Why the Bonker Works

About 25 years ago I used a throw pillow to stop serious aggression. It was a matter of dealing with an emergency and discovering a very important tool. You can read about it here. http://www.clickandtreat.com/html/aggressionpractice.html About five years later, when Karen Pryor and I were introducing clicker training I required that I give a section of each seminar on the practical use of aversive control. As Karen had no dog knowledge but requests for seminars, she was forced to reluctantly agree. I had already clicker trained more than 1,000 dogs by veterinary referral at the highest levels of difficulty. Karen has never been a dog trainer. When we started doing seminars I was often asked why a bonker was so powerful. (This is why many traditional dog trainers still do not use the tool – they cannot imagine that it really is as powerful as reported. ) In a practical world, the question is irrelevant. If you want to stop a behavior you need something that is so disconcerting that it stops the behavior immediately and causes a future inhibition. However, I have never been one to leave a stone unturned. If you are interested in why a rolled up towel flying through the air can stop a special ops Malinois cold, here’s the scoop.

It all goes back to wolves:

Wolves kill by harassing, wounding and then eating very large, very dangerous animals. Herd animals like bison and elk can be very aggressive in defense of their herd-mates. Like most canids, wolves use the power of numbers to kill while remaining as undamaged as possible. That means that they do not “go for the throat” as a first strike. Big cats are the animals that hunt that way. Wolves kill by the death-of-a-thousand cuts. There is never a time when bailing out to avoid the charge of a prey animal creates a disadvantage. However, that does not mean that they don’t attack with 100% violence. The reason they can do this is because they have special eyes. They can see movement better than we can. Their peripheral vision works to detect anything coming at them. If the thing appearing in the corner of your vision is a bison, you better get out of the way. They do. I watched a video of wolves in Yellowstone attacking a bison. One very large heavy-hitter wolf torpedoed right for the throat of their intended target. A large male bison came flying to the rescue. The wolf broke off the attack instantly and turned tail. That is how they hunt. There were a dozen other wolves doing the same thing – dart and slash and run away. Repeat for two or three hours. Dinner. Wolves are very sensitive to things moving rapidly in their peripheral vision. Their distant hybrid descendents – dogs – share that sensitivity.

The Bonk Itself:
The tangible shock of being hit by a projectile is the next important reason why this process works. I do not need to describe it, you simply have to do it. Take an average sized towel. (25X36″) Fold it in half, lengthwise. Roll it into a roll about 4 – 4 1/2″ in diameter. Put a #64 rubber band, doubled over, about one inch from each end. If the diameter of the roll is much more than 4 1/2″ it will be difficult to get your hand around. So trim the length. Now hold it close to one end and hit yourself on the back of the head. It’s not going to cause brain damage, but it’s not fun. It is an intolerable event. It triggers a major startle response. It doesn’t have to be a projectile, however, as you just learned. Even without the peripheral vision sensitivity, you reacted to the bonk. Imagine if you were bonked every time you left your front door. You’d start going out the back.

The Audible Aiming Device – The Word, “NO!”

(Note: This is not meant to be a full description of this process so I will start the discussion of how to connect an unwanted behavior to a bonker by hinting at the broader topic. You do not have to use an audible marker. It can be visible, olfactory or tactile as well. My wife and I had a Persian cat that was approaching the kitchen as I dropped a cookie sheet full of cookies making a very loud bang. From that point onward he would avoid the kitchen when he smelled cookies in the oven. Use your imagination to fit the specific circumstances. EG: Deaf dogs can’t hear you say “NO!”.)

The whole idea of using punishment successfully is to connect an arbitrary event to a specific consequence. Most people don’t know how to do that. For example, I call this the WalMart slap. A child picks up something and slobbers all over it. The mother whacks the kid on the back of the head and then says, “I told you not to do that you little snot-nosed excuse for a child!” Dead wrong. That sequence doesn’t work worth a darn. The signal that indicates the inappropriate slobbering must come as the child starts the behavior or a little before. THEN the bonk flies in. (Or slap to the back of the head) If you bonk first and then say “NO” you’ve just blown it.

To remember the sequence, consider this question. If I had a broom and the wicked habit of sneaking up behind you and whacking you with it, would you want me to say “duck” before I hit you, as I hit you or after I hit you? Before. The only difference is that we will not allow you to duck. You are going to take the hit. So what will you do? The next time you hear the word, “NO!/duck” you will instantly stop doing what you are doing and brace for impact. On the next occurrence of the opportunity to do the behavior that caused the broom-whack, you’ll think twice before initiating the behavior. That’s the point. The marker signal does four  things…

1) It precisely identifies the bad behavior
2) It provides an intolerable consequence the animal will work to avoid in the future.
3) It immediately takes the dog’s mind off what he was doing. This interrupts even the most aroused behavior if you have pre-conditioned the dog to the “NO” followed by the intolerable bonk. That is why a pre-conditioned attack trained dog can be taught to “out” even though choking the animal down or e-collars fail. True story.
4) If you in an emergency situation and absolutely have no bonker or equivalent, you can use the word “NO” to stop a behavior if the relationship is already in existence. This is not the best way to inhibit a behavior completely, but it can work in an emergency. i.e. This is your “always with you” parachute. Most people abuse this and the word “NO” loses it’s conditioned strength. So do this rarely.

(Note: Little boys do actually say “duck” either as they hit you or after. i.e. They do it deliberately and sarcastically so that you can’t avoid the whack. Some boys grow out of this.)

If you want to see examples of bonking, go to my page on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/user/wilkesgm1 There are several applications there. In more than 25 years, 7500 dogs, working with this tool, I have never been bitten. I have had three dogs offer rebound aggression – all aimed at the bonker. If you work with aggressive dogs, that is a safety feature. I have had two dogs that didn’t respond to the bonk. There have been others that I chose not to use the bonker for a variety of reasons. I do not advocate any tool universally. To use this you must have some common sense – like don’t use a full sized bonker on a 3 pound ChiHuaHua. Sqeezyballs work better. Do not hit bulging eyes with bonkers. Do not throw a bonker directly at a dog’s nose from directly in front. You may have to practice throwing to hit what you are aiming at. The target is the crown of the dog’s head or the cheek area behind the eyes. Necks are OK but butts are useless. You can substitute any soft object, roll the towel looser or do a hundred modifications to make this safe – and that is your moral obligation. I save lives with this tool. I quickly arrest unacceptable behavior with it. Until you learn some skills and use some common sense, skip it. i.e. Nothing is fool proof. Do this with safety in mind. You are responsible for anything that comes of it – including stopping unacceptable behavior so that the dog lives a long, happy life.

Note: Any punishment that I use is embedded in an environment that is very rich in simple-to-sophisticated positive reinforcement. Meaning a bonker is a single tool that can dramatically increase your ability to reinforce correct behavior by quickly eliminating bad behavior. I am committed to not finishing the process until the dog’s tail is wagging again in the same situation where the problem originally existed. This comment is rarely understood by people who ideologically oppose the use of punishment. Even if you do no positive reinforcement the process of inhibition prevents the use of punishment because the behavior is gone. To suggest otherwise is an open admission the speaker is not familiar with the process and is creating fictions to prove a point. Here’s a dog that is bonked for jumping up. Pay close attention to her tail – it’s wagging the entire time. She almost immediately starts getting clicks and treats for correct behavior.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGS1Kmiz66k


13 thoughts on “Why the Bonker Works

  1. This is dog training ‘gold’ for free… ! Where else could you get a thorough explanation of using a harmless aversive ‘bonker’ to stop unwanted behaviors (that might be dangerous ones) from a top dog behavior professional ?

  2. 1. What is the “flawed ideology” mentioned in the sub-title but nowhere else?

    2. If bonking relies on peripheral vision, will it work with animals (including particular dogs) with poor P.V.?

    3. If bonking relies on peripheral vision, why does it matter where, or even if, the bonk strikes? If the strike is the important bit, how does peripheral vision enter into it?

    • Scott,
      My first thought would be to suggest that you not read articles with a thought to arguing minor points but take the article as a whole and find out of the foundational thought is valid. With that in mind I will answer your questions.
      1) The reference to a flawed ideology is a signature statement that is on the banner of my blog. Meaning it’s on all the pages. If you read more of them you will find that I have identified many flawed aspects of modern training and behaviorism – and that they comprise an ideology based on an orthodoxy that is flawed.
      2) I did not say that the effect of the bonker is exclusively a matter of the dog’s peripheral vision. I said that things that fly into your peripheral vision are more powerful than things flying straight at you if the goal is to inhibit the behavior and points to a likely evolutionary component to its power.
      3) Your final question is based on a misunderstanding of the point of the article. It is not a matter or “if” the bonker works, but how and why it works. So my suggestion is that you do it for awhile and come back and report your findings. Then you can have your own set of conjectures.

  3. Learned about the Bonk at Ted Efthymiadis seminar. Excited to try it at my dog daycare. Cannot hit a dog to save my life. I keep missing the dog. Besides target practice, any tips for throwing it? Can I keep it in my hand and bonk? Can it miss but still be effective?

    • If anyone ever hit my dog whilst it was in their care, either directly or with a projectile, they would be experiencing The Bonk for themselves. That is an outrageous tool for a professional to use. Negative reinforcement has NO PLACE in the animal care industry. Shame on you.

      • This comment is an example of how ideology destroys intelligence. It creates a self-inflicted myopia. There are many tools and procedures in the animal care industry that are actually dangerous – like sexual mutilation for the convenience of the owner.

        You will also note that this person who threatens violence uses a pseudonym and doesn’t have the courage to actually engage in a civil discussion.

  4. I’ve got a 5 pound Maltese that at around 7 months old found her voice and courage to chase our 20 pound cat in the same week, in the beginning I let the cat correct her until it became a game between them. Enter a tea towel Bonker and the back up bonkers of rolled up socks with holes, being mobility challengedI don’t move as quickly as I once did. After a couple encounters with the bonkers the girls have decided there are quieter ways to play together and the Maltese will now quiet on command. Thank you for bringing peace back into our household so quickly, less than a week total.

  5. Tried this on my 5 month old giant schnauzer and it wound her up even more!!! Trying to get her to stop jumping up and nipping me. I’ve tried everything . It’s getting me down now 😒

    • I am wondering what your delivery looks like. I can imagine it (accidentally) looking to your puppy like you’ve just amped up into wild play! “Ooh, she’s finally getting as excited as I’ve been trying to go make her!”

      Are you saying “no”, pausing, and then bonking while the puppy is THINKING about jumping? Do you know what the puppy looks like when he’s getting ready to go nuts? Or do you wait to see if the puppy gets wild?

      Are you ready to say “no”, pause, and bonk in ALL the places where your puppy thinks about this behavior?

      I’m eager to see if Gary presents any comments on what mistakes typically cause bonking to seem not to work.

      Don’t despair! You can do it!

  6. I am again delighted to have recently discovered you and yours! Oh, i’ve been cursed for my lack of compassion when someone refuses to give an immediate interruption of unacceptable behaviour. I don’t know how far back you go, Michelle; I remember when it was recommended one throw an old set of keys at your dog for long distance control. The picture of your ‘bonk’ tool (I giggle every time I read that word) is something we call a Koosh ball. Easy to carry (remember shake cans?), easy to have a bunch lying on bookshelves etc. Immediately the behaviour is interrupted, immediately you have a Good Dog! Yay!

Leave a Reply to Gail Hirst Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *