“What Science Says”

coke-vending-machine-47815It is quite popular for animal trainers to claim that they use “scientific” methods. They also like to use the word “evidence-based” which implies that a higher standard of proof was used to find knowledge. Hogwash. It’s actually a cheap attempt to elevate their status and shut up the competition. Nothing more, nothing less. If you doubt the sweeping range of my accusation, let’s look at the real evidence – evidence that would stand up in a criminal court of law.

First, a busted Coke machine can be used to create a perfect example of what a behavior analyst would call “contingent punishment”.  A contingency describes a logical ’cause and effect’ relationship between the environment and a specific behavior. IF you put money in the busted Coke machine, it will eat your money and not give you a Coke. That is likely to cause contingent punishment of the behavior, “Putting money in a Coke machine” Predictably, you will stop putting money in the machine as long as you can identify the contingency through some sense or perception.

1) It is THAT Coke machine OVER THERE that ate my money.
2) It is the UNLIGHTED Coke machine that ate my money.
3) It is the Coke Machine that was HUMMING LOUDLY that ate my money.

Those qualifiers are examples of your brain trying to find a discrimination that would allow you to find a working Coke machine and avoid similar busted Coke Machines in the future.

This phenomenon has been described by scientists who use evidence-based rules to study nature. They create evidence-based ‘findings’. As they use scientific methods to discover new truths about behavior, what they say is “what science says.” Here are three examples from Dr. Ron Van Houten, taken from The Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior, Axelrod and Apsche, Academic Press, 1983. (That’s how scientists cite things, by the way. They cite specific references and allow you to check for yourself if they have quoted correctly and if the citation actually would lead a reasonable person to the same conclusion. The above cited book is stuffed with citations from peer-reviewed research and scholarly texts. You don’t have to take my work for it.)

“Punishment can reduce a behavior’s frequency below its operant level to a zero level of occurrence. If such complete response suppression is produced, it is clear that the behavior will not recover unless a special effort is made to reestablish it.”

One possible side effect of punishment is the production of emotional reactions. Several researchers have demonstrated that punishment with electric shock does not produce lasting emotional results. (Hearst, 1965; Hunt & Brady, 1955) Further, as Azrin and Holz (1966) have pointed out, gross observation seems to indicate that no chronic emotional maladjustment is engendered by a child’s having been burned by touching a radiator or having skinned a knew by falling off a bike. It is fortunate that punishment does not produce strong lasting emotional effects under most circumstances since it would be impossible to eliminate punishment from the natural environment. (Underline, mine – GW) Although it is true that emotional behaviors are frequently observed following punishment, it is also true that these effects are usually short lived.”

“Subsequent research has shown that the conclusions drawn from this early work on punishment were erroneous. For example, the comparison Estes made of contingent and non-contingent shock punishment was restricted to a period of less than an hour. Later studies obtained very similar results during the first hour; however, after that time, the responding recovered substantially during non-contingent punishment but not during immediate punishment (Azrin, 1956). In regard to the question of whether the effects of punishment are permanent, numerous studies have demonstrated that punishment at high intensities can produce complete suppression with no sign of recovery. (Appel, 1961; Azrin, 1956, 1960, Boe & Church, 1967; Masserman, 1946) “

The reason I added that last paragraph is because someone claiming to be a scientist said this in 1953: “More recently, the suspicion has also arisen that punishment does not in fact do what it is supposed to do. An immediately effect in reducing a tendency to behave is clear enough, but this may be misleading. The reduction in strength may not be permanent.”  (The book containing this quote does not offer citations to validate assertions. You have no way to know any details about the  “recent suspicions”)

Except for that last non-scholarly quote, the first three represent the proper way to conduct science. One person observes something and publishes the discovery. Once published, it becomes fair-game for anyone to question. It can be used to validate other research or discredit untrue claims. If you are wondering about the quote that claims that punishment doesn’t work, it came from B.F. Skinner.(Science and Human Behavior, 1953)

Now for our next quote that confirms Van Houten. ““One kind of reinforcing stimulus…apparently produces a decrease in strength of the operant. If pressing the lever is correlated with strong electric shock, for example, it will eventually not be elicited at all.” This scientist is saying that if you punish a behavior consistently (contingent continous punishment) a behavior goes away and doesn’t come back. (Which removes the need for further punishment. Meaning contingent punishment applied properly is a self-limiting process)

So, “science” says that a cactus needle, when touched with your finger, stops you from pushing on cactus needles. If all pushes on cactus needles cause you to push on them less often, eventually, you will not push on them at all. I know that contingency – I live in Arizona. The problem is that the scientist who said the above qpricked-finger-and-cactus-spineuote about punishment stopping behavior was…B.F. Skinner. Behavior or Organisms, 1938.

OMG. Skinner knew in 1938 that you can stop a behavior with punishment and it won’t come back. 15 years later, he says that “recent suspicions” cast doubt on the effectiveness of punishment. (This statement is completely devoid of citations to tell us what those suspicions were. If you want to know, read Van Houten’s reference to Estes, above, and look at Fixed Rate Punishment by Azrin, Holz and Hake, JEAB, 1963. It was the injection of non-contingent shock that made punishment appear to be dysfunctional.)

Now we finally get to the topic of the post. We have seen “what science says” about how to stop behavior. Now let’s look at the statements of “science-based” trainers and see what we get. Victoria Stillwell, a popular television entertainer/trainer, says on her website:

“Scientific studies have shown that the use of confrontational, punitive training techniques on dogs not only does not work long term, but actually exacerbates aggressive response and makes already aggressive dogs even more aggressive. It is a pretty simple concept, but sometimes it can be hard for dog owners to remember that fighting fire with fire usually results in someone getting burned. So modern behavioral science weighed in against compulsion training, but for most of us, it does not take scientific journals to tell us what our instincts have already said: it is more humane to reward than to punish. Many who promote old-school training techniques argue that the punishment they dish out in the form of an electric shock or a swift kick to a dog’s ribs is not particularly damaging. There are indeed varying degrees of punishment, and everyone ultimately must make their own choice regarding how far they are willing to go. But most well-adjusted people would rather avoid doing anything that will make your dog feel pain or fear if they can help it, regardless of how minimal that punishment may be.”

In case you haven’t figured it out, science doesn’t actually confirm any of this. Additionally, we see Vicky using a bit of aversive control herself – a rather interesting irony. She creates a false dichotomy that implies that all aversive control is a swift kick or a shock collar as opposed to treats and affection. Meaning she creates an argument based on extremes with no allowance of intelligent moderation. This leads to some obvious questions. Why would I only use one extreme or another? What if I put these extremes in a specific sequence? What if I use a Goldilocks formula of “just right” with either polarity? If the goal is to solve a problem for an animal and owner, why would I not use the most effective methods using “just right” reinforcers and punishers?

Now we get to her attempt at using punishment to suppress any question of her statements. She implies that anyone who disagrees with her isn’t a “well-adjusted” person. Therefore “old school” trainers who use punishment are not well-adjusted., but she is. Another canard is her poke at anything that causes pain and fear, but I’ll bet she has owned dogs that were sexually mutilated at her request, nominally called “spaying and neutering”. Sexual mutilation is not required for dogs or cats unless some medical malady requires it. Meaning it’s an elective mutilation that will cause pain and can lead to death. Apparently that potentially fatal practice is ethical but far less invasive punishment to better a dog’s life is not.

Question? If pain and fear (regardless of how minimal) cause emotional and behavioral trauma, why doesn’t the pain and fear that accompanies veterinary medicine cause problems? How does the dog know the pain and fear is therapeutic? If it’s connected to spaying and neutering it isn’t therapeutic – it’s done for the convenience and vanity of the owner. If pain and fear are acceptable, temporary side-effects leading to medical health, why not mental health? A logical person weighs the result of not providing treatment that will actually fix the problem. To be blunt, how many dogs die because their anti-social behavior wasn’t punished? Lots. They apparently don’t count to “well-adjusted” trainers.

As for a specific rebuttal, no, Victoria, confronting aggression with punishment does not cause more aggression, it stops it. Here’s the citation – Ulrich, Wolfe & Dulaney, Punishment of Shock Induced Aggression, JEAB (Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior) 1969. In fact, electric shock can both trigger biting behavior, loosely styled here as “aggression”, and stop it. It can even stop the bugaboo of “rebound aggression”. However, withholding expected positive reinforcement can trigger aggression but can’t stop it. Meaning one strategy is infinitely more logical than the other.

That’s the real science – and it mirrors the common understanding of behavior shared by us all. If you wish to stop a bully, you sock him in the nose. Bloody_face_shock_by_BlueTigressStoMy sympathy at that point is for the victims of the bullying, rather than lamenting any emotional problems the bully may have. Why is this little girl’s face not important? Why is her emotional stability meaningless. (This is the environmental punishment that Van Houten says is impossible to avoid) If her father did this, he’d go to jail for ten years. If a school bully does it, the bully is immune from any punitive response by the school – it might hurt his fragile psyche if he was punished the way he punished a girl like this.  Ironically, until the bully’s bullying is stopped, he can’t work on becoming  a “well-adjusted” person and avoid violence in the future.

When someone attempts to peddle an ideology that denigrates their competition while coercing your into following their beliefs, it is obviously an attempt to use aversive control for personal gain. The huge irony of “positive” training is that they tell us that punishment will traumatize dogs and should never be used – while liberally using it on people to dominate the conversation and make money. Science says that if you use aversive control and it brings you what you want, you’ll do more of it in the future. That is one of the harmful primary effects of positive reinforcement, by the way.

5 thoughts on ““What Science Says”

  1. Thanks Gary, I now realize that I am not a “well-adjusted” individual (hope you note the sarcasm). Behavior is just on area in our society where if you don’t agree with the “current” trend then you are a denier of the scientific proof. I mean 3 out of 5 “scientist” came to a consensus so just accept it. We have many areas where the science is just used to extract money. “you will need to have at least 20 sessions before I think it will do you any good.” Keep up the good work. It was nice to meet you in Ohio.

    • Larry – good to meet you too. Yes, money is often the motivation, though they pretend to be altruists. Sophia Yin’s Manners Minder took four months to teach 20 dogs not to rush the front door. She created a paper that looked like a peer reviewed publication to “prove” that it was effective. Like those fake ads in magazines that look like an objective article but are actually pitching the latest drug. Needless to say, Yin used her position to make a buck. She used her professional credentials to promote a product that can be duplicated with a $1.50 clicker and a pilfered traffic cone. There was no head-on-head examination of how we maladjusted trainers would do it. There was no blind trial to see if the dogs trained either way appeared abused. This process truncated Yin’s methods by three months, 30 days, 23 hours and 50 minutes. It cost less than ten dollars and took ten minutes. The inhibition is still in place, over a year later, from a single event. The dogs are clearly terrified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFXxOaDEi-A

  2. I read through it and find it too complicated and rambling to help me much. I made it through college in 4 years and took 3 dogs through CGC certification, so I am more familiar with training a dog than most owners. Most owners will not take a dog to a class, so the ‘busted Coke machine’ story does not indicate anything of use in dog training to me.

    The core problem I hear and sense in ‘pawsitive only’ training (a popular misspelling) is that aversives do not help a dog. A dog that does not attack people and animals, does not destroy furniture or eliminate in the house is desirable. But getting to that point with no aversives (includes a loud ‘No!’, swat, correction with an e-collar or prong or flat collar, etc.) will be very difficult. ‘Positive Only’ presumes that average dog owners will have the patience, time, and dedication to train their dog(s) with no aversives. And that is simply not realistic, I am certain. I have never met a person in my adult life who trained their dog with only ‘positive’ methods.

  3. Doug H. A minor diversion. Reinforcement and punishment have roughly opposite effects. Positive methods cannot create inhibitions. It’s not about how long it takes. Positive methods merely create new behaviors or attempt to make one behavior pay off more than another. They do not block or remove anything. The suggestion that positive methods work if you just give them enough time is false. It means that the speaker does not acknowledge any circumstance that requires a behavior to stop, immediately, and not return – as described by Van Houten. Pica comes to mind. If left unstopped it invariably leads to a fatal blockage. Making “rollover” more pleasant than “eating a sock” isn’t a practical solution. It leaves the animal at the risk of ever being left alone. The same is true of “redirection”, extinction and the other go-to ‘solutions’ of both behavior analysts and ‘scientific
    This article is about the claims of those who assert a superior knowledge of behavior based on “science”, while being ignorant of the science they claim validates their opinion. If you wish to see complexity, it turns out that the scientists who claim to be scientific are equally deceptive in their claims – and a touch schizophrenic. They claim to be objective scientists but openly favor “positive” solutions to all problems, regardless of context or the outcome of their preference. Preferring reinforcement over punishment would be like Newton preferring inertia over momentum. Those would be personal choices but they would not be examples of science.

  4. hi gary …im ravi …19 …i just a question to ask u ..is about dogs …see dogs can be train well or teach them good staff…if we keep them as our friend .im in malaysia now . and wat i know is ..every single day , dog are drying ..and in my country ..malay are the most polulation…but they don even care about dogs at all…. and the only word they say is halal….or something stupid …is mom sence at all….our teknologi is grow up every day… n y cant they find a solution for tht

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