How Balanced Dog Training Fails

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Balanced trainers pride themselves on using a mix of positive reinforcement dog training and, when needed, punishment. They might use food and praise or even clicker training. They might also use choke collars, prong collars, or even shock collars. At first glance it sounds pretty good. Let’s use all the tools and techniques available to us. And if the dog does well with positive reinforcement we don’t have to resort to the nasty stuff. Fair enough. Right?

Honestly, I can see the appeal. But I see the trap doors and trip wires, too.

The truth is all dogs do well with positive reinforcement training. We know this because it’s the natural way all organisms learn. No one invented this. We discovered it. It’s a law of nature like gravity. You don’t have to believe in gravity. It just is. You don’t have to believe in positive reinforcement either. It simply is and it doesn’t fail (just like nothing ever falls up). Balanced trainers rest on some binary thinking that seems intuitive. If the dog fails, then we resort to pain or intimidation (the euphamism they often use is “pressure.”) But, here’s the flaw in their logic.  Our dogs don’t fail. Nature has already hard-wired them to learn this way. So, where’s the failure? Why do we so easily reach for the leash correction or the shock collar?

Here’s what I’ve learned. Positive reinforcement is easy for our dogs. It’s hard for us. Don’t misunderstand. The ideas are straightforward and clear. And even the mechanics of doing positive reinforcement dog training are fairly easy. Some of us just have a hard time wrapping our brains around it. We humans are bombarded with punishment and the threat of punishment all day everyday. I can understand how we could see punishment-based dog training as a viable option (or perhaps the only option). Even dog trainers dedicated to teaching with positive reinforcement struggle. We learn and re-learn year-after-year. We need reminding because positive reinforcement doesn’t come naturally to some of us. We know it works. Yes. We can see it working, of course. And yet, we remain blind. A balanced trainer is simply this: a positive reinforcement trainer who lost sight.

Positive reinforcement training teaches our dogs what to do. It’s proactive. Come. Sit. Lie down. Stay. Punishment is reactive. And here’s how else balanced dog training fails. Punishment doesn’t really teach our dog what we think it does. It doesn’t teach him what not-to-do. When the scale tumbles toward using pain and intimidation in training we are tumbling with it into some treacherous territory. Here’s what we’ve learned over the past century about what punishment really teaches.

Escape. We and our dogs retreat from things that are painful or scary. This is as natural as positive reinforcement, but it’s much less precise. A dog escaping a shock by running back to his human can masquerade as good training. But, we are teaching the dog more about what he’s running from than what he’s running to. Don’t count on any lasting dog-human bonding here. There’s also the very real danger of the punishment getting hitched up with other triggers in the environment. Think of ripples in a pond. The shock is scary. Run. But what else is associated with the shock? A bird? A cracking twig? That guy over there? Lot’s of things can start to spook our dog now. Anything can predict a shock and lead to a terrified bolting dog.  Plus, we are sliding dangerously close to Escape’s more troubling cousin.

Avoidance. Sometimes we just shut down. We’re done. I’ve met dogs trained on shock collar fence systems who won’t leave their back porch. I’ve met dogs for whom walks are so punishing they are afraid to go out at all. I’ve met dogs who hide and cower and won’t do anything. Of course, this common effect of punishment doesn’t look like training at all. The dogs get slapped with labels like “stubborn” or even “dominant” when in fact they are just terrified of what could be. It’s sad but not as dangerous as what could come next.

Counter Coercion. That’s the technical term for pushing back. We do it. Some dogs do it. There are plenty of studies now that link painful training with owner-directed aggression. I suspect that the ripple effect of punishment is what leads to dogs lashing out at less culpable targets as well. Violence begets violence. It’s a mnemonic we know well but too often forget when we think of our dogs. And too many dogs end up paying for our forgetfulness with their lives.

I sometimes wonder what life would be like if we constantly supported and encouraged each other’s best behavior choices. And then in the next thought, what if we could start doing that even just a little. What if, instead of crashing into a punishing day, we tilted into the nature of our better angels. What if we could tip the scale all the way to a lighter, more joyful, more natural kind of being – with our dogs and with each other?  What if our lives, in this one beautiful way, were delightfully out of balance?

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training.

Dog Training Begins with our Eyes

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What is your dog doing?

It’s funny. When I ask this people almost always answer the wrong question. He’s acting shy. He wants food. These are answers that come from our brain. These are answers about what we think our dog might be feeling or thinking. But the question is what is your dog doing? The answer to that question does not come from our brain. It comes from our eyes. Look. Pay attention. What is he doing?

We dog trainers (you as a trainer) are in the business of behavior. Behavior is what our dog is doing. Behavior is physical movement in time and space. Behavior is verbs. Watch. What is your dog doing?

Is he walking? Is he running? Is his chest moving? Is his tail wagging? Are his ears twitching? Is he licking his lips? Is he barking? What is happening now in this moment and in this place? These are questions for our eyes. What do we see?

I like to do this. Sit and relax in a chair or on the ground. Watch your dog. Observe without judgement. It’s more fun if he doesn’t know you are watching him. Track his movement. Take note. What is he doing? Don’t worry about good or bad. Let go of what your dog might be thinking or feeling. Notice the actions, your dog’s behavior. Try not to interrupt. Be the dispassionate observer. Jane Goodall. David Attenborough. Ethologist on safari.

It’s fascinating.

After a while go back to life-as-normal. Think of what you saw. What did your dog do? Are there some things you would like to see him do again?  Set aside right and wrong. Think of the things you’d like your dog to do more frequently. What would you ask to see again?

I suggest a short list. Maybe it’s just one action. Observe and reinforce. You can use food. Observe and reinforce. Turn it into a habit. Your dog looks at you. Reinforce. That’s one example. He sits when you walk in the door. Reinforce. That’s another example. Dogs do these things all the time. You’ve seen him do it.

Because you were watching and paying attention. That’s where training begins.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, Texas.

Coronavirus: Our Response – Be Safe and Stay Flexible

Michael Baugh, Houston dog trainerMichael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Anyone who’s worked with me knows I preach this all the time: It only takes a small shift in the environment to  change behavior (sometimes in a big way).  And there aren’t many things smaller than an itty bitty microscopic virus.

Michael’s Dogs Houston dog trainers Victoria Thibodeaux and I are staying flexible and shifting our behavior in response to the change in our environment (I’ll say the name – The Coronavirus that causes Covid-19). Here’s where things stand right now.

We are still doing in-home dog behavior consultations and training lessons. There is no change in our schedule. However, you will notice some slight changes in our behavior.

  • We will ask if we can wash our hands at the beginning of our appointment and maybe again at the end.
  • We will ask that you have your own treat bag (the kind that can clip on to your shorts or trousers). We will not be passing our treat bag back and forth.
  • We will provide you with your own clicker and ask that you keep it. We will also not pass clickers back and forth.

We are waiving the cancellation penalty for illness. You can now cancel or ask to reschedule within 48 hours of your appointment if:

  • You have fever or other flulike symptoms (even the day of the appointment). Call and cancel or reschedule. Note: we will reschedule a minimum of 4-weeks later (time for you to recover and self-quarantine).
  • Anyone in your household has the virus.
  • You have been exposed to someone outside your household who has the virus.

We are on the honor system here. Do not cancel or ask to reschedule if:

  • You forgot your child had a game the same evening of our appointment (they are all probably cancelled anyway).
  • Your hairdresser had an opening and you want to go to that instead.
  • You had too much wine last night and you are hung over today.
  • Any other non-health related reason. Please, just be cool about this.

We will not risk your health in the interest of our financial bottom line. That would be selfish and stupid. We will cancel or ask to reschedule if:

  • We have fever or flulike symptoms. Note: I have seasonal allergies. To make sure I am not otherwise sick I’m taking my temperature twice daily
  • We have been exposed to anyone with the virus in or outside of our own household.

Remote Consultations – We will maintain our commitment to you and your dogs even if you or one of us is quarantined. I’m happy to say Victoria and I have been ahead of the curve when it comes to offering effective remote dog behavior consultations. We will be suggesting these for cases that are most appropriate. We will also honor your request to work remotely with us. Here’s a link to our Video Remote and Phone Consultations Page so you can learn a bit more about it. I’d also be happy to chat with you to share more information about how they work.

Quick Recap: Here are the main points to rememberer.

  • We’d still love to see you in person.
  • Let’s be thoughtful about our in-person meetings (scrub-a-dub-dub).
  • Rescheduling is fine – we may have to reschedule, too (but I hope not).
  • Remote consults are a good option.

Here’s the other thing you know I teach and preach all the time. Behavior changes. That is the nature of things. We can expect the behavior of this virus to change. It will not be as intrusive a factor in our lives forever. We will get through this – and Victoria and I will be here for you and your dogs through it and long after.

Stay safe and stay healthy.