It’s a new year. Time for good resolutions, right? Let’s resolve to stop punishing our dogs by accident.

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Photo by Kevin Lowery | www.kevinlowery.com

"But I'm a positive trainer, I don't punish!" you say. Well, I think we sometimes do, and don't realize it.

I'm not talking about reprimand. That's a social act. A puppy gets too rough and Mama dog growls. A canine nose gets a bit too near the cheese and crackers on the coffee table, and you speak warningly.

That's communication, and it's legal, in my opinion (unless it becomes ALL you do, and replaces actual teaching—and I do know pet owners and parents who lean that way). I'm also not talking about naturally occurring aversives (an aversive is any event that one might find unpleasant.)

Here's Kay Laurence on that topic: "Dogs get plenty of 'aversives' in every day life. My Gordon Setters regularly run into the door in misjudging the gap, stub their toes, fall off the bed, go the wrong side of a tree, etc. Hey, that's life. But it's not good teaching."

What I am talking about is aversives that even "positive" trainers use deliberately, to affect behavior. Here's a popular one. I see it all the time. The dog is on leash, quietly standing or sitting next to its owner. The owner gets up and starts to walk away. These owners typically don't look at the dog, they don't speak to the dog, they just start off, and as they do so, they jerk the leash. That's how they tell the dog, "Come with me."

Even if the dog is already moving with them, bang! That little leash pop. Why?! A few years ago, I finally got annoyed enough with this to make a ClickerExpo demonstration around it. I picked someone with a large, pleasant young dog, who was doing this leash jerk faithfully every time she sat down or stood up or moved. We got a chair for her to get in and out of. I told her when to move, and I clicked her for giving the dog a verbal cue before moving. I tried to foil that well-honed habitual yank by putting the leash in her "wrong" hand. It was hard for her; she really thought she had to give that leash pop. It was easy for the dog.

When I finally stopped the popping by taking the leash off altogether, the dog, almost prancing, eagerly glued itself to the owner's side while she stood, sat, stood, and walked. "Whew! What a relief," said the dog's happy face. Everyone laughed. Obviously, the dog had learned very well how to pace itself to the owner's moves, and was glad to do so. The yanks were completely gratuitous punishment.

Teaching aversives as requirements
Someone, I could see, had put a good deal of effort into making that owner a consistent punisher. "Probably you've been scolded for NOT popping the leash every time," I ventured, and indeed heads nodded all over the room. So, aversives are used on the owners, to make them use aversives on the dog. And does it do any harm? Oh yes indeed.

In the course of one morning at ClickerExpo, these well-behaved dogs might receive dozens of unexpected aversives. Pop pop pop. They get a yank while lying down quietly (surely a good thing to be doing?) or while standing still next to their owners (another good thing) or while walking with them as they change direction or stop at the elevator door or start down a hall. There is nothing they can do to avoid the pop; even skillfully anticipating their owners' every move does not bring relief. No wonder they wear facial expressions of patient resignation, like most horses.

Major vs. minor?
The question is NOT how major or minor the aversive is. The question is, why use it when you don't have to! I quote Kay Laurence (©2003 Learning About Dogs): "If I am teaching a dog, I avoid every atom of punishment or removal of something good to get the behavior. It is not a question of how aversive, it is the thought that aversive is a method to get a behavior. The actions are an indication of the thought process that aversives are part of the teaching process.

I will say, 'Let's just find another way.'" We all think we're "positive" trainers. But training with reinforcement involves more than just being nice, and more than using reinforcers. It involves creating a climate of security in which it is safe to learn new things, and safe to rely on what you've already learned. In this climate an animal can learn to control itself, rather than being controlled by you. In this climate, rather than just reacting to the environment like an untutored shelter dog, barking at every noise, plunging towards every attraction, jumping on everyone and everything, mouthing and smelling and grabbing—an animal becomes confident and calm. In this climate, having confidence that your cues are meaningful and will lead toward pleasant goals, the dog is trusting and—this is very unscientific—the dog is happy.

A happy New Year for dogs
So, in this New Year, let's resolve:
1. Whenever an aversive seems like the "answer" to a "problem," find another way.
2. Give up the leash pop. Period. Don't use it as a tool, as a cue, as a correction, or as a habit. Speak to the dog, before you move. Then teach the dog that going with you, whenever and wherever you go, is a clickable behavior. It won't take five minutes. And your dog will be so pleased.


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Positively Expert: Karen Pryor

Karen Pryor is the CEO of Karen Pryor Clickertraining and Karen Pryor Academy. She is an active, leading spokeperson and teacher for effective force-free training around the world. Karen is the author of six books, and her 40-year career working with and educating scientists, professional trainers, and pet owners has changed countless lives.


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