When we had Buckley, Bingley, and Hudson, and I would pull out the clicker, all of them would get excited and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would elicit a click. Buckley would immediately sit, Hudson would start “petting” Bingley, who would back up, spin, bow, whatever! They knew that something would bring a click and a treat and they were eager to figure out what it was. Bingley was so enthusiastic about training when he was younger that he would find a clicker and come to my office holding it between his front teeth. When I turned and looked, he would click it and run down the hall, instigating a grand game of chase. Apparently clicker training works on people too!
For me, the value of the clicker for training (or in the absence of a clicker, accurately marking the behavior with a distinctive word or phrase such as “Yessss!” or “Good Dog!!”) cannot be overstated. Clickers allow you to be very precise in marking desired behaviors. For example, If your dog is easily excited, use your clicker to click for a calm moment (even if it is only for an instant) and immediately give him a tasty morsel. The dog will soon figure out that calm gets him everything, noisy gets him nothing. The more you consistently reward good behavior (even if it is a flash in the pan!) the more you will see it. Likewise, if your dog regularly behaves well (sitting quietly or lying down peacefully, for example), mark the behavior (Click! or “Good dog!”) and reward, reward, reward, so that you are sure to see more of it!
See this blog and more on reward based training at the Companion Animal Psychology Blog Party!
When introducing my clients to positive reinforcement training in general, and clicker training in particular, I tell them that it’s important to reward the behavior you want in your dog and ignore or re-direct undesirable behavior. After all, behavior that is rewarded will increase in frequency, while behavior that is ignored will decrease.
I also explain that rewards (or punishments) are always defined by the recipient, not the one doling them out. What may seem a reward to you, may not be all that reinforcing to your dog. One good way to tell if your dog really isn’t interested in your idea of a reinforcement is if he turns his head, walks away, or otherwise disengages from you. He is clearly telling you that this is not his cup of tea. For example, many people will greet or reward their dogs by patting them on the head, thinking that their dog loves petting. And, they are surprised when their dog moves away from them as they approach head on. The dog may well love being petted, but this is not petting, this is thunking your dog on the skull, and most dogs do not care for it.* Therefore, it is not a reward, but a punishment for Fido, and will not encourage him to come to you.
Rewards, by their very nature, should make your training easier. Ken Ramirez, the Head Trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago states that if training a new behavior is taking longer than you think it should, is harder for the animal than it ought to be, or otherwise is not progressing as well as you think appropriate: Look at your reinforcers (rewards). They probably are not rewarding enough to motivate the animal to work for it. Make sure you are using things your dog actually loves, not what you think he loves!
Moreover, keep in mind that what you are offering may not be reinforcing enough for the particular circumstances. Using your dog’s food at home (where it isn’t so distracting) and giving several pieces in a row as reward when they do something wonderful, may be a perfect acceptable reinforcement for their behavior. But, if your dog is consistently distracted in new situations, ask yourself, “What’s in the bait bag?” Is this really rewarding to him, or do I just think it is? When you are outside and have to compete with pee-mail and other canine delights, bring a good assortment of small, soft, and stinky treats so he has a good reason to stay checked in with you. Quantity, quality, and variety is the spice of life for dogs, just as it is for people, and is the key to keeping Fido focused and eager to learn.
Determining what is motivating to your dog may also take some experimentation and creative thinking, and may include activities and toys as well as food. For example, I know that Bingley will do anything for access to a game of fetch**, and he adores banana bread (He even knocked Buckley, 50 pounds larger than him, out of the way to get a piece). My grand-dog Tex, adores roasted asparagus, carrots, and car rides. Make a list of five things your dog loves and post it on the refrigerator as a reminder of what is rewarding to your pup. Add things to it as you discover what makes your dog’s tail wave like a flag on the 4th of July.
You may find, as I do, that using a lot of food when beginning to train your dog (or when teaching a new behavior to your dog), is the easiest and most effective method of rewarding the right response.*** The time does come (sooner than you might think!) when you can reduce the amount of food and add in other reinforcers, such as toys, access to other dogs, car rides, etc., so that food becomes only one of many ways to reward your dog. This is one reason why I encourage you to keep a list of what your dog loves, so you can be creative in your rewards and more interesting to your pup.
Rewards and clicker training go hand in hand, so next time we explore how to use these rewards to get your dog to be the best behaved pup he can be.
*Ask yourself, how would you feel if someone charged up to you and thunk, thunk, thunked you on the top of the head? At best, dogs tolerate this behavior, and many dogs really loathe it. If you want to pet your dog, scratch him behind the ears, rub his shoulders or withers, approaching from the side, and I bet he will move into you rather than away from you.
** One winter we were walking the dogs at a local park and Bingley ran up to me holding something that looked, at a distance, like a frisbee. I’d brought tennis balls, not frisbees this day, so as he approached I looked closely at what he was holding and realized he had a half a frozen groundhog in his mouth. I had no intention of getting into a tug of war with him over the front end of a rodent, but I knew he loved his tennis balls and would likely relinquish the frozen furball for a game of fetch. I took out a ball, held it up and said, “Look at what I have Bingy! Do you want this? Huh? Do you?” That got his attention and as soon as he dropped the groundhog I threw his ball as hard as I could. He zoomed off, I picked up the rodent, tossed it to my husband (who threw it into the woods) and we ran off to meet him before he came back and looked for his frigid friend. Knowing what he loved, helped me to easily resolve a situation that had the potential to be very unpleasant.
***Food is easy, precise and it will build your relationship with your dog. (And, if you think about it, don’t we build relationships that way as well? “Let’s go out for coffee?” “Lunch anyone?”). I do add other rewards, but to learn to reinforce correctly, food is the easiest tool. And, by heavily reinforcing the dog in the beginning I am front end loading the training so that the dog will be more engaged in the process and understand quickly what is desirable behavior.
Dr. Ilana Reisner is a veterinary animal behaviorist and an expert on canine behavior. I frequently link to her facebook page (Reisner Veterinary Behavioral Services) and when I was trolling for blog ideas I came across this article by her about dominance theory and moving past the idea that you have to be leader of the pack in order to get along with your dog. It has a good overview of where this mistaken notion came from, as well as why this can harm your relationship with your dog.
The idea that canine behavior problems all stem from an innate canine drive to wrench control of us, leads to a gross misunderstanding of what is actually happening with a behaviorally challenged dog. It also blinds us to the body language that will give accurate cues as to the nature of the problem.
The behavior problems most often seen in dogs—aggression, fearfulness, destructiveness, inappropriate elimination, excessive vocalization, and inappropriate attention-seeking—are associated more frequently with anxiety or frustration than with confidence and social assertiveness.
Observation of the “badly behaved” dog will frequently reveal conflict signals, such as yawning or lip licking, along with anxious or ambivalent posturing. Responding harshly to these signals increases the dog’s fear and reactivity, which, along with genetics, can lead to worsened impulsivity and aggression. In fact, fear is not voluntary and cannot be changed using operant methods, such as reinforcement or punishment. (Emphasis mine, Reisner)
This article is well written, referenced, and definitely worth reading. Your dog will thank you.
We have been traveling with Zuzu a fair amount and I decided that I needed a better way to transport her kibble than a ziploc bag.* In my search for a kibble transport system, I found the Kibble Carrier at Kurgo. There are several features that I like, but the main ones are: it holds 5 lbs of kibble and keeps it fresh; and it is easy to use and carry. I like the roll top feature which creates a comfortable handle, and it opens wide enough to use a scoop. It packs easily into a small space in the car and Zuzu is not tempted to try and open it. The bottom opens so that you can add their collapsible bowl,** there is a side pocket for treats, and a sturdy loop to attach your keys. After just one road trip, I am completely sold on it!
One last thing… Most people associate St. Francis of Assisi with animals, and indeed he is the patron saint of animals, merchants & ecology. The patron saint of dogs (and dog lovers), however, is St. Roch (c. 1295-1327). He was born the only son of a nobleman from Montpelier, France. According to his biography on Catholic Company.com, he was:
born with an unusual and deep red mark on his chest in the shape of a cross, a sign that the Blessed Virgin Mary had heard and answered his mother’s prayers for her barrenness to be healed. As a child St. Roch was deeply religious, fasting twice a week after the example of his pious mother. His parents died when he was twenty years of age, after which he gave his inheritance to the poor, handed the government of the city over to his uncle, and began a new life as a poor mendicant pilgrim.
St. Roch set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, but when he came to the town of Acquapendente, he found it had been struck by the Black Plague. He diligently cared for the sick without regard for his own health, and cured many people “by simply making the Sign of the Cross over them.” He continued his healing work as he proceeded on his pilgrimage.
However, when he got to Piacenza, he realized that he had contracted the plague and it was manifesting in his leg. Refusing to burden anyone with his illness, he found an abandoned hut in the woods and waited to die. Fortunately, a local count’s hunting dog befriended him, brought him food every day and licked his wounds. A spring arose near the hut providing fresh water for St. Roch. One day, the count followed his dog into the woods, found Roch, and helped him. After his recovery, Roch “received divine inspiration that he should return to his native Montpellier.”
Once there he found the city at war. He refused to disclose his identity to the soldiers so that he could remain poor and unknown, having renounced his former life as the son of the governor. But his obfuscation aroused suspicion, and he was accused of being a spy disguised as a pilgrim. St. Roch did not defend himself against these charges…and was cast into prison by his own uncle, who failed to recognize his nephew’s altered appearance. According to legend, St. Roch was forgotten and abandoned in prison, but not by God, who sent angels to minister to him while he was held in captivity. He died there five years later.
I first discovered St. Roch when we were traveling in France and visited a church in a small village in Brittany. There was a series of carvings around the pulpit of the life of St. Roch. It was a delightful retelling of his rescue by a dog and I was hooked! There isn’t a lot of art for St. Roch, but here are two of my favorites: Icon of St. Roch by Tim Campbell, and In the Company of Saints has a statue of St. Roche in two sizes.
And finally, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and all your wonderful dogs.
*Not that I don’t love ziplocs! But, I have found that they last only so long. They rip, the zip stops working, or pulls out, and it is very easy for even a casually interested dog to open and indulge in an impromptu snack.
**I do not know how well their collapsable bowl works as I have a travel bowl set for Zuzu, so I cannot advise pro or con on this item. But, I do know her bowls, which collapse and zip together into the approximate size of a CD case, fit nicely in the top of the kibble carrier, and that’s a nice feature! Her bowl is similar to this bowl by DogBuddy.
Dr. Zazie Todd is the brilliance behind the Companion Animal Psychology blog, and Colleen Pelar and I loved having her as a guest on Your Family Dog to talk about making happy dogs happier. This week, however, she has a post on Companion Animal Psychology about Eight Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Feel Safe. As per usual, Dr. Todd is spot on in her approach to helping a dog overcome its fears, and she has some wonderful recommendations on books that might be helpful as well.
Here are her 8 Tips (For details, see the blog post. All quotes are from the blog):
- Recognize the dog is fearful. This may seem like an obvious step, but sometimes owners don’t recognize some of the subtler signs of fear their dogs exhibit. Learning your dog’s particular signals will help you to better discern your dog’s mood and allow you to intervene sooner rather than later. *
- Help the dog feel safe. Helping your dog feel safe is your first priority with a fearful dog. What safe looks like depends on the dog. One pup may need a place of his own to regroup, another dog may need to hold a beloved toy, and yet another may find solace in a predictable daily routine
- Don’t use punishment. “[I]f your dog is fearful, it is especially important to stop using punishment because the risk is your dog may become more fearful or even become afraid of you. Your dog is already stressed by whatever they are afraid of. You don’t want to add to that stress by using aversive methods.” Positive reinforcement is the best way to reassure your dog and teach her that the world is actually a good place to be.
- It’s okay to comfort your dog. When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? The same may be true for your dog as well. If he solicits your attention and comfort when scared or stressed, go ahead and reassure him, because “you are a secure base for your dog – meaning your presence can help them in a stressful situation.”
- Don’t force your dog to face his fears. “Some people think forcing your dog to face the thing they are afraid of will make them get used to it. But what can happen instead is they sensitize to it and get more and more afraid.” You can help your dog become less fearful, but it is a slow desensitization process whereby the dog is gradually exposed to what scares him. And, it is generally best done with the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist so that the process does not become overwhelming to you or the dog.
- Seek professional help. A professional trainer who works frequently with fearful or aggressive dogs can help to expedite the process of desensitizing your dog and make sure you are on the right track. “And don’t forget to consult your veterinarian too and find out if medication can help your dog. In some cases they may refer you to a veterinary behaviourist.”
- Be in it for the long haul. Resolving anxiety and fear can take a long time, and in some cases it may improve, but never fully resolve. “So it’s important to understand that it may take a long time to help your pet, and that fearful dogs can still have a happy life.”
- Make the most of available resources. There are a lot of books and blogs out there on helping your dog to overcome his fear. Be sure you get one that employs positive reinforcement training and lots of tasty treats. She lists a lot of books, all of which are excellent resources, but one I have used with success is: The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears, by Dr. Patricia McConnell.**
And, don’t despair! Fearful dogs can have long and happy lives, especially if we give them the support and tools they need to feel safe and be successful in their world.
*I have several blogs on body language, here are a few: Can you hear me now?, Being Anxious is no Fun for You or Your Dog, This is not the dog I wanted… And if you prefer your information orally, Your Family Dog has a lot on body language, but here are two: What Does Friendly Look Like?, Growling–Is It a Good Thing?
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.
As regular readers will attest, I love clicker training and have written about it on numerous occasions. Recently the Whole Dog Journal had a wonderful article by Pat Miller, called Clicker Training 101. She mentions that the origin of clicker training in dog training was due to the publication of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. With the introduction of positive reinforcement training to the dog world,
“clicker training” became a popular slang term for positive reinforcement training that uses a “reward marker” of some sort, and the clicker became the method’s emblem.
As much as I love clickers, I do recognize that clickers are not necessary for positive reinforcement training. What is necessary is clearly marking the desired behavior and following it with a reward.*
The secret to the clicker (or any other marker) is this: When beginning training, the marker is paired with a high-value reinforcer (most frequently a food treat) until the dog has made a classically conditioned association between the sound and the treat.
The marker is important not only because it clearly tells the dog the exact behavior that you are rewarding, but it serves as a bridge between the behavior and the reward. It’s not a remote control that elicits a behavior, it is a communicator that tells the dog, “You done good kiddo, and I will reward you for that!”
I have found that not only do clickers turbo charge your training by helping you clearly and quickly mark desired behavior, they also make training more fun for you and your dog.** A few years back we had three dogs, Hudson the Golden Retriever, Bingley the Flat-coated Retriever, and Buckley the Bernese Mountain dog, all of whom had experience with clicker training to one degree or another. Whenever I would reach for the clicker hanging by the back door, all three would get up and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would produce the magic sound and treats, knowing we were about to have some real fun. Buckley would instantly sit, and follow me around sitting whenever I paused. Hudson would play bow, spin, pet Bingley, and Bingley would spin, sit, grab a toy. Indeed, Bingley loved clicker training so much, that if he found one, he would put it between his front teeth, run to my office, stick his head in, and click the clicker at me. Thereby training me to play a great game of chase.
What delighted me the most about clicker training these dogs was their full commitment to it and the fact that it encouraged them to be curious, inventive individuals. Since there was no punishment for mistakes, only rewards for success, they would try all sorts of things. As a result, this is how Hudson learned to “pet the puppy.” My daughter Emma reached for a clicker when Hudson and Bingley were sitting next to one another. Hudson took his front paw and put it on Bingley’s neck. Emma clicked and treated, gave both a treat, and “pet the puppy” was born. Here is a video (no sound) of the part of the process where Hudson is learning the cue to pet Bingley. Though you can’t hear it, Emma tells Hudson to “pet the puppy.” She waits for his response, then marks it, and delivers a treat. Notice the rapt attention of the dogs on Emma, including our Spaniel mix Rebel, who isn’t part of the training, yet knows a good thing when he sees it! And, just an FYI, no puppies were harmed in the making of this video.
At the end of the training, Hudson was so skilled at gently placing his paw on Bingley’s back, that we started using this behavior in classrooms when we did bite prevention workshops. Hudson would sit next to a child and when we asked him, “Who’s your buddy?” he would put his leg over the shoulders of the child. It was enchanting, and never failed to delight the child.
So, if you are interested in trying something new, rewarding, and fun with your dog, get yourself a clicker, a bag of yummy treats and see what happens! You might be surprised at how quickly you both become hooked on training.
*Clickers are just one way to communicate with your dog. As mentioned, a verbal marker such as “Yes!” or “Good Dog!” in a happy, crisp tone will also work. If you have a deaf dog, try a flash of a pen light (which, by the way, is a great way to “clicker” train your goldfish to do play football!
**Clicker training can also be very effective when working with dogs with behavior issues. I use it with dogs who have very short attention spans, mouthy puppies, timid individuals, and even dogs with aggression issues. In fact, the only truly humane and effective way to help dogs with behavior issues is with positive reinforcement and the guidance of a good trainer or behaviorist skilled in behavior as well as reward based training.
For more information on the deleterious effects of punishment see:
And to find a behaviorist in your area to help with behaviors issues:
ASVAB: Find a Behavior Consultant
To find a trainer in your area:
Association of Professional Dog Trainers: Trainer Search (Your best bet on getting a positive reinforcement trainer is to limit your search to certified trainers)
Professional Pet Guild: Trainer Search
I have written (and podcasted) a lot about the importance of positive reinforcement training and the need to avoid using positive punishment for training your dog. Dr. Zazie Todd* in her blog, What is positive punishment in training?, clearly defines positive punishment:**
Punishment means something that reduces the likelihood of a behaviour happening again i.e. the behaviour goes down in frequency. And positive means that something is added.
So positive punishment means adding something after the dog did a behaviour that makes the frequency of that behaviour go down.
For example, if the dog jumps up and you knee [it] in the chest, and next time you see [that] the dog does not jump up, you have positively punished the dog jumping. You added something (the unpleasant sensation of a knee in the chest) and reduced the frequency of the behaviour.
With a correction collar such as a prong or pinch collar, you are using positive punishment by adding pain when the dog pulls against the collar or when you jerk on it to “correct” your dog’s behavior.
Some claim that this correction doesn’t hurt as it mimics a mother dog’s hold on a puppy’s neck, but frankly, I don’t buy that. A mother dog carries her pup with a soft mouth and holds it by the scruff (on the back of the neck) or around it’s body. The mother dog does not clamp down, nor does she put pressure on the front of the throat around the windpipe, which is exactly where the pressure occurs with a prong collar.
Yvette Van Veen writes about these collars and how it feels to wear one in her blog Pinch Me, A.K.A. Prong Me. She started her experiment by placing a prong collar on her forearm and pulling. She was surprised when it did not cause pain, and she thought she might have to admit that she was wrong about it being painful. But, then she moved on to the next part of her experiment, placing the prong collar on her own neck!
Carefully, I adjusted the number of links so the collar sat high up on my neck, snug but not tight. Gently I pulled on the ring where the leash attached. Again, I was legitimately surprised that spikes did not dig into my neck, and there was very little pain.
My husband entered the room, rolled his eyes at yet another “experiment”. Jokingly, he grasped the chain. Using his fingers only he tugged. “You’re coming with me!”
That is when the prong collar “bit” me. As the metal of the prong pressed against the bone of my spine, it created sharp, intense pain. I screamed – yes screamed – for him to stop. My husband blubbered, “I didn’t pull hard. It wasn’t hard at all. I just used my fingers.”
Since a friend had pointed out to her that dogs’ necks are more muscular and the pressure would be different because they walk on all fours, for the next part she got down on her hands and knees:
Head down (literally, I got down on all fours) we attached the leash to the collar. My son “walked” me around the house. He was applying FINGERTIP pressure.
It was here that the collar “bit” me for the second time. It was not painful. I think it was worse than that. The pressure from the evenly spaced links didn’t distribute evenly, the way it had on my arm. Walking on my hands and knees, the collar did not pinch. It pulled up against the front of my throat, an area that has very little muscle to afford any protection. Checking the front of my dog’s neck, it becomes quickly apparent that his muscular neck and shoulders do not offer protection to the front of his neck either.
As I crawled along the ground, and the prong dug up into my windpipe, I felt a primal urge to recoil and relieve pressure. While not quite a choking feeling, it was a gagging, gurgling, inability to swallow. My stomach seized and I felt panic. In an instinctive need for self-preservation I gasped, “Drop the leash!” Grasping at the links, my hands shaking, I immediately struggled to remove the prong collar from my neck. Having felt both the pain of prong on bone, and the pressure of a prong on my windpipe, the pressure on my windpipe was, at least to me, far worse.
As Ms Van Veen pointed out, the heavy muscles are on the back of the dog’s neck and the underside is very much like a human’s with the windpipe unprotected by thick musculature. Researchers at the University of Minnesota college of Veterinary Medicine, showed that the use of any collar increased intraocular pressure which can be particularly problematic for dogs with exisiting ocular issues. According to veterinarian Dr. Peter Tobias, choke, prong, and shock collars can irreversibly damage your dog, causing, “a whole array of problems… including lameness, skin issues, allergies, lung and heart problems, digestive issues, ear and eye conditions and thyroid gland dysfunction, to name a few.” He goes on to state that “neck injuries can cause a variety of problems including emotional trauma.”
In addition to the the possible physical damage or problems that may arise from the use of choke or prong collars, the punishment that is delivered can adversely change your dog’s behavior. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a position paper on the use of punishment to modify animal behavior. They state,
Even when punishment seems mild, in order to be effective it often must elicit a strong fear response, and this fear response can generalize to things that sound or look similar to the punishment. Punishment has also been shown to elicit aggressive behavior in many species of animals.
Punishing a dog for any behavior may result in a dog who is not only more fearful, but who is more likely to be aggressive towards people, as well as show other behavioral issues. (Companion Animal Psychology). I would also contend that using force, pain, or fear to train your dog is not conducive to building a relationship that is companionable and grounded in co-operation and trust.
Instead, consider a body harness for your dog. The Whole Dog Journal rated several of the front clip no-pull harnesses this year and there are many wonderful choices out there. I have tried all three of their top rated ones and found them to be easy to use and comfortable for my dogs.
So, before you reach for the prong collar to teach your dog not to pull while on a walk, think about the unintended consequences of this force based method. Is this really the best way to treat and train your best friend?
**When talking about reinforcement and punishment there are four combinations to consider: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Positive in these cases means adding something, negative means removing something. Reinforcement means the behavior will increase in frequency, punishment means the behavior will decrease in frequency. Thus, positive reinforcement means that adding something will make the behavior happen more often. If your dog sits, for example, and you give him a cookie when his bottom hits the ground, then he will be more likely to sit. Click here for a good graphic on this.
Pinch or prong collars, choke chains, and shock collars are not tools that I use or advocate to train your dog.* But, what about electronic fences to keep your dog in the yard? Aren’t those humane, easy to use, and give your dog the freedom he desires to romp and play safely in the yard? Maybe, maybe not…
Let me say at the onset that I do understand why owners put in electronic containment systems. They are less expensive than regular fencing, promise to keep your dog in the yard and safe, and some neighborhoods will not allow regular fencing. If you live on a busy road, you may feel an even stronger need to keep your dog in the yard. I get it. But, the problem with electric fences is that there are unintended consequences that can affect the health and well being of your best friend.
Eileen Anderson is a dog trainer and author. She has a blog called eileenanddogs, where she has written extensively about electronic collars and fences, including this one: Electronic Pet Fences: What you need to know. In this particular blog, she details some of the risks and consequences owners should be aware of when considering this form of containment.**
The first thing she discusses is the “warm and fuzzy language” that manufacturers tend to use to describe the system and how it works. She quotes this from one of the manuals:
[The] wireless fence pet containment system is a revolutionary concept that provides the safest, simplest form of pet containment ever. Plug in the transmitter somewhere inconspicuous in your home. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal around your home. Your pet wears a lightweight receiver collar that “listens” for the signal. While the collar is receiving the signal your dog is free to run and play in your yard. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return he receives a static correction which is startling but not harmful. With a little simple training your dog will quickly learn his boundaries.
Hey, you might say, this sounds great and how harmful can a small “static” correction be? Well, here is the same passage without the euphemisms and “using complete descriptions of the processes involved” :
[The] electronic fence system uses a shock collar connected to a radio transmitter with the goal of keeping your dog inside a chosen area. Electric shock has been used in laboratory experiments for decades for behavioral studies to put animals in a state of stress or fear and is also linked to increased aggression. Plug in the transmitter in your house. The transmitter emits a 17.5 kHz radio signal. Your pet wears a shock collar that will be triggered by a change in the signal. The collar must be fastened tightly on the dog’s neck so that the probes will poke through the dog’s fur and press firmly into his skin. Even when not generating a shock, the collar is likely to be quite uncomfortable. While the collar is receiving the standard signal your dog is safe from shock. When he approaches the boundary of the signal area he receives a warning beep. If your dog does not return, or goes through the boundary, he receives a shock to his neck that can range from a tingle to very painful, depending on the setting you choose.
That is not quite as innocuous as the manufacturer wants you to believe. Moreover, it is important to understand exactly what a shock is and how it is likely perceived by your dog. Shocks are sudden, painful, likely scary, and probably unlike anything your dog has ever experienced. They have been the industry standard in psychology studies as the means to produce fear and pain in an animal and put it under stress. The shocks received from an electronic fence collar may also be a factor in increasing aggression in dogs. (See: Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? by Richard Polsky.) In the conclusion to this article in which he looks closely at 5 individual cases of aggression towards humans from dogs being contained by electronic systems, Mr. Polsky states:
…manufacturers need to acknowledge the ricks involved and make consumers aware that the systems are not foolproof and that some dogs could attack a person as a result of receiving electric shock.
Even if your dog does not become aggressive towards people, there is no guarantee that your dog is learning what you think he is! He may be learning that the shock is associated, not with the boundary of the yard, but with whatever was holding his attention when he was shocked. For example, if your dog was trying to greet another dog when he received a shock, he might well associate the presence of dogs with shocks. As a result Fido is now leary of dogs, barks more when they approach, and/or becomes fearful or aggressive towards them as they now signify pain and discomfort. Or alternatively, if you have multiple dogs on the system, they might associate their yard mate with the shock and become aggressive towards one another. Or your children, the mailman, UPS person, meter reader, etc., may be the object of your dog’s aversion if he has paired their presence with pain and distress.
Another concern is that the system may keep your dog on your property, but it does nothing to protect your dog from anything coming into the yard, including other dogs, kids, balls, or coyotes. As Ms. Anderson states, “The electronic fence offers your dog zero protection over being teased, harassed, or stolen by humans, attacked by other animals, or ingesting or interacting with anything inappropriate that someone tosses into your yard.”
Once more, what happens if a distraction (think squirrel) is so great that your dog blasts through the electronic fence? It is unlikely that he will go back through the fence, or that he will sit quietly by the side of it, waiting patiently for your return. What if he panics and keeps running? What if someone wants to help and tries to drag your dog back through the shock? Your dog has no way to come home and may well protest being exposed to another shock. What if your dog is hit by a car when he bolts or panics?
Ms. Anderson describes other equally disquieting, but not uncommon, scenarios associated with electronic fences, such as malfunctioning collars, your liability, and will your dog really have the freedom of movement as promised, or will he be too afraid of being shocked to even move around the yard? Her article is well worth a read, especially if you are considering this sort of containment system. Be aware not only of the promises, but the risks and unintended consequences of using force and pain to keep your dog “safely” at home.
*See: Choke, Prong, and Shock Collars Can Irreversibly Damage Your Dog, by Dr. Peter Tobias, DVM
**Other articles detailing the problems with shock collars and electronic containment systems:
The Problem with Shock, by Angelica Skeinker, Dog Sport Magazine
The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars, Green Acres Kennel
Electronic training collars present welfare risk to pet dogs, University of Lincoln, Science Daily
Here is my blog on the effects of trauma and punishment on your dog: Trauma, trust, and your dog.
And on a more positive note: Here is an article about boundary training that may be of interest to those who do not want to use an electronic system but need to keep the dog in the yard: How to Clicker Train Your Dog to Stay in the Yard.
That I love talking about dogs and find them endlessly fascinating, will come as no surprise to anyone of even passing acquaintance. And yet, there are times that I am stumped about what to write about in my blog. After trolling through various things I settled on linking to three short articles that I found on Facebook through Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services and/or behaviorist Traci Shreyer.
On March 30 Traci Shreyer posted an article about the long-lasting effects of punishment on our pets. In the study which the article reviews, researchers “taught mice to associate a tone with a mild shock and found that, once the mice learned the association, the pattern of neurons that activated in response to tone alone resembled the pattern that activated in response to the shock.” In other words, the tone alone elicited the same physiological response in the dog as did the shock. And, significantly, “[t]he findings also reveal that the neurons never returned to their original state, even after the training was undone. Although this was not the main focus of the study, the results could have wide-ranging implications for studying emotional memory disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” [Emphasis mine.]
What does this mean for family dogs? It means that after your dog has experienced the tone followed by the shock (from an electric fence or an electronic training collar), from that point on, even if you use only the tone on your shock collar, he will react in the same way as if he were receiving the shock. Every time he hears the tone, he will re-experience the trauma or fear associated with the shock. Even after several repetitions where the shock does not follow the tone, dogs may not show the outward signs of fear (such as freezing or running away), but their neurons will never return to the original state. How this may manifest in your dog is uncertain, but since the neurons never completely recover from the shock or trauma, it isn’t a stretch to think that your dog won’t either.*
Few things strike dread into owners of shy dogs, parents of small children, or frail individuals more quickly than the cry of “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” as an out of control dog races towards them. In a post shared by Reisner Veterinary, blogger PawsforPraise states:
Interestingly, confrontations such as this often play out in jurisdictions where leashes are mandatory. Yet, owners of off leash dogs still sometimes chastise their law-abiding counterparts as if accepting the unwanted advances of their out of control dogs should be acceptable. (It’s not.)
If you have control over your dog (real control, so that he really, truly comes when you call and you are not just saying his name repeatedly in a desperate plea for compliance), then I don’t have a problem with him being off lead in public areas.** But the vast majority of owners do not have this level of obedience, and it is incumbent upon them to keep their dog under reasonable control so that they do not cause injury or trauma to others (this applies to off lead areas such as dog parks as well).
For any dog, especially those who are young, fearful, or reactive, having another dog charge them can be not only scary, but genuinely traumatic, which can result in both short and long term behavior problems. I have helped several dogs recover from being attacked, but as we now know, the neurons involved in trauma never fully recover. And, moreover, most of these pups will need extra support and supervision for the rest of their lives.
The third article, Deadly Trust, by Karen Peak, owner of West Wind Dog Training in Virginia, continues the discussion of off lead dogs and why it might be in the best interest of everyone to keep your dog on lead. After discussing several instances where tragedy could have been prevented by leashing a dog, she says this about what we can really trust regarding our dogs:
I trust my dogs 100% to be dogs. I trust they will do dog things. They will do things others find gross. They may steal food if left unattended where they can get it. They will chase squirrels. They will growl when something is wrong or when playing. If pushed too far, they may nip. They are dogs. My job is to have them build trust in me so they feel comfortable letting me know what is going on. My job is not to trust but to work to increase safety for my dogs and the community. This means leashes, observation, recognizing situations that could set them up to fail and not demanding them to tolerate unfair treatment. My duty to my dogs is to remember they are a different species with different communication and behaviors trying to exist in my life.
Dogs are wonderful companions and their connection with humans can make it seem as if they are on a higher plane than other animals. Perhaps they are. But, if we do not provide for them the security and safety that they need, the resulting trauma can last a lifetime. We do them and ourselves no service if we disregard the very essence of their nature and fail to keep them safe and under control.
*Experience has shown me that it is very difficult to gauge what is traumatic to another person or animal. Something that does not bother you, may be quite scary to someone (think of spiders and how some people are terrified, while others have them as pets). Moreover, you might not be teaching your dog what you think you are when you use punishment. A dog may learn that the lawn is a scary place to be, not that he shouldn’t go to the edge. Or, if he is shocked while barking at a dog, he might learn that dogs cause him pain and he becomes leery, frightened, or even more reactive at the sight of a dog.
** The intent of this blog is not to argue for or against leash laws. My view is that if there is an ordinance requiring your dog to be leashed, then leash your dog even if he is the world’s reigning obedience champion. Dogs are not robots and can be unpredictable or reactive at times, especially when startled. So do everyone a favor and increase your level of control by leashing your dog.
As a positive reinforcement trainer I use a lot of food, especially in the beginning of training, to reward a dog for doing the right thing. Food, in general, is an easy and efficient way to let your dog know that he was on target with the desired behavior and for most dogs, it isn’t something we need to teach them to like. Depending on the circumstances and what we are working on, I will use the dog’s food (if we are in a low distraction situation) or higher value treats if the situation is more demanding or distracting to the dog and I need something to keep and hold his attention. I will eventually reduce the amount of food I use, and switch to other forms of reinforcement, but when teaching a new skill or working under unusual circumstances, I rely on tasty morsels to reward my dog.
If you want to reduce the amount of food rewards you use, the first thing to remember is that it is important to reward your dog every time he does something you ask him to do or that you appreciate him doing. If you want a behavior to increase in frequency or stay strong, it’s important that your dog understand that this behavior is worth his effort. You can begin to reduce the amount of food by combining it with other reinforcements. This is particularly handy when you reach into your bait bag and discover you only have a small handful of treats left. If I need to reward my dog for a particularly good performance and I have just a few morsels (or I want to reduce food rewards), I will pet, praise, play, and strategically throw in a couple of pieces of food. I find that dogs respond very well to 20-30 seconds of wonderfulness that includes all the things that they enjoy: your attention and affection, play, and a snack.
Another way to reduce the amount of food you use is to use it intermittently when reinforcing routine behaviors. If your dog really knows sit, then you don’t need to reinforce with food every time she plunks her bottom on the ground. A “Good Girl!” or scratch under the ear is probably sufficient, most of the time, to reward a sit. However, giving her a treat on occasion will help to keep the behavior strong as she never knows when the treat is coming and it just might be this time! (Think in terms of being a Vegas slot machine. Sometimes you get nothing, sometimes it’s a little, and every once in awhile, it’s a jackpot!) If, however, you ask her to do something routine (such as a sit) in a completely new and exciting environment (such as the entrance to the dog park), it will be much harder for her to comply. Let her know that you appreciate the effort she has put into doing this in a difficult situation by rewarding her with something really meaningful to her.
What do you do, however, when your dog is not food motivated, or is on a restricted diet? In a recent blog I discussed three things to experiment with to determine what is motivating to your dog. I have also written about making a list of 5 things your dog loves that you can use to reward your dog. But, how exactly do you use these things to reward your dog?
Let’s imagine that you are in the back yard and your dog heads over to the fence to bark at the neighbor’s kids. You call him, he stops, looks at you, looks at the fence, and decides to come to you. This tough decision needs to be rewarded in some way! If you have a toy, reward his come with a game of tug, fetch, or chase-me-to-get-the-toy. If you don’t have a toy readily available, then spend a full 30 seconds petting him, scratching his favorite spot, and telling him what a brilliant boy he was!
You can also use play as a way to teach a new behavior. I have a dog who is not particularly food motivated but LOVES to play. To teach her to sit between tosses of the ball I use two tennis balls when we play fetch. I toss the first one and when she brings it back, I show her the second ball. When she drops the first one and sits, the second one is immediately thrown. Off she flies and I pick up the first ball, and the cycle continues. I am using what she loves to do to get her to practice the impulse control (i.e.: sit) that I want from her.
I had a client whose dog had some very unusual dietary restrictions so treats were not an option. Bailey loved squeaky toys, however, so the owner bought several and kept them in a box in the closet with his leash. When walk time came, she would get one of the toys out of the box and tuck it in a pocket or bait bag. When Bailey got overly excited about something on his walk she would say his name, and squeak the toy. Bailey would turn and look at her, and she would give him the toy to hold. This calmed him and he would trot along with his Zen-inducing toy in his mouth until he relaxed enough to drop it. Susan would pick it up, tuck it away, and repeat the process as needed. At the end of the walk, the toy was put back in the box so that it remained special.
Figuring out what your dog loves, what motivates him to check in with you, and what holds his attention, will help you to know how best to creatively reward those behaviors that make you say, “What a good dog!”← Older posts