I saw a great post on Instagram tonight from a force free trainer, talking about how she used to use a choke chain with her dog, until she knew better. And when she knew better she did better.
And it got me thinking so much that I started to write my own Instagram post, and that turned into this blog post.
I used to walk my dogs at my side in martingale collars, using "leash corrections" whenever I felt tension on the short leash in my hand. If they were lagging I could "encourage" them along, if they were pulling ahead I could "correct" them back into place. There was no reward for the right behavior, not really. The idea was that pleasing me would make them happy. Really egotistical thinking, but at the time I didn't understand that.
If anything using praise and corrections was confusing. I see that now. What might I do next? Would be it aversive or benign?
Although it's been years since I've used corrections with my dogs, I still see some of the side effects in our current work, especially with my very sensitive pup, Amore.
I regularly see this in my clients, too, when they come from balanced or positive punishment training backgrounds or simply from histories fraught with corrections.
The uncertainty, the ever-present threat of a punishment creates dogs that are afraid to try, in case they get it wrong. It's really, really bad for learning.
Understand that I thought I was doing the right thing. I did as I was taught by the trainer I had hired, who was well-respected and well-established. This actually led to the beginning of my career as a trainer, and I even went on to teach these skills to others.
Most people who use punishment-based or "balanced" training (the use of positive reinforcement and positive punishment) think they are doing what is best for their dogs. Very few people training their dogs want to be assholes.
But remember, friends: impact > intent.
So, okay. I thought that I was helping. I thought I was taking responsibility off of my dog's shoulders by showing them I was "in charge" of the walk. I thought I was helping my anxious dog feel safer. I mean, if she sat frozen and wide-eyed instead of to barking and lunging, those less skilled in reading canine body language might consider her calm. So that seemed good.
No one is arguing that punishment doesn't "work". It does, certainly. And it's very reinforcing for the human:
Quick results! People who say prong collars and shock collars and spray bottles are bad are just soft! They don't understand dogs! Dogs need a leader! Dogs need to be corrected in order to learn! (no, all false, stop)
And then it gets even more complicated. I've never liked prong and shock collars! I wasn't trying to dominate my dog (I didn't think) I was just trying to be a leader for them. I cared about their needs.
But I didn't understand those needs.
I didn't see how punishment-based training was related to what I was doing at all.
I had a treat pouch on me.
I didn't understand that what I was doing was also harmful.
Amore, my sensitive, sweet, fearful little biter.
For years I thought that Amore's behavior was "worse" around me because she was protecting me. Because I wasn't showing her I "had it". I felt awful, inadequate, and like I was failing her.
I now know that her behavior was "worse" because she felt safest with me, despite the ways I was actually failing her.
She was always afraid, whether I was there or not. But her brain chose fight when I was around and freeze when I wasn't. And when she froze (or became very slow and quiet), people mistakenly thought she was fine.
The brain just "picks" whatever seems most likely to help the dog survive the situation, it isn't a conscious decision. It's all a defense mechanism, a response to fear.
Think about that for a moment - how those two different perceptions can radically shape the way we approach the problem our dog is having. Or how we often see it at first - the problem we are having with our dog.
How misinformation and misunderstanding can so drastically affect our dogs' quality of life, their ability to be heard and seen, by the very people that love them most.
I didn't know that I wasn't removing her fear. I didn't know I was teaching her she was helpless. I thought I was helping.
I was taught not to yank on the leash, just "pop" it with my wrist. In balanced training there was a lot of "this isn't bad because another thing is worse". I became super good at this move because I was working as a trainer at an established facility by this point, working with hundreds of dogs so I got a lot of practice getting it right. But there was a learning curve, and people often ended up yanking on their poor dog's neck instead.
I thought I was helping. I wanted to help.
I didn't think about how dangerous it is to have that kind of pressure, that kind of yanking on a dog's neck. I sometimes thought of how it might be uncomfortable to be led around by your neck, but surely if dogs minded, we wouldn't be doing it this way, right?
I thought structured walking was better mental enrichment then non-structured. It made sense to me. It was certainly more work for me to walk my dog this way.
I wasn't thinking from the dog's perspective - about how he sees the world through his nose. About how he can smell the passage of time through the decay of scent molecules. Of the olfactory communication that occurs between dogs. I didn't consider that I was shrinking their world, removing his autonomy.
The thing is that almost anything can be made to sound true if it's said in a certain way. I think we see many examples of that in the world today, not just in dog training.
And when people hire a professional dog trainer, one with a successful business, tons of clients, dogs holding very still and listening very carefully - it seems like it is safe to trust what they say.
After all, they are the professionals, or they seem to be.
There are four quadrants of learning, as you might hear. Balanced training uses all the quadrants, right? I can reward my dog for getting it right, and correct the behavior I don't want, and it's all good, right?
Well, no. And I have a degree in human psychology. So ride with me here:
Reinforcement, telling the dog what you want them to do, activates the seeking part of the brain. The learning part. The memory part. The part of the brain the dog needs to be in to learn most effectively. The part of the brain that the dog is in when he feels safe.
Punishment, on the other hand, activates the part of the brain that wants to survive. The emotional part of the brain. The part of the brain that says fight, flee, or freeze.
There is no doubt that punishment is effective. Sure, it "works". But what does that mean? To what end?
It's kind of exactly like "spanking" (which means hitting) children. (Yep, I'm going there, don't hit your kids either. Because science, that's why.)
There's like, a ton of science saying it's a really bad idea, and there are a ton of people saying they turned out ~~fine~~ despite it.
These are possibly the same people saying their dog is "fine" which is a word most often used to describe dogs who are not at all fine.
In fact, I rarely hear of a dog or human who is "fine" and then actually find that to be true.
So - about behavior change.
We are all just seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. All of us. Including our dogs.
In order to change behavior, we need a reason. Significant reinforcement, or significant punishment.
When something is significantly aversive we run the risk of increasing: - anxiety
- aggression (which most commonly stems from anxiety and fear)
- apathy (learned helplessness, often mistaken for calm)
- aversion (to whatever the dog associates with that punishment)
We literally put the dog in the opposite part of the brain we want them in for learning. Remember the survival brain versus the learning brain.
So when people say, "I don't even have to use the shock collar, I just show him the remote." please understand that is because the dog finds the appearance of the remote to be significantly aversive, and he is afraid. We know this because science.
A nice human comparison is saying, "Oh, I don't hit them, I just have to raise my fist as if I'm going to hit them, and they back down."
Yeah, well, okay, that's still really not cool. That's still harmful. With humans we would call that abusive.
So what happens when you're like me, and you've been taught one way and even taught other people that way, only to find out that you were very wrong.
There are a lot of emotions that come with that.
Sometimes a defensive stance, denial, rebuttals. But often also guilt, shame, regret, anger, and deep sadness. I felt all of those things as I came to really understand my craft as a blend of art and science.
Many folks in the positive reinforcement world are called "crossover trainers". Professionals in the positive reinforcement realm who come from punishment-based or "balanced" training backgrounds.
"Traditional" dog training uses positive punishment. We all know Ceasar Milan made positive punishment with pet dogs a really popular thing by promoting dominance theory and the idea that one needs to be "alpha" over their dog (which is all bullshit) on television.
Undoing that has taken some time, and is still taking time. So, many pros who got their start using prong collars and alpha rolls are now "Modern" dog trainers using cookies and science.
How wonderful that we are learning. How wonderful that we have the opportunity to do better. We know so much more than we used to about dog behavior and cognition, and are learning more every day. How wonderful that many dogs are quite forgiving.
One of the things that I deeply, deeply love about this community is the opportunity to say - I did my best with what I knew at the time, and now I know better. I am doing better now to help my dog live a better life and so I can live a better life with my dog.
I am a better trainer than I was five years ago. I am a better trainer than I was 6 months ago. Growth is a mindset, not an end-point.
If you are a professional who is fortunate enough to have joined the world of dog training using positive reinforcement from the start, consider treating those using balanced and P+ methods with compassion, treating them as future crossover trainers, if you will. Learning theory applies to everyone.
And so if you are in a place where you are realizing you have room to grow, welcome. We are so excited to have you here.
I'm going to keep unapologetically pushing for regulation around the dog training industry. You can read more in my post about The Wild West of Dog Training. And if anyone needs to talk about transitioning away from pain and into partnership, I'm here to listen.