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.

Fixing Real Life Behavior Problems

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

The key to changing unwanted behavior is pretty straight forward. We teach other behavior to replace the stuff we don’t want to see anymore (e.g. we teach standing on all four paws when we want to see less jumping up on people). The truth is, in training sessions this is pretty easy and we get quick results. But, what about real life? What do we do to make sure our good results show up outside of training sessions?

First, make training look like real life. Will you have a treat bag on all the time in real life? No. Okay, slip a couple treats in your pocket and ditch the bag for now. Will you always be sitting, standing, on the floor, or in a particular room in real life? No. Okay, train in various positions and in various rooms. Create a picture of what real life with your dog looks like and train for that.

Then, make real life look like training. Teach your dog throughout your daily life with him.

IMG_9994Use your cues. Bring your training cues into everyday situations. This is the stuff you worked so hard to teach your dog in training sessions, behaviors on cue. Now we are putting that to use in the real world with our dogs. Most of my clients learn “mat”, “touch” (hand target), “come,” “sit,” “down” and other cues. Use those as needed. You taught them – why not benefit from them? Your dog will quickly learn these cues work for him in many different parts of his life. Reinforce generously.

Notice your dog. This is hard for some of us. We are used to cueing behavior (above). But, we are not as used to noticing when our dog is doing something right on his own. Let’s work on that. We want our dogs to self-regulate. We want them making the right choices without having to be told. Look for him doing that – notice it. Reinforce good choices every time you see them. (Reinforcement is an investment in his making more good choices in the future).

Reinforce creatively. Food works. We all know that. So, yes, use food. And, let’s also think of other things our dogs will work for. Play comes to mind. Praise? Meh. But, praise with a big smile followed by play, or food, or a walk, or access to other dogs – that’s pure gold. Mix it up. Always reinforce behavior you want to see more of, whether you cued it or whether your dog offered it on his own. But, make the type of reinforcement you offer a surprise. Good surprises reinforce good behavior.

I often talk about creating a culture of learning and teaching. That’s really what this is. We are making our life with our dogs a nonstop exchange of good for good. We are helping our dog choose good behavior. We are there to support that behavior with good things for dogs. Old fashioned training was a top-down sort of thing. This is a back and forth exchange – communication between two species. Cool stuff. Magical moments that – all put together – make up real life.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in helping families with dogs who have challenging behavior problems.

What Gets in the Way of Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’ve been thinking a lot about why people don’t train their dogs. It’s one of those Holy Grail questions for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants. Why won’t my clients do what I tell them to do? We laid out a great training plan. But they just won’t do what I said.

DSC00639The excuses are as predictable as they are vexing. I didn’t have time. I’ve been so busy. I’m not coordinated enough. I don’t have the right tone of voice. I’m not good enough. Then there are the ones that blame the dog. He’s stubborn. He’s dominant. He won’t do it. He’s too old – too young – too dumb – too distracted. We trainers hear these things – and believe me, we’ve heard them all – and it’s tempting to respond to each one individually in voluminous detail. Of course, in our heads we are much more succinct. No. That’s not true. Stop saying that. Just stop it. Stop.

It’s funny. As I’ve been thinking about this, it’s become very clear that we trainers complain about clients in very much the same tone that clients complain about their dogs. We label our clients. Then we tell stories about them using those labels. You see where I’m going here? It’s exactly what we do with our dogs. Stubborn. Dominant. Distracted. All labels. Each equally useless.

So what’s really going on? Here’s what I think. Those of us who really love training do it because it’s freaking fun – thrilling – a hoot. The process is equal parts suspense (will it work) and joy (of course it will – always does). In other words, our behavior (the act of teaching our dogs) is reinforced. Trainers, professional or hobby enthusiasts, thrive on reinforcement from – wait for it – our dogs. Success. Seeing it work. It’s why we train. It’s what keeps us going.

Side note: dogs learn when they begin to see their actions affect the environment around them. We humans are the best candidates for showing them how that works. Flip side. Trainers learn when we begin to see our actions affecting the environment too – and our dogs fill that bill for us. Who’s training whom? Can’t tell? Good, you’re doing it right.

So what gets in the way of training? New trainers (clients) give up when they haven’t had that first sweet taste of success. It’s like the first episode of a new TV series. If it’s lackluster, you might not keep watching. But if there’s a hook, or even the tiniest bit of a wow moment, you’ll cancel dinner plans and binge watch the whole season. Trainers, even new trainers, depend on reinforcement. Absent the reinforcement, the behavior dies. Training fails.

Now, I’m not blaming your dog for not reinforcing you properly. That’s not how this works. He’s potentially as bored and checked out as you are. What we need here is just a little spark, something to get the conversation started between you two. We need to set the table for that first taste of back-and-forth reinforcement. Some delicious quid pro quo.

Do this: start simple. Just a taste. I intentionally teach hand targeting to all my clients first. (Now you know my secret). It’s the appetizer – the ice breaker – the first reinforcer for the dog and the human. You do this and I do that. Oh my goodness, I did that and you did this. And we’re up and running. Easy peasy.

But hold on, not too fast. Start simple, yes, and build gradually. Set yourself up to succeed every step of the way. Set your dog up to succeed, too. When we rush the process things can falter and we end up starving ourselves of reinforcement. Our dog stops responding and we lose that thrilling feeling of success. We pushed too far too fast. That’s when all those labels and damaging stories we tell about our dogs start creeping back.

Stop it. Just stop.

Dail it back and shake it off. Get yourself tall cool glass of winning. Work on something easy with your dog – maybe a trick that makes you laugh. Taste the success. Show your friends. Make them laugh too. Reinforce the dog’s behavior generously. Move around a bit. Go for a hand target or a sit. Reinforce again. Feel the reinforcement. Then, and only then, are you ready to circle back to the main course of incrementally more challenging tasks. Take it easy on yourself and your dog. Little by little. Sure and steady.

Here’s the bottom line. You can train your dog. And here’s the bottom line to the bottom line. You can learn to love training, too. Okay and here’s something even better. You’re in control. Yes, I’ve had some philosophical thoughts about control in the past, but what I mean is you can set all this up to work for you. For your dog. You can do this.

And when you feel like you can’t – email me – use the subject line “I’m stuck” if you want. I’ll help you clear your head so you can get back up to the buffet for another plate full of reinforcement – rich and delectable success.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX.