A Cogent Rebuttal to a Spurious Attack:

A few years ago I was the target of a not-so-nice comment on an internet list. An acquaintance forwarded the comment to me and I replied. Here’s the gist of it…

>>The reason I don’t promote Gary Wilkes is because of his introduction of P+ (positive punishment)into clicker training circles. I would be happy to discuss this privately with you if you wish — just not on this list, as I’m sure you’ll understand. ”

I do not remember which “Ms. Miller” made this comment, but I was obviously responding to a public comment that left no room for public rebuttal. I do not know if my acquaintance actually posted my comments. It’s really a moot point. However this kind of stuff is wide-spread on the internet and depicts the tendency of “all positive” trainers to make insinuations or innuendos without any opportunity for a response from the target. – GW

My Reply:

Unlike Ms. Miller, I would be pleased to discuss this issue publicly, any time. It is important to clear up the misconception that clicker trainers are all positive or that I am somehow “all negative.” In response to Ms. Miller’s comments, I am as pleased to have introduced effective, safe and humane punishment to clicker training as I was to introduce the use of clickers, target sticks and free-standing targets. I created clicker training for dogs as a balanced and broadly applicable method in the context of a veterinary referral based behavior practice. To suggest that a discussion of aversive control was added later is an anachronism. Karen Pryor asked me to do seminars with her because she knew nothing of practical dog training in 1992 and I had already clicker trained over 1,000 dogs. I required that each seminar include a section on aversive control. We did about 20 of them. None of the early clicker trainers got an exclusively “positive” message. That fantasy came after I quit working with Karen because she wanted to promote an ideology rather than sticking to reality. i.e. The same person who gave them target training, an understanding of operant variability and the practical use of clicker training was the same person who also taught how to use aversive control correctly – me. The two topics- aversive and attractive control – cannot be logically separated. That is because positive reinforcement and positive punishment have opposite effects on behavior. One increases behavior and the other stops it. To eliminate punishment is to eliminate the ability to stop a behavior immediately. Why someone would wish to abandon a vital tool for saving lives, I have no idea. On its face it is a pretense to compassion disguising the withholding of treatment and information about treatment known to be effective. In all medical and psychological fields of practice that is considered unethical.

The Real Issue:

The proper use of punishment that allows animals to survive and retain their health and happiness is plainly moral and good. It is ethically identical to veterinary care that causes discomfort but creates or maintains physical health. In fact, failure to provide care that is effective and humane is unethical in all medical professions — and with all moral trainers. Asserting, for instance, that one can teach a kitten to not bite an electrical cord or a puppy to not swallow a sock without some form of real aversive control is an emotionally appealing but often fatal fantasy. Verifiable statistics will confirm that millions of animals are destroyed each year because of simple but fatal behaviors such as jumping on kids, jumping on furniture or chewing shoes.  Note: That a behavior seems innocuous does not imply that it is safe. Consider this photo of a client’s arms delivered by a 12 week old boxer.The effects of puppy biting

The effects of puppy biting

When this immense tragedy is acknowledged, failing to use a tool that offers momentary unpleasantness but insures an animals’ survival is unconscionable. It is a cruel vanity that supports methods that elevate the speaker’s status, fills their check-book and leads to the needless death of hordes of animals.

If you think my comments are simply hyperbole you may want to know what formed my opinions about how to save lives. I spent eight years working in animal shelters and disposing of people’s ill-behaved animals. I have now spent more than 25 years offering behavior services primarily by veterinary referral. I do not exaggerate the problem or its consequences. The kitten that bit the electrical cord was a nine-week-old orange tabby that died in my presence at University Animal Hospital, Tempe, Arizona. The St. Bernard puppy that died from ingesting his second sock within a month had just undergone major abdominal surgery for ingesting his first one. He was in horrible pain and the attendant physical suffering that goes along with having that type of surgery. He had the opportunity to eat the second sock because his owners did not want to “traumatize” their dog by using any form of aversive training. Guess who told them it was traumatic? Obviously, people like Ms. Miller – “All positive” trainers and behaviorists. It struck me as ironic that the dogs’ owners rushed to have someone cut him open, causing great pain and suffering to “save his life”- but killed him by shunning a momentarily unpleasant dose of punishment that could have prevented his eating the second sock. (Or could have prevented him from eating any sock in the first place, thereby avoiding the need for the surgery.)

Would I rather have spritzed that kitten with a squirt gun or bonked an invalid, hurting puppy with a rolled up towel? The answer is, of course. I have successfully stopped life-long aberrant behavioral problems with a formula that uses less than 1% of very controlled and safe punishment along with 99% positive reinforcement for correct behavior. (and in my version of clicker training, punishment of any kind must “do no harm” and be justified by the circumstances or it is not used at all) I have more than 30 years experience at seeing the effects of failing to teach meaningful inhibitions in this manner, whether by neglect or design. While “all positive” trainers make extraordinary claims of the effectiveness of their fantasy-based methodology, they are invariably slow in providing proof that their methods actually prolong the lives of their pupils. Until that proof is forthcoming, there is certainly no moral superiority in claiming to use “all positive” training.

In this country, millions of domesticated animals suffer from problems such as self mutilation, OCD and then face needless destruction because of an absence of correct and skillful use of both reinforcement and punishment. People who are encouraged to adopt dogs have limited resources of time and money and any behavioral solution must take into account those factors. Additionally, if it was your child that had those marks on her arms would you patiently wait to solve the problem? Not likely. I stopped it in a day. Then we got on to the fun stuff. The dog was not traumatized by the process. No harm came to her. She simple confined her biting to appropriate objects rather than getting a one-way trip somewhere else. Philosophies that attack the teaching of demonstrably safe and effective training methods deny those animals a chance for mental and physical health. To deny that care based on whether a method is pleasant or unpleasant for either animal or trainer is neither ethical, responsible nor humane – but simply a form of brash and condescending egotism that has absolutely nothing to do with the welfare of the animals.

For me, I will continue to teach people how to improve their relationships with their animals. I will also continue to use clickers, positive reinforcement, target sticks, small amounts of safe and effective punishment and any other tool that helps to reach that goal — and I already have several thousand examples I can offer as proof of the pudding. For you, the question is whether or not you will provide what an animal needs to lead a happy life or be content to swallow fantasies that most often end the animal’s life. If, like me, you choose life you will have a significant problem. It takes knowledge, practice and skill to use punishment correctly. There is currently no course, text, practical examination or certification in the use of aversive control. Why? Because the “positive” ideologues actively oppose treatment and knowledge of treatment known to be effective. How cruel.

Gary Wilkes


6 thoughts on “A Cogent Rebuttal to a Spurious Attack:

  1. I agree 100% with Gary. We should all be here to try to save dogs, some of these all positive trainers tell the owners to destroy their dogs because their all positive techniques don’t always work. That is such a tragedy. There need to be a balance in training positive and negative in order for the dog to totally understand what is expected. Gary there needs to be a course on how to properly correct a dog. Our goal as trainers should be to save as many dogs as we can. The dogs should be the most important part of the equation!!

  2. Really enjoyed the comments by Gary Wilkes. I love clicker training and positive training, BUT. As a former public school teacher, Montessori school teacher and lover of dogs (I have 3 shelties and 1 pappy) it is silly to believe that nothing can be taught unless it is presented in a positive way. We have all experienced wonderful learning experiences overseen by marvelous inspiring teachers; however, where would our society be if there were no radar to catch speeding motorists, or police to stop burglaries, or ???? Both are needed and the fact that there are police doesn’t make society terrible (only if the police don’t follow the “rules”). And I don’t believe that dogs or cats are any different. I believe that I have a wonderful loving relationship with my dogs and cats. We have a lot of fun together, but there are “rules”. And those rules are enforced. I like to call it communication since a lifted lip during a grooming session tells me that I am brushing a bit too vigorously and pulling the hair, etc. It goes both ways!

    Carolyn Rankin

  3. I think you are misrepresenting positive based training to suit your argument.

    A positive based trainer would no doubt suggest keeping socks away from the St. Bernard, and keeping cords away from experimenting kittens. It is simple–we don’t shock our babies or swat them with newspapers when they are exploring. We child-proof our homes while we guide them with patience and common sense. We can keep our pets safe without scaring or hurting them.

    This is an excellent article about the fallout from negative training: http://eileenanddogs.com/2015/05/05/myths-about-positive-reinforcement-based-training/

  4. Gloria, you are mistaken. I haven’t misrepresented anything. The St. Bernard died because of a thing called entropy. You cannot perfectly remove all targets of pica because the dog is an innate hunter and will find the closest thing to socks – like a hunk of fabric from a couch. The result is a dead dog if that is your strategy. As for the kitten, look at your house for a second. How do you remove all electrical cords from it? The problem you have is that you assume that punishment is nasty, risky and harmful. Yet you use a leash. It punishes free movement. You may use a crate as a time-out – equally an example of punishment. If a dog’s life is at stake a vet will cut a dog to ribbons on request and for hire. Why is far less invasive punishment taboo but cutting the animal’s belly open (a potentially lethal process that includes great pain for weeks after) acceptable?

    As for the “fallout of punishment”, that is simply a litany provided by ideologues. The fallout of not using punishment is dog bites, dog fights, dogs dead in the street and a host of serious problems that can be avoided through understanding the broader ethics of dog ownership. It’s your choice. My neighbors never punished their dog for going out the gate because it was “always latched.” He’s dead now. A child couldn’t reach the latch and didn’t push it all the way closed. He tried to follow them – the result of months of positive experiences. We have a large road near out house. I think you can figure out the rest. If you are actually interested in this topic and not just trying to present your ideology, I have a series of posts about aversive control – just put it in the search box and read them in sequence.

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