Pawfully Pawsitive Weekend Dog Blog: Ranting, a rant

happy charlie
I rant in my head a lot. About dog-human communication gone wrong, e-collars, extendable leads, slip leads, telling off a scared dog… a lot. So I was all set to start a ‘rant day’ blog series where each week I would rant about something new. It would be easy to write, and funny to read!

When I got to ranting in my head about saying No to dogs and punishing them for doing the wrong thing instead of praising them for doing the right thing a little lightbulb went off in my head. The reason we sometimes find it tricky to switch from punishing the bad to rewarding the good is the same reason that I have a million rants. It’s easy to come up with annoyances and fun to think about them, we all do it.

But it’s more powerful to think about interactions or things we want and ways to make it happen.

The times I see clients (and me!) struggle with reward based training is not when we teach new things, but when we want to stop annoying behaviour. It makes sense to teach a sit, or a down or a retrieve by rewarding the dog when it gets it right. But when we get a dog that jumps up, or runs after a deer the easiest thing is to punish. I also understand when ‘balanced’ or ‘traditional’ trainers believe that ‘positive’ trainers ineffectually throw treats at a ‘naughty’ dog. Because some not so great trainers do! Of course, you don’t even notice the skilled modern trainers because they have already trained an alternative behaviour and have polite dogs.

I think of myself as a science based trainer. This means that I think a lot about what behavioural science says and I analyse situations using the tool behavioural science gives us. Essentially that is usually ‘classical conditioning’ (thanks Pavlov! and ‘Operant Conditioning ‘ (Thanks Skinner! Hey it even works on humans… It makes things a lot easier. You don’t need to remember a lot of stories about wolves or rules about who eats first and worry about whether your dog is somehow in a war for dominance… you just need to understand body language and how to analyse inputs and outputs.

In operant conditioning when we think about punishing our dogs, say by kneeing them in the chest when they jump up, we are talking about ‘positive punishment’.

This blog post is largely about why I spent the effort to recast my instinct for positive punishment to stop my dog doing something annoying into either negative punishment or by working out what I want to dog to do instead and positively rewarding that. In our jumping up case that means I would withhold the reward the dog gets when it jumps up, so I ignore it (negative punishment) or by training a sit and rewarding that with lots of fuss.

All the science terms can get pretty confusing. As a short cut, this is what I do when a dog does something annoying or inappropriate:

1. Work out what the dog is getting out of doing the thing and then take that away
2. Work out what I want the dog to do instead and train the dog to do that instead

Simple! And I didn’t even have to hit a dog or get a degree in behavioural science…

Okay, you, my lovely reader, is saying. This seems like a lot of effort. What’s wrong with just shouting at the dog? I like ranting and I’m not like, abusing the dog, and he still loves me so why go to all this bother?

• Science says positive punishment is less effective over the long term. I was all set to write a huge paper on this, when I realised that the Gun Dog Club recently did it for me…. Thanks!
• Positive punishment is hard to do well and most pet dog owners don’t. If it worked you wouldn’t have to keep shouting no at your dog would you? What does the normal pet owner find so difficult about it? Timing and how nasty the dog finds the punishment. You need to time the punishment so that the dog understands that it is a consequence of its behaviour, otherwise the dog just thinks you randomly shout at it or hit it. Also the dog must find the punishment horrible enough that it is worth giving up the reward the behaviour brings in itself. Just shouting No is unpleasant but usually not unpleasant enough. The big difference I see with how effective traditional punishment using dog trainers are versus people who have pets is that they understand timing and make sure they only use things that are nasty enough to work.
• Positive punishment goes wrong, and when it does it can really go wrong. Google Caesar Milan getting bitten. Think about it from the dogs’ perspective. You are doing normal doggy things then BAM! You get hit. What do you do? Some dogs, like some people, are easy going, but a good % of them with react by biting. ( is a nice summary of the science by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (yeah they can’t spell behaviour).
• I like my dogs and I like them to like learning. Other side effects of punishment can be that the dog comes to associate training with being uncomfortable or worse, comes to associate me with being uncomfortable. This is not why I have pet dogs. I have them because I like them and enjoy being with them. I enjoy training them. I want them to enjoy my company and enjoy training too. It makes for faster and better learning. For example, when you were at school did you learn quicker in the classes where the teacher made it fun, or the classes when you thought the teacher would randomly shout at you? Thought so.

Does this mean I have rude dogs? Well actually I do have a rude dog. Her name is Boo, I’ve had her 3 months and she came to me only with the manners the rescue staff and fosterer could teach her in a few months, when a lot of that time was dedicated to making her healthy again after being starved and neglected. But give me 6 months and I will have a polite dog. One who sits for attention, comes when called, doesn’t snatch food from your plate and doesn’t pull on the lead. Not using positive punishment doesn’t mean I don’t believe that dogs shouldn’t have manners. I just work out what the dog is getting out of the bad behaviour and take that away and I train the behaviour I want instead.

Which brings me to the Pawfully Pawsitive Weekend Dog Blog. It’s not going to be a weekly rant. Instead, I’ll work out what I want to see instead and I’m going to talk about how great that is. Hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I will writing it.

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