Many years ago an experiment now known as the “Little Albert Experiment” was conducted by psychologist John Watson and his graduate assistant, Rosalie Raynor. They exposed a nine month old boy, “Albert B”, to a series of objects, one of which was a white mouse. Little Albert showed no fear of any of them. During one trial, the presentation of the mouse was paired with a hammer hitting a metal pipe. Startled and frightened, Albert began to cry. Following several repetitions pairing the mouse with the loud noise, Albert began to react as soon as he saw the mouse alone. His fear of the mouse soon generalized to any white, furry object including the assistant’s fur coat and a white Santa beard worn by Watson – an unintended outcome. (Please note this experiment is considered highly unethical by today’s standards and would not be repeated).
What does this have to do with dog training? Everything! The results we get when we work with dogs are sometimes unintentional ones. The use of force and intimidation in training may create undesired and unplanned outcomes, fallout from the punitive methods. Consider the study done by Schilder and van der Borg in which German Shepherd Dogs were trained for guard duties, some with the use of shock, some without shock. Dogs trained using the shock continued to show body language consistent with stress and pain even during exercises given later in which shock was never used. “The conclusions, therefore are, ..that the S-dogs [dogs on shock] evidently have learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announces reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context” (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016815910300248X). The GSDs linked the shock to their handlers even in exercises where the shock was not in use. Albert linked the mouse to scary sounds and generalized it to any white furry object. The use of punishment and fear when training dogs may cause associations and reactions which are unintended and undesirable.
The implications of these findings should serve as an alert to each person who trains her dog. Should one choose to use punishment, be prepared for unintended consequences. Creating fear and anxiety in a dog to obtain a desired behavior or to stop some unwanted behavior certainly can work, but the dangers of associating the punishment with the handler or generalizing it to someone or something else is setting up a scenario for disaster. It may happen unintentionally, but the results are still the same.
Consider the dog who is shy of other dogs either due to poor early experiences or genetics or a combination of the two. Walking on leash with his handler, he tries to increase the distance between himself and another dog by growling or lunging. The handler immediately reacts by yanking the leash and creating pain for the dog, then giving the dog a stern reprimand of “no!” If this fails to work, a trainer who relies on aversives will advise the handler to increase the severity of the punishment. These punitive actions may suppress the behavior temporarily, but another behavior will replace it and it may be even worse than the first problem behavior – an unintended outcome of the punishment. There is also the risk that the dog will habituate to the harsher punishment, requiring the intensity to become so severe that it eventually injures or kills the dog.
Now consider training which works to avoid negative, unintended consequences. How would a trainer who understands respondent (classical) and operant conditioning, a trainer who avoids force and pain, handle the scenario above? She’ll use methods which desensitize the client’s dog to the presence of another dog by creating wonderful experiences when the other dog is in view. Once the reactive dog has stopped acting fearfully and begins to happily anticipate the presence of the other dog, the trainer will build in acceptable alternative behaviors for the dog to perform. The outcome becomes one of associating strange dogs with the occurrence of good things. And the handler? She is associated with good things as well – an intended, desired consequence of positive training.
Positive reinforcement training is not about “touchy-feely” emotions or viewing the world with rose-colored glasses. It is firmly rooted in science. Giving the dog a cookie does not equal positive training when the dog is also forced into a sit or down position, given leash corrections, or made to wear a choke, prong, or shock collar. Those of us who refute “balanced” and force training do so because we understand how learning works and we also understand the fallout associated with punishment. We want the consequences from our training to be good ones, not ones that will make a dog shut down or cause a reactive behavior to escalate to the point where euthanasia is the final option.
It is wise for each handler to be aware that methods which create distress in the dog will not serve the best interest of either being. We have come too far to regress to methods which may cause unintended and undesirable outcomes. We have options which will create positive outcomes for both beings. The results of our training will be directly linked to the path we choose.
Jan Casey, MS, DipCBST – Companion Animal Sciences Institute
Senior Behavior Consultant – Courteous Canine, Inc/The DogSmith of Tampa
Pet Professional Guild Charter Member
Association of Animal Behavior Professionals
Canine Good Citizen Evaluator