Scientific Confirmation: A Specious Argument

I once met a woman at a seminar who was up-to-date on all the academic blather about why one should never use punishment. She said two things that were completely mistaken – not because she had ever done or seen what she described, but because someone with an academic degree (or some opportunistic “modern, scientific trainer”) had pronounced a rule. The first was the concept that if you attempt to punish aggression, you are only punishing the “precursor” to the behavior while leaving the motivation intact. The implication is that the dog will be seething with pent-up angst and then explode when you least expect it. The other thing she said was that there is “no scientific evidence” to demonstrate that punishment stops behaviors. Au contraire on both counts.

First, animals have an innate ability to connect initially meaningless signals to predictable outcomes. Ivan Pavlov researched the mechanism for more than 30 years. That means that animals do not simply sit passively when things happen to them. Their brains are capable of perceiving subtle (and not so subtle) cues that an event is on the way and how to react to it. Pavlov said it best – I paraphrase the master…

“It is not the sight of the bear that kills the dog, it is the claws. If a dog had to wait for the claws to grab him, there would be no dogs.”

So, the sight of the bear must trigger behaviors in the dog or the dog dies. If the dog chooses to fight the bear, are we to believe that the bear’s claws will only punish the precursor to the dog’s behavior and leave it seething but ready to attack when the bear least expects it? Nope. The dog starts avoiding any behavior that leads to bears. If the bear only attacks in response to the dog’s aggression, the dog will learn one of four things; to inhibit its aggression, attack earlier in the sequence, avoid bears entirely or just freeze. As you can see, only one of the possible outcomes includes aggression. That possibility does not produce an inhibited attack. Instead, it is a full-out attack that is launched before the dominoes start to fall. i.e. A preemptive attack. So, why do vet behaviorists and others claim that punishing aggression only punishes the warning signs of an attack? They don’t understand latencies or the way that animals connect sequences of events. i.e. They don’t know how to punish a specific behavior so they cite the result of bad technique. (They have no training in the use of aversive control, merely vast study of psychotropic drugs. The logical question is why they would be experts on the use of punishment as they do not study it. They also don’t realize that animals always “go upstream” to find the branch in their path that leads to a different outcome. The real solution is indeed to punish the precursor of the behavior – by saying “NO” before the animal is aroused. Then you present the punishing stimulus (scientific jargon for ‘thingy’) and the behavior stops. On the next opportunity, the dog simply doesn’t get aroused to attack. Having done this hundreds of times for more than 25 years, I don’t need scientific confirmation to tell me that what I do doesn’t work. It works. I promise. If you don’t mind typing a little, go to YouTube and search for neal.avi.wmv.

The other part of the woman’s statement was that there was no scientific evidence that punishment stops behavior. That is entirely wrong. By definition punishment stops behavior. There are plenty of valid, never contradicted peer-reviewed papers that confirm that definition. The best resource for peer reviewed citations is a book called The Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior by Axelrod and Apsche. Out of print, of course, but you can find it online. Well worth the money. For the purpose of this article I’ll simply cite one – Ulrich, Wolfe & Dulaney, JEAB, 1969, Punishment of Shock Induced Aggression.(Do a Google search of the author and you can download a .PDF file)  It has never been contradicted. Their findings? They caused attacks with electric shock and stopped attacks with electric shock, specifically “rebound” aggression. So, opposing the use of punishment for aggression is to ignore valid, peer-reviewed research. One cannot be scientific and ignore the entire findings of the literature. Cherry picking is not allowed regardless of how common it is in behavioral science and modern, scientific training.

A final thought: Science does not confirm nature. Science reveals nature. I do not need some grant-money prompted study to tell me how behavior works. I can see it myself. Objective observation always leads to reality. If I stick to methods that are replicable based on objective observation, those are the hallmarks of good science and good practice. Scientistic (meaning that it looks like science without the objectivity) studies intended to buttress an ideology are simply pathways to cul-de-sacs. In the end, we dog trainers have a 15,000 year head-start on a very broad super-highway. Keep on truckin’.

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