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 |

"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.


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

  1. Amelia Johnson


    Thank you for highlighting this topic.I agree with this completely. I have crossed over to positive training and understand where this behavior is coming from. I still see it happening in my classes with owners that have "trained" dogs before. It is not the dog that needs is the pet parent that needs a rewire of the brain.

  2. Margarat

    I find social aversives very valuable. What I've done is learn from dogs how subtle one can be with them. Expressing displeasure with unpleasant/unwanted social interaction by expressing it socially (facial expression, body language, vocalizing) seems fine to me, and effective when done well. It should only be done when one is also using those same skills to show pleasure with what the dog is doing. I can't be unemotional when working with dogs, I can't divorce myself from them socially that much. Sometimes I feel that "no aversives" is veering toward the mechanical - a robot could train a dog. That may be, but it's not natural! The richness of canine social behavior is too good to give up!

  3. Pingback: Victoria Stillwell’s blog « Boogie’s blog

  4. Nev George RE

    Have seen this before and seen people simply walk along with no real communication with the dog. I am currently teaching my Cavapoo to walk on a extending lead so that when he gets to the stop on the lead he sits and waits for me to catch up before moving off again. So far with encouragement he's responding well, he also sit automatically when he gets to a curb, still a way to go but it works because he gets a command even though he knows what is expected of him. Walking home after a run in the park he's an Angel, continually by my side despite having a loose lead. Continued communication along the walk home is always there. At home he's just a sock thief 😀

  5. Tie Dye's Momma

    I was so confused about this use of a leash jerk as a signal of anything but "stop that" in the first class I attended (a puppy STAR through the AKC). I was the only person working her puppy's walk command (<-- I don't like that word, btw.), this one a rescued pit bull, by saying his name followed by "lets go" as I moved my foot. The only person. If you jerk the lead for everything, eventually more head-strong dogs will just learn to ignore it entirely, or overreact to it every time and then where will you be?

  6. Irith Trietsch Bloom

    Hi Erin,

    Try focusing on teaching your puppy where you want her
    to be by using positive reinforcement. For example, you can say "yes!"
    and feed her a treat every time she's in the right place (using a
    clicker to mark the correct position is even more precise, by the way).
    To make things easier for her, practice at first in a bathroom or other
    small room where it's almost inevitable that she will be in the correct
    position relative to you. Gradually move to larger spaces, and then
    try boring outdoor spaces such as a back yard. All of this will help
    her learn that being in heel position beside you is a good idea no
    matter where you are.

    In the meantime, I suggest you get a front-clip harness to help control the pulling.

    I hope these suggestions help! For more information, feel free to contact me (my website is in my profile).

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