Bad Language and Modern Dog Training:

Using language precisely is not a hallmark of modern training and behavior. Consider that the word “positive” is used to mean beneficial and “negative” is used to mean harmful, abusive and cruel. This is done both when speaking to the general public (something doctors never do) and within the profession, where a higher standard of language should be upheld. For instance, the word punishment is regularly used as a pejorative that implies abuse, even though the scientific definition does not imply anything other than something that causes behavior to decline or stop. EG: “Punishment-based-trainer” is intended as an insult, not a neutral statement about a training philosophy. It’s not accurate, either. A leash and collar is a device that applies positive punishment and negative reinforcement – both considered “negatives” by all-positive trainers. Obviously, if you use a leash, you are by definition a punishment-based trainer. Additionally, if you use a leash to stop a dog from lunging, you are using “positive” punishment. We all know that this would be called “negative” by the same people who claim to be all-positive. The language  (and the concepts behind the words) are used almost exclusively in a rhetorical manner to promote an ideology that is incompatible with a full reading of the scientific literature. Meaning it is not just imprecise, it is incorrect.

This is the result of a practice started by B.F. Skinner. He created an experiment that examined what was plainly abuse – the application of non-contingent aversive stimuli – and called it punishment – a practice that is widely used to this day. His conclusions are extrapolations from experiments that did not examine punishment as a discrete phenomenon. That is where many of the current clichés of positive training come from. EG: Punishment doesn’t really work to stop behavior. Punishment doesn’t teach the dog what to do. Punishment must be applied within one or two seconds of the event or it won’t work. All these statements are specious arguments promoted to prevent an objective examination of the topic (or parroting of the Skinnerian catechism without objective analysis) – which is exactly what Skinner wanted to achieve.  i.e. The imprecision is inherent in the body of knowledge currently called “learning theory” because it rests on the Skinnerian foundation. This has led to a rhetorical use of the word “punishment” to denigrate anyone who isn’t part of the club. To demonstrate this, consider the following.

EG: I have been punishing my new puppy for squiggling when I hold him in my lap. By the common definition used here, that is “negative”, even though it is actually, by definition, “positive.” I am using contingent “positive” punishment for squiggling behavior. The result is entirely beneficial. After three sessions of physically restraining him when he squiggled (the presentation of a contingent punishing stimulus) his squiggling decreased and was swapped for lying quietly and going to sleep. Now he invites being held in that manner, increasing the amount of love and affection he receives. I have just accurately described something that is undoubtedly a contingent positive punishment procedure and included the fact that I used punishment before I tested to see if positive reinforcement worked. Both of these things are taboo in modern behaviorism and dog training. For those people who still have a problem with thinking rationally about the actual definitions of terms I suggest they examine the dog on the other end of their leash. It, too, is being controlled with a punishment device.

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