Dogs Behavior and its Correction
Dog owners often feel that their dog must be punished to get rid of his aggressive dogs behavior. Unfortunately, even after punishing the dog, even when it was done under the instruction of a trainer, these dog owners end up calling someone like me because their dog still behaves aggressively. When I worked with aggressive dogs in private practice, I often got calls from people whose dogs weren’t any better, or who were worse, after such training. On the other end of the technique spectrum are trainers who refuse to use anything but treats and kindness to work with aggressive dogs, no matter what the dogs did. Pet owners often don’t understand why these trainers don’t want the dogs to experience any stress at all.
I understand both sides.
It’s true that a lot of “positive” trainers don’t use punishments like shock collars or other painful techniques. They are right that corrections can be harsh, and some of us don’t have the stomach for it. But there’s a reason we don’t have a stomach for it, and it’s not because we’re too soft for this work. I also don’t have the stomach for what some dogs do during aggressive episodes. The injuries inflicted on people by aggressive dogs is sometimes extreme. It’s perfectly understandable that someone in a fit of fury might lash out at a dog in a punishing way in response to aggression. It’s understandable, but it’s not helpful. Losing your temper, no matter how understandable it is, probably won’t solve the problem. It may make it worse.
As suggested in the epigraph at the beginning of this chapter, aversives occur in everyday life, but they only serve the purpose of teaching us to avoid things that are aversive. If we hurt a dog for attacking someone, what is he going to avoid? He’s going to try to avoid being hurt again in whatever way works best to achieve that outcome. Is he going to avoid punishment by simply never behaving aggressively again? I wish it were that simple.
Corrections (punishments) work by causing certain dogs behavior to decrease in certain contexts. What they don’t do is build desirable behaviors to replace the aggression. A dog may respond to corrections by not behaving aggressively in the presence of his owner anymore, but instead he may only behave aggressively when left for grooming. Or he may respond by attacking anyone who gets in the way, something trainers refer to as redirected aggression. Or he may start chewing holes in the skin of his leg.
Seriously. The dog may start hurting himself when he can no longer control his world with his aggression and he isn’t given more useful tools to use. He may exhibit a wide variety of dogs behavior that are just as bad or worse than the original problem. Our goal with CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment) is to build desirable dogs behavior that the dog is more likely to perform than aggressive behaviors.
We don’t want to create an animal who lashes out at strangers or his owner or who injures himself. We want an animal who knows a range of alternatives to aggression that will solve his problem safely. Our training should always focus on giving the dog more acceptable tools for dealing with problems he encounters.
If the problems with punishment were just about not wanting to be mean, but I knew that being mean for a moment would resolve a serious aggression problem quickly and effectively, it wouldn’t be such a big deal to quickly correct an unpleasant dogs behavior and move on. I would do it myself if it were that simple. However, being mean can backfire.
Make no mistake. I am not teaching people to punish their dogs. While I urge you to learn how punishment works, I very strongly caution you against using punishment or corrections as training or rehabilitation tools. I am discussing it here in some depth because punishment is what people tend to defer to when they’re faced with a badly behaving dog. But there are too many risks, both subtle and bold, for you, your dog, members of your family, and your community that can come along with the use of punishment. If you’re reading this book to learn about how to reduce your dog’s aggression, please understand that using punishment to treat aggression often makes the aggression worse in various ways.
A prong collar is not part of CAT or any other “positive” training method.
I consider it my responsibility to talk openly about punishment because it is the most natural, knee-jerk, ready-at-a-moment’s-notice response to aggression we have at our disposal, and people use it as a dogs behavior change tool for aggression more often than any other tool. When our dog does something we don’t like, such as lunging at Grandma or biting the mail carrier, it’s a very common human reaction to just spank him. It’s embarrassing and scary when your dog behaves like that, and you just want it to end. So you react like the animal you are, putting your brains aside for the time being, and you punish. This is not a moral failing. It’s just not a skillful way to deal with the problem. In order for you to behave skillfully, we’ll need to build a strong nonpunitive repertoire for you. Just like your dog, you need a tool kit of preferred things you can do—things that will work better and that will be safer.
Most people define punishment as something we do to a misbehaving person or animal to make him or her stop whatever he or she is doing; with dogs, examples include scolding, spanking with a hand or rolled-up newspaper, or zapping with a shock collar. The reason we almost automatically use punitive measures is that they almost always work to interrupt the dogs behavior in the moment, at least when the dogs behavior is new. Many of us have never learned any other dogs behavior change tools for problem behaviors. But when we look at the big picture, we see that although we scold or swat or shock, the learner stops for a moment but later repeats the same problem dogs behavior, except now he only does the bad dogs behavior when his owner isn’t around. So we scold and swat, and they growl and lunge, and we scold and swat some more. A vicious cycle. Why do we keep on scolding and swatting? Because those actions usually interrupt the dog’s problem dogs behavior, and that interruption is valuable to us at that moment. However, by correcting the dogs behavior, we don’t change how the dog will react to something aversive to him in the future. The dog will still growl, bark, lunge, and maybe bite.
Using a prong collar to “correct” your dogs behavior may have the opposite effect
But there is a more precise definition of punishment. When I use the word punishment from here on, it will be with this simple but scientific definition: punishment is a process through which a dogs behavior is consistently followed by a consequence and, as a result, the dogs behavior occurs less often in the future.
There’s a dogs behavior. There’s a consequence, like a spanking. And the dogs behavior happens less often after the dogs behavior and consequence happen together.
That’s punishment. It’s the opposite of reinforcement. It destroys dogs behavior rather than building it, and in the place of the destroyed dogs behavior is an opening for something else. Anything else. Because punishment doesn’t address the issue of what the dog should do instead. If the dogs behavior continues to happen just as much in the future, it’s not punishment. It’s just a consequence that could be completely neutral and have absolutely no effect, or it could be something that makes the dogs behavior stronger (reinforcement). Sometimes it could be a consequence that results in an increased rate of the dogs behavior, and we’re going to talk about that later. For now, if you don’t see less of the dogs behavior in the future, it’s not punishment. And sometimes it can qualify as abuse.
Punishment happens naturally in the world all the time. Most of us only put a hand on a hot stove one time. Boom. Dogs behavior punished. Sometimes we gradually stop hanging around with a grouchy person because the person keeps being grouchy to us. Dogs behavior punished, just slower.
Punishment can increase a dog’s fear and make him more likely to behave aggressively.
Most people are terrible at administering punishment to get the results they want. Although we often expect a dogs behavior to change because we punish him, the way we dole out punishment (or as traditional dog trainers say, corrections) isn’t quite that reliable. Usually we do something harsh to our dog when he is behaving “badly,” and this interrupts the dogs behavior just long enough for us to get some relief. What happens in the future? Chances are, the problem dogs behavior is going to happen again when the overall situation tells the dog that this dogs behavior is going to get him the best results. The dog essentially risks a punishment from his momentarily insane owner to get a bigger reward: riddance of a terrifying stranger. Yes. Your dog may endure your corrections when he doesn’t see any other option. He’s not thinking very clearly at the moment. At the same time, he knows that sometimes his owner isn’t insane. Sometimes his owner is great. But your dog doesn’t have any reason to trust the stranger. You’ve got to convince him that trusting the person will be a safe thing to do.
To effectively eliminate problem dogs behavior with punishment, you have to meet some specific criteria that are pretty hard to achieve.
1. You have to figure out what punishment method will work with your dog, and that presents a pile of problems right off the bat. You have to try out a bunch of different methods to see what will work on him. Do you hit him, shock him, put him in his crate for time out, or what? This is a big ethical challenge that could very easily turn into abuse, even though you truly love your dog. Next, you have to understand that what worked on your last dog may not work on this dog or may have a different effect on this dog. Your last dog may have just cut it out when you yelled at him once, and it was never an issue again. But the dog you have now may not be that easy. That doesn’t make him a bad dog. That makes him a different dog.
2. You have to administer punishment immediately when the problem dogs behavior happens. You can’t wait until it’s all over and you’re walking back home to swat your dog for barking at a stranger and expect him to stop barking at strangers, right? All that will do is teach your dog that the walk home is going to be dangerous after he’s been in a fight, which means that the walk home could become dangerous for you, too. You can’t tell him, “Just you wait until your father gets home!” If you punish too late (or too soon), you’re likely to punish the wrong dogs behavior.
3. You have to punish if and only if the problem dogs behavior happens, not when you make a mistake and shock at the wrong time, or when you think he was going to do something you want to punish but he was actually going to do something else. So, as you see, to use punishment effectively, you also have to be a doggy mind reader.
4. You have to punish as hard as necessary, but you have to do it while keeping those other criteria in place: use what works, do it right away, do it every time, only do it if he actually does the dogs behavior (never if he doesn’t), and do it hard enough to be effective. Ideally, you want the punishment to work so well that you only have to do it one time. Seriously. You have to punish the living daylights out of that aggressive lunge. Your heart will hurt ‘til it bleeds, and it will definitely hurt your dog. Done precisely, the punishment can get rid of that problem dogs behavior in that situation while opening a space for other problem behaviors to occur. But sufficient precision is incredibly difficult, success is not guaranteed, and it all comes with a lot of very big risks.
Many times, we start out with a light attempt at a correction: “Now, Buster, don’t growl at Mr. Jones.” Buster glances away, which makes us think it worked, but when he keeps growling at people on future walks, we move to threats (streams of intense words he doesn’t understand), shouting, swatting, and worse. What does he do? He toughens up. He builds a tolerance to harsher and harsher punishments until they don’t seem to faze him at all. That gradual escalation of intensity is how he learns to tolerate it; in this way, you are actually helping your dog build up a tolerance to aversive consequences. Try using physical punishment on a 150-pound Mastiff who has built up a tolerance to it—it’s not going to be pretty. (Word to the wise: Start that Mastiff as a puppy with positive-reinforcement training and make cooperating with you fun so that you won’t have to fight him when he’s older and larger and in his prime.) It is far, far better to build desirable dogs behavior with positive reinforcement than to think you can control your dogs behavior with force.
A large dog who tries to defend himself from punishment can cause a lot of damage
Effectiveness issues aside, using severe punishment on those who depend on you for everything is just not right. It’s a big ethical and moral problem. It’s extraordinarily difficult to perform punishment correctly, and it’s very easy to screw it up—not to mention that it’s also a tragic breach of trust between you and your dog. A lot of times, a dog will respond to his punishing owner with submission by rolling onto his back, crouching, and crawling up to lick his owner under the chin, but this does not indicate that the dog thinks his owner is the best person ever. It means he knows he has to watch out for his owner. These behaviors mean that he’s trying to convince his owner that while he might be a little like Cujo, he’s basically a good dog and won’t cause any trouble. He’s saying, “Please don’t hurt me.” I’m sad to say that this happens with human children as well. I knew a foster mother who said that her foster children appreciated being spanked because they would approach her afterward, wanting to be held and saying, “I love you.” It’s the same thing. Those kids were trying to reinforce nonviolence in their caregiver because they were absolutely dependent on the safety that person represented.
You could argue that a hard, timely punishment that eliminates the problem dogs behavior once and for all is, indeed, ethical, because it saves the dog from possible euthanasia, and it makes the family and community safer. There is logic to that. But there’s one other ethical component to the decision to use punishment as dogs behavior change tool. Dr. Richard Smith, associate professor and former department head of the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas taught that if you’re going to resort to punishment, you must first (1) make sure you have tried all nonaversive techniques and (2) consult people who know dogs behavior better than you do. And I assure you, there are people who know more than you do, no matter who you are. There’s always someone.
Dr. Smith was talking about working with humans with severe dogs behavior problems, but, from my point of view, the same criteria should apply to the aggressive dog. The dog can do a lot of harm, so people’s lives and safety are at risk; typically, if he does attack, his life is then in danger, too. It’s easy to go down to the pet-supply store and buy a shock collar and start shocking the dog for behaviors you don’t like, but don’t do it. It’s not right for stores to sell that stuff to begin with. If you find you are in a quandary about what to do instead, finish reading this book and work with a skilled trainer who knows how to work with aggressive dogs without the use of punishment. Punishment must be considered a last resort to be used only when all else has failed and only in partnership with a skilled trainer.
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