Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 5

The ancient Romans had a saying that behavioral scientists and modern dog trainers don’t seem to get. Abusus non tollit usum – theR3H abuse of a tool is not an argument against its proper use. To truly compare reinforcement and punishment means you examine both tools used correctly. That is rarely done. Instead, a biased and illogical perspective is presented that confuses people and blocks treatment known to be effective while fostering treatment known to cause problems. Meaning most “all positive” behaviorists talk out of both sides of their mouths. Here’s how that happens…

Modern trainers and behaviorists say that positive reinforcement, used scientifically, can control all behavior problems. In essence, only brutish Neanderthals use punishment because it’s not necessary. Here’s a quote from Victoria Stilwell – actress turned dog guru…

Modern behavioral science has proven that forceful handling such as physical punishment, leash yanking, or making a dog submit by rolling iits-me-or-the-dog-s1_200x113t on its back is psychologically damaging for the dog and has potentially dangerous consequences for owners. Instead, the most successful modern training theories suggest that reinforcing good behavior with rewards while using constructive discipline is much more successful.”

Modern trainers and behaviorists also caution that many problem behaviors are caused by inadvertent reinforcement. They use this logic to “blame the victim” – the owner who cannot control his or her dog. To stop this owner-created bad behavior, they say we must eliminate the reinforcing contingencies that are connected to it. OK. That makes sense. Here’s the kicker. That means that positive reinforcement is the “cause” of the bad behavior. Oops. They let the cat out of the bag. If positive reinforcement can cause bad behavior, why would it be the logical solution to all behavior problems? i.e. Here is the key to their double-speak. Apparently, any use of aversive control can cause catastrophic side effects but they admit that positive reinforcement causes catastrophic primary effects!  Wait a minute, that’s not supposed to be the narrative. Punishment is supposed to be evil. Positive reinforcement is supposed to be a panacea. The only way you can reconcile this is if you consider that using all tools correctly is the most critical factor in solving a behavior problem, not which modality you use. Otherwise it is incomprehensible that these experts know that positive reinforcement can cause serious problems yet offer no warnings about its use.

One other point. It’s not positive reinforcement done incorrectly that causes problems it’s positive reinforcement working exactly the way it’s supposed to. Punishment done correctly solves problems, yet they attack punishment in all cases. If positive reinforcement leads to a dog’s death and punishment leads to a dog being scared, which one is more dangerous? Is death worse than fear? Meaning they do not analyze both effects by the same yardstick or analyze the outcome of the procedure done correctly. Did you notice that I proposed the possibility that positive reinforcement can cause a dog’s death? Want an example?

Every puppy born in a household jumps up on people because they were DogJumpPromotaught to do so with positive reinforcement. Later, as adults, this behavior is likely to injure a human or be the cause of the dog’s death. (Jumping dogs are most often taken to shelters where 80% don’t make it.) i.e. Positive reinforcement can be lethal. The behavior is the result of positive reinforcement and cannot be stopped by positive reinforcement.


Dogs eat cow-hide. If a dog eats a leather shoe because it resembles a raw-hide chew toy and develops an intestinal blockage, the blockage is the result of the positively reinforcing effects of the raw-hide chews. The behavior is self3193_8155-17367_2_s0-reinforcing. After a surgery, if it happens again the dog is more likely to die. Stopping the behavior and creating an inhibition to future shoe eating is the logical solution. This is my dog, Petey, by the way. He had a freak obstruction from something that shouldn’t have obstructed his bowel and left three vets scratching their heads.

Most dogs are kept under house-arrest their whole lives. When they break free and run through the neighborhood, they most often get hit by cars. That happened to my neighbor’s dog recently. He slipped out the gate to try to follow them as they drove away. The behavioral effect responsible for his death was positive reinforcement in the form of exciting, new adventures, playing with other dogs, getting into garbage cans and peeing on anything upright.

“Positive” trainers and behaviorists will object to my examples because these aren’t behaviors they teach to people. Meaning, “we don’t teach dogs to do that.” This is another example of their lack of understanding of fundamental principles of behavior. Positive reinforcement is a natural phenomenon, like gravity. Just because I didn’t drop the rock on your head doesn’t mean that gravity isn’t the reason it hit you. Whether or not reinforcement is provided by a human with some underlying goal is irrelevant. If the dog is seeking something and the behaviors that generate that goal are strengthened, it’s positive reinforcement. Anyone who does not acknowledge that fact is trying to sell snake oil. However, you will find a lot of behavior analysts who sell PhD approved snake oil, as do their acolytes.

So, let’s take them at their word. We will only examine positive reinforcement that kills if the human intended to strengthen a behavior. Some people intentionally let their dogs run loose. i.e. The reinforcement for running is not an unintended consequence. The majority of dog owners encourage their dog to growl and be protective in their house. i.e. That is an intentional and correct use of positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood that the dog will bite someone. In both cases the logical end is death. Positive trainers and behaviorists believe, literally in a very dangerous mantra – “Death before discomfort.” The results of that mantra lie in landfills all across the country.

The real problem is the use of one effect, positive reinforcement, to increase behaviors and the complete absence of punishment – the effect that stops behaviors. This is like having a car with a gas pedal but no brakes. (Here’s a safety tip. If you have a car with no brakes, don’t drive it. ) Worse, the people who do not want a car to have brakes don’t want anyone letting on that brakes might be beneficial.

To read the series, use these links
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

4 thoughts on “Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 5

    • Brandon,
      My cheeks are blushing. Glad you liked it. I organized this series so they could be read in sequence. I have hundreds of articles that will eventually make their way into the blog. It’s the equivalent of a 400 page book at the moment. Mo’ later.

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