Teaching Inhibitions: Stopping unacceptable behavior, now.

Note: This is from a presentation I gave at Central Veterinary Conferences in Washington, DC. A veterinarian behaviorist complained so I was prevented from continuing speaking for that organization. The complaint? What I said wasn’t part of the current catechism, even though I cited peer-reviewed and scholarly texts and showed live video to confirm what I said. Meaning I cited sources that were of the same standard as any other presentation at that conference. So much for open minded discussion of behavior at veterinary conferences. Ironically, CVC still posts my abstracts and handouts on their website for vets. This brings a list of my work that is currently available on DVM360 – http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/gary-wilkes-dvm

And this is the link to the this paper as presented. http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/teaching-inhibitions-stopping-unacceptable-behavior-now-proceedings I have tweaked this version slightly. I have put the edits in italics. The main difference is that I actually identify the group that authored the “Position Statement on Punishment” referenced in the paper.

May 1, 2011
By: Gary Wilkes, DVM (Author’s Note. They always add DVM or PhD to my title and I always tell them I’m not either. I left this here because if you go to the site you’ll see the letters and assume that I let it slide. I never do. When I spoke at a symposium at MIT I had them remove the PhD and put “dog trainer” – a title I wear proudly. As dog trainers are many times more competent than behavioral scientists, I choose the higher honor.)


It is the claim of animal behaviorists that behavior is the most common cause of death in companion animals. This is true, but does not automatically explain how to solve the problem. Almost always, it is what animals do that kills them. They jump on guests, eat shoes, bite children, fight with other dogs and tug unmercifully on leash. If you can stop them from doing these behaviors in a timely fashion for a reasonable price, they live. If you cannot stop the behavior they die. The single most important question in modern behavioral therapy is, “how do you stop a single behavior, now.”

Roughly stated, an inhibition prevents a behavior from happening, even in the presence of all the factors that would normally cause it to occur. If a dog goes ballistic when the doorbell rings, the inhibition must block the behavior under all circumstances. It doesn’t do any good if the animal only obeys when hungry and when it knows you have a treat. Meaning, your solution cannot include highly contrived, time consuming or rigorous methods. Additionally, the solution must be immediate. In many cases the owner does not inform their veterinarian of the problem until it is almost at the breaking point. Last, but not least, most owners have a finite expense account for behavioral solutions. Ultimately, if you suggest a cure that takes weeks or months and costs a fortune you might as well prep the sodium pentobarbital or give the owner a list of shelters that can do the job. The world of positive solutions is littered with dead bodies. They are not readily observable because they are inside a land-fill or ashes on the mantlepiece.

The Fly in the Ointment – Academically Trained Behaviorists:
Before you can get started on your education about teaching inhibitions you must ironically ignore the people who caution you about the gravity of behavioral problems – animal behaviorists. They have created a mantra that positive reinforcement is the only tool for correcting unacceptable behavior. There are several critical problems with this belief. First, not all behaviors are controllable by “positive” means. EG: Pica is not caused by external influences and will not go away by attaching pleasant consequences to “not eating” inedible objects. It will also not go away by reinforcing other behaviors. The animal has a preternatural drive to ingest inedible objects. This must be stopped if the animal is going to survive. At the very least it must be stopped to avoid additional surgeries. By definition, positive consequences cannot stop behavior. Positive reinforcement increases behavior. In practical terms that means that if your methods are limited to “positive” experiences, the animal dies. Once you have accepted the common understanding that aversive consequences inhibit behavior and pleasant consequences cannot, you have another problem on your hands. Not only are academically trained behaviorists ideologically opposed to using “negative” solutions, their credentials do not qualify them to use such methods. Consider this statement from a “Position Statement on Punishment” by AVSABa veterinary behaviorist organization.

“Punishment should only be used when the above approach (positive reinforcement) has failed despite an adequate effort as part of a larger training or behavior modification program that incorporates reinforcement of appropriate behaviors and works to change the underlying cause of the problem behavior. “

While admitting there are times when punishment would be appropriate these learned doctors have no direct experience to describe the procedure or who would be qualified to do it. What school or veterinary college teaches the art of punishment for these serious, life-threatening behaviors? Murray Sidman, a much lauded colleague of B.F. Skinner and proponent of “positive” methods specifically described who should not be consulted.

“…competence in the application of punishment is not the mark of a qualified behavior analyst. I know of no training program or degree, whether in psychology, psychiatry, education of behavior analysis that qualifies its recipient to use punishment.”

That statement is as true today as it was when he wrote it in 1989. There is no academic course of instruction in the process of inhibiting behavior. None. Look it up.

The above cited AVSAB position statement goes on to add a caution for owners.

“If punishment is suggested as part of a complete behavior modification plan, owners should not begin using it until they have ensured that the person helping them is able to articulate the major adverse effects of punishment, judge when these effects are occurring over the short term and long term, and can explain how they will reverse the adverse effects if they occur.”

There are two problems with this statement. First, who is this person suggesting punishment to the owner? As there are no classes available in the application of punishment for behaviorists, this person cannot be working from their body of knowledge. Second, though ignorant of the correct application of punishment, they feel confident in pointing out major adverse effects. Logically the terrible side-effects they refer to would most likely be the result of their ignorance of proper application of aversive control. Their focus is on potential side effects rather than indicating how to discern competence in performing the procedure correctly and the objective criteria that would lead to proper treatment. To be plain, they are not experts on the subject and their priorities benefit only them. i.e They are more worried about “side effects” of treatment than the known lethal primary effects of the behavior. They preach a deadly catechism of “death before discomfort.” Their mantra is deadly to any animal that must have its behavior inhibited. Believe it at your animal’s peril.

Having criticized those who give cautions with no affirmative information, I will now tell you the rules for creating inhibitions.

Criteria for correctly creating inhibitions: Four simple rules

1. Intolerable: The stimulus/event  that inhibits the behavior must be considered intolerable by the organism. While mainstream behaviorists assume the worst, they rarely use their imagination to discover things that can inhibit behavior but cannot do damage, even if they did it wrong. EG: Almost all mammals hate projectiles flying at them. If you fold an average sized towel in half and roll it into a tight tube, bind it with heavy rubber bands on both ends, you have a professional quality “bonker.” If you launch this at a dog, he will invariably consider it intolerable. This tool takes a small amount of rational thought to use. Do not bonk a Shi Tzu in the eyes. Here is an example of the horrible, nasty, risky, traumatic use of punishment to stop a dog from jumping on guests. If you think there is something wrong with this, there is something wrong with you. Note: The dog is wagging its tail throughout the procedure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGS1Kmiz66k

2. Immediately Identified: The previously quoted position statement also includes the following guideline that punishment… “must be applied as the animal is performing the target behavior or within one second of the behavior to be most effective.” This is completely mistaken. Pavlov demonstrated repeatedly that a conditioned association to a previously neutral stimulus could include a long-term latency. In the specific experiment, a bell was associated with electric shock. The latency between bell and shock was gradually extended. A dog so conditioned would give a perfect galvanic response 30 minutes after hearing the bell. (meaning muscular flinch) The point is that if you say the word “NO” or its equivalent at the instant the behavior starts, the tangible punishment can be applied almost leisurely and the dog will still make the connection. For practical purposes, ten or 15 second delays are not a problem – if you say the word “NO”, first AND you make sure you bonk the dog. (See criterion #4) The issue is that contiguity is in the physiology of the dog, not the mind of the behaviorist. The practical meaning of this information is that you do not have to apply the punishment immediately. You must have a signal that identifies the behavior immediately. If you think of the timing of pushing the shutter button on a camera you will understand the timing perfectly. Imagine you are taking a picture of the instant before the behavior starts and you will be able to do this procedure correctly, with good timing. 

3. Inescapable: If you say “NO” and then squirt a dog in the face, there is a high probability that a mild inhibition will be created. If you say the word “NO” and the dog turns his head so that the water hits him in the shoulder, he has escaped the aversive nature of the squirt and it is no longer intolerable. Likewise, if you say “NO” and throw a bonker at a dog who is suddenly running away from you, the bonk on the butt is unlikely to create an inhibition. This is easily fixed. Position the person with the bonker in the direction the dog is likely to escape or hunt the dog down and make sure you bonk him on the head. Likewise, if the dog tries to hide under a bed, block the gap from the floor to the frame. If you use your problem solving abilities this is an easily established criterion. 

4. Inevitable: The point of Pavlov’s research has largely been mistaken by behaviorists. The fact that he could create a 100% reflexive response to a conditional stimulus was perceived as a surrogate for tangible reinforcement or punishment. The actual function of the conditional stimulus is to limit the amount of information the animal must process to discover contiguity between a behavior and a consequence. In essence, it is a “hitch” that links a specific behavior to a specific result. This has led to the assumption that one has achieved success if by saying “NO” the animal stops the unacceptable behavior. That is a grand mistake. Learning an inhibition is a two-part process. It requires a signal that identifies the specific behavior followed by a tangible, intolerable consequence. If you say “NO” you are obligated to apply the punishment.

An example of how to stop pica. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFuXOY7j3cw Stopping a dog with a history of “sneaky bites” from biting me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbn1DjDEB-k

For a broader examination of how this topic fits into a critical aspect of training and behavior, aggression, take a look at this article from my website. http://www.clickandtreat.com/html/aggressionpractice.html

5 thoughts on “Teaching Inhibitions: Stopping unacceptable behavior, now.

  1. Though this was posted back in December, I find myself reading it again and appreciating every word.

    You see, I just went to the Midwest Veterinary Conference one day for some CE credits as a RVT, with the plans of attending the technician track that had a particular focus on behavior in the veterinary field. I’m more than aware how many of these behaviorists like to conduct their craft, but I had no idea it had gone so far out into what might be some distant memory of “left field.”

    My conscience could only hold my self-imposed “place” command for the beginning session, the likes of which my brain struggled to comprehend WHY every single dog is drugged, why not every dog deserves to live, why simple cases are managed and ultimately euthanized when the management fails, and why results are taking SO DARN LONG to achieve (the case in mind had already undergone a 3-wk residential training program, and in fact was meeting with the “behaviorist” speaker again this very week because he ATE HIS MUZZLE).

    There are times when I am simply ashamed of my profession and just wish that we stuck to medical problems and prevention. Leave behavior to people who know what they’re doing, is all.

  2. I met with such veterinarian behaviourists for a dog aggressive (this guy wasn’t reactive, he was out for the kill) dog I rescued from the shelter. The vets put us on an intensive +R ONLY diet for two months. One day, my husband and our dogs (this guy included) were in the car and he went ballistic inside the car trying to get at two dogs outside the car. He was unstoppable and I feared that he’d redirect to our other dog, to my husband, or to me (but nothing happened). Told the +R vets and their reply, “Don’t take him in the car.” I went ballistic since our lifestyle consists of travelling, with dogs. +R did nothing but get the dog euthanized a week after this incident. Thanks for article, Gary.

  3. Wow this makes so much sense to me, especially the last sentence “If you say “NO” you are obligated to apply the punishment.” This is where I have been failing my dogs. I am bookmarking this article for sure to read again and again! I am a new dog owner of two (litermates no less) dobies and I honestly can’t wait to make a bonker! Thank you for a good read!

  4. Which DVD do you recommend to start using bonkers? I used it 20 years ago but discontinued ( I don’t know why). What is the most current and up to date?

  5. I made a bonker. My dog was chasing the cats, biting me, getting things off the counters, taking shoes and towels and destroying them. I bonked him on the back of the head when he had taken the bonker off the counter and was chewing it up. I bonked him with a paperback book on the back of the head. He immediately stopped all bad behaviors and listens to me now.

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