Insuring a Lack of Balanced Control: The legacy of positive dog training

400027-westerns-guns-of-the-magnificent-seven-lobby-cardIn the movie “Guns of the Magnificent Seven”, one of many sequels to “The Magnificent Seven”, a cowboy is accused of being a horse-thief and is about to be hanged. A stranger suggests they test who the horse responds to as a means of determining ownership. They put the horse half-way between the two men and each tries to call it. The horse goes away from its owner and to thief. Why? The owner is standing by the saloon and the thief is standing in front of a horse-trough filled with water. That is the power of an opportunity for immediate “reinforcement.” If I want to over-power your control over your positively trained dog it’s not hard to do. All I have to do is trump your aggregate reinforcement over time by providing something more powerful in the immediate future.

A major flaw in “all positive” training is its inability to create equal control over a dog for multiple owners. As most dogs live in families it is necessary for all family members to have control over the dog. Having unequal control leads to serious problems, especially when unexpected events occur. All behavioral control rests on a single question in the dog’s mind – who has the biggest bank account?
In essence, “positive” training is all about treats and toys and reinforcing acceptable behavior while ignoring bad behavior. This fallacy assumes that a dog will be trained in this fashion from the moment it opens its eyes and that is has no instinctive behaviors that will occur in the absence of “reinforcement.” Think again.

A Typical Example:
OK. Mom is a lavish reinforcer. Dad isn’t constant as a source of good times and goodies and in the dog’s mind isn’t as dependable as a source of positive reinforcement. Over time that differentiation is established and the dog invariably obeys mom more than dad. If they are outside, where the dad plays fetch with the dog, mom’s control disappears. If the dog is standing next to mom and the dad asks the dog to do something it’s highly conditional whether the dog obeys one or the other. If you are the dog, do you do the requested behavior or blow off dad because your best chance of reinforcement (and a long history of that) is with mom? Or do you go with the person who plays at higher levels of enjoyment – the guy who throws the ball for you?

A Significant Fact: Examples of Imbalance
I have been offering behavior services primarily by veterinary referral for more than 25 years. I have heard thousands of people describe their dogs’ unacceptable behavior from house soiling to serious aggression. One of the most common statements is from one owner or another saying, “I’ve never seen that behavior.” We don’t even have to know what behavior to know that the dog has made a contextual discrimination. For instance, if a dog nips the wife but only in the absence of the husband it means the dog differentiates between when the father is present and when he is not it means that the husband has control that the wife does not. This scenario is very common. Men tend to be more physical with the dog. They tend to consider disobedience as an issue that needs immediate resolution. Women are more likely to be nice and try to pacify the dog when aggression comes up. (Regardless of your perspective on this issue or your beliefs about human sexuality and cultural equality, we are talking about a dog’s behavior. It doesn’t matter what he thinks about men and women in general, it’s what he thinks about tangible, physical control vs. passive yielding.) To hear a woman say that the dog growls at her but never the husband is the rule. This should be a tip to anyone that physical interaction designed to inhibit inappropriate behavior is often more effective than bribery. Positive trainers reject considering that possibility because it doesn’t fit their litany. Nonetheless, it is the truth. Dogs respect force. When treats are involved they revert to being opportunists without inhibitions.

Another example of imbalanced control occurs with the same factors. Men tend to be more physical about solving problems and women trend toward the opposite. Consider house-soiling. This is a behavior that does not respond well to physical intimidation. The most common result of attempts to punish house-soiling is avoidance. The dog becomes fearful of voiding its bowel and bladder in front of humans. Here is an odd but common dichotomy. The wife complains that the dog will pee, right in front of her. The husband states that he never sees the behavior. They both complain that the dog is peeing and/or pooping in some isolated place in the house. This shows that the dog is afraid to pee or poop in front of the husband, but not the wife. I offer you this to show imbalance and how a dog reacts to dissimilar treatment. In this case, more positive reinforcement for correct elimination is the cure and the wife is initially the only person who can provide that. A logical assumption is that the owners have different relationships with the dog based on their individual track record. It also shows that dissimilar interaction leads to a dog who offers different behavior to different people based on their mutual history.

The Other Shoe Drops: The Front Door
One of the places were positive trainers fail miserably is at the front door. A majority of dogs are instinctively territorial. If someone tries to enter their house or yard they react defensively. Another group is overly friendly and missing the territorial-protection genes. These dogs go nuts when someone comes to the house because they have a long history of getting petted and fussed over by guests. In either case, the dog has created a status differential between strangers vs. known people and additional sub-differentiations between known guests. This is the origin of the widely suggested practice of “ignoring the dog” when you enter the house. If you do not interact with the dog it makes sense that the dog will be less aroused. The problem is that it doesn’t really work. That is because the dog creates a behavioral ledger. If strangers are not perceived as a threat, (we will get to that shortly) they represent a potentially exciting interaction. Nobody plays the lotto expecting to win $5.00. They expect the tens of millions listed as the top prize. Dogs are no different. They don’t anticipate reinforcement based on the lowest level of contact. Dogs anticipate friendly strangers based on the highest value they have experienced. Just pick up your dog’s leash and you can prove my point. They don’t anticipate that you are going to go outside to let them pee. They imagine a full-blown walk around the neighborhood and all that might offer.

Over a Series of Repetitions:
Along with the jackpot expectations that go along with strangers, known people will be ranked based on their likelihood of providing a positive experience for the dog. Even if the dog is mellow with people who ignore it, it will invariably return to excitement on subsequent meetings. Once the guest is better known it is highly unlikely that the “ignore the dog” rule can be followed perfectly. That is another huge flaw in the positive methodology – it is impossible to do perfectly but requires perfection to be successful. It is well known that unpredictable reinforcement is more powerful than consistent reinforcement. That is the allure of slot machines and all forms of gambling. If one person doesn’t “ignore the dog” the dog’s rude excitement will instantly come back. There are two downsides to that. First is the immediate embarrassment that Buddy is jumping all over the guest. Second, the dog has learned that after many failed attempts, there is a pearl in that 100th oyster. Inadvertently the positive trainer has placed the animal on what is called a ‘variable ratio schedule of positive reinforcement.” In essence, the dog knows that if it keeps acting like a fool, eventually someone will provide a pay-off.

Mutual, Equal Control:
So, who has more control, you and your treats  a-cat-runs-onto-the-pitch-630x389or a cat running across the street? Why not find out? Open your front door and let your dog watch until a cat darts by. If you are an all-positive trainer I would suggest you have a leash on your dog. The cat is far more powerful at the moment than your long history of treats for not going out the door. No
dogs-out-the-dooramount of calling or shouting commands is going to sway the chase. All of those words are connected with a history of reinforcement that does not equal the dog’s instinctive arousal. If you doubt this, you can find this story recounted on a daily basis at every animal control shelter in the country. I know that because I spent eight years working in the humane industry. This same scenario is periodically used in television commercials where the dog chooses to ignore the owner to follow a potato chips truck or other distraction.

The Unequal Power of Stimuli:
The word stimulus is scientific jargon for “thingy”. Some thingies are more powerful than others. Some are imprinted in the dog’s genes. If you have a herding dog it is genetically focused on moving objects. You cannot eliminate the fascination by removing reinforcement. That only makes sense. It wasn’t created by reinforcement. If a Border Collie ignored sheep because a kid was offering dog treats it wouldn’t be a Border Collie. Likewise, coursing dogs like Greyhounds go nuts when something runs away from them. Pointers point. Heelers heel. Beagles bugle when they find a scent to track and move in random circles when they lose the scent. Bloodhounds track on the ground and when they miss the track they lift their heads to test the wind. Labradors retrieve and mouth things. The list of genetically infused behaviors is long. All of these behaviors trump reinforcement. They have to. If a bloodhound is tracking a human and suddenly focuses on a dead bird it’s not going to be of much use to anyone. If you have ever been around a dog bred for a purpose, you know that there is no hot dog big enough to stop a Jack Russell Terrier from going after a squirrel in the park.

The Unequal Power of People:
If we go back to our horse example we can test the power of unequal control in less than five minutes. Best two out of three. Place two “positive” owners equidistance apart. On the count of three, have them both call the dog. One point for success. Now try the same thing in the back yard, the kitchen and the front door after ringing the doorbell. If both fail on that last one, subtract two points. The evidence is plain. The doorbell has far more power over the dog than all the reinforcement you can offer over months to years. We have now established that innate behaviors trump positive reinforcement. That the dog will lean toward one owner over the other in different places proves that they are master accountants. In an instant they can decide which side of the bread the butter is on. They do not lead with their hearts, as their owners do, but with cold, calculating guesses of best outcome.

The Impossible Task:
Now we are getting to the end of the matter. To have equal control over a dog’s behavior all people who live with the dog must work to balance the consequences they provide. That is impossible if your tools are “all positive.” The value of a treat or fun experience is not based on a linear scale. If one person plays fetch and the other only provides treats, the fetch-trainer will win in the presence of fetch toys. If the fetch trainer wants control in the kitchen, the treats trainer will likely win. All people who own dogs have them to benefit their lives. They have limited time and resources to spend creating a balance in control. Even if they succeed in perfect parity with rewards of dissimilar value they won’t be able to conquer behaviors that are outside the influence of practical reinforcement. Put a mouse on the ground and see how well your Schnauzer reacts to your commands. Let a rabbit run across your yard and watch your Whippet ignore you completely. The fantasy that positive reinforcement can control all things is a modern, popular, bogus concept. When examined at the most simple levels it fails to bring the control necessary to keep our dogs safe, healthy and mindful. If you choose to follow the Yellow Brick Road you may find out that the Great and Powerful Oz is simply smoke and mirrors.

One thought on “Insuring a Lack of Balanced Control: The legacy of positive dog training

  1. This article rings very true to me. We have 3 Chessies. My husband hunts and trains them for conformation and hunt tests. With each of them, there has been a point in time that I have had to be more assertive with them in order to gain their respect and to control them. We are not positive only trainers so it did not take much. I think if I had tried the treats/toys only route I would still be frustrated. I actually just worked obedience with them with appropriate corrections.

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