Abuse or Not Abuse, That is the Question:

About 15 years ago, I spoke at a conference of one of the largest dog training professional organizations. I gave a demonstration of how to safely and quickly stop food aggression. My demonstrator for the event was a five-year-old German Shepherd – not just any German Shepherd. This dog was a FEMA certified search dog. Her problem was that as she grew older, she started attacking any dog that came near while there was food present – which in most cases was another search dog.

If the problem wasn’t corrected, the dog would be retired. That means that a highly trained dog with a very rare skill-set was going to have to stop searching for dead and dying people. During a five minute demonstration I cured about 90% of the problem with an assurance that the rest of the solution was a given and that it would not return for a long, long time. I have done this hundreds of times with the same results, including working with dogs who have neurological disorders. I have never injured a dog and have fixed almost all of them. By “fix” I mean that the dog lived a long, productive life and did not return to the former aggression. The only problem with my demonstration was one that couldn’t be helped – the major component of the fix was a very specific, harmless use of punishment.

If you think I electrocuted the dog, hung her by a choke chain or hit her with a baseball bat, you’d be seriously mistaken. None of those things are likely to control a very specific, deeply ingrained behavior. Those kinds of methods aren’t really even punishment – they are simply hand-grenades thrown at the dog with no direct connection to any particular behavior. These are more akin to trout fishing with dynamite. If you said you were going fishing tomorrow, no one would assume that you were going to use dynamite. If you say you are going to punish a dog for a serious behavior problem, everyone assumes you are going to use dynamite. In this case, the punishment was striking her on the head with a rolled up towel. Let me guess – you flinched at the word “strike.” Why? Would you flinch if someone said they hit their dog with a pillow? Pillows are soft and can’t do any damage no matter how hard you hit the dog. Here is an example of the process with a dog that had already bitten five people. Turn your sound down. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbn1DjDEB-k  Then watch this video. Same dog, about 20 minutes later. All this was achieved in the first training session. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poYtdUNO_x4 HINT: Modern dog trainers have code words that don’t really mean what you think they mean. In this case, “hit” is a code word for abuse – even if you “hit” your dog with a pillow. Even if no abuse occurs, even if the dog survives precisely because you hit him with something that can’t possibly do any damage. So, blitz your concern over the word “hit.” The dog in question had risked serious injury hundreds of times in her career, and would do it again if I could fix the problem. Otherwise, she would live a very tame life around the house and some people in dire need wouldn’t be found in time.

You may see the logical problem here. Search teams are universally lauded for their efforts. Search dog handlers intentionally put their dogs in life and injury threatening situations in the course of what they do. If the dog is critically injured trying to save a life, it’s considered a heroic act and the dog’s memory will be elevated. If the dog is critically injured in training, it will be considered a tragic but necessary part of training a search dog. So, here’s the logical problem. If the dog is routinely placed in a position where it might be severely injured as a valuable part of society and if training for that task includes injuries like ruptured cruciate ligaments, spinal injuries, cuts and abrasions, why is bonking her with a rolled up towel objectionable? Falling off an uneven slab of wet concrete could kill her and no one would object to why she was put in that dangerous situation. They might shed a tear, but they wouldn’t use the word abuse in describing the event. When I bonked her with a rolled up towel, the word abuse flashed through the world of this professional trainer’s organization. They even printed a letter to the editor in their newsletter specifically calling for a ban on such abuse at their conferences.

There are two problems with the logistics of this turmoil. First, the bylaws of the organization prohibit throwing the word “abuse” at fellow members – and I was a full member. The only way they could do that was if the board of directors investigated the incident and came to the conclusion that some kind of abuse occurred. They didn’t do that. Second, the member who cried abuse should have been censured for throwing a completely bogus accusation into a newsletter that would be read by people who didn’t see the event. It was a blatant abuse of the newsletter as a platform for a denigrating comment. The editor of the newsletter should have been reprimanded for allowing the letter to go through. All these things were admitted by the President of the organization, speaking for the board of directors…well after the damage was done.

The Crux of the Problem: What is abuse?

There are two basic kinds of abuse – direct acts that cause damage and damage that occurs because something didn’t happen. The first kind is about as obvious as white on snow. The second kind should be equally well understood. If you have a swollen, inflamed appendix and a doctor tells you that it’s stomach flu because he doesn’t feel like skipping a golf game to do surgery, it’s abuse by neglect. This is the flip side of the Hippocratic rule of “do no harm.” You can do plenty of harm by failing to give a person water when they are dehydrated, failing to give them CPR or failing to tell them about a treatment or procedure that could help them. An example closer to our topic can be seen at any animal shelter on a daily basis. A dog will be brought in for quarantine because it bit someone. The most often circumstances are greeting guests at the front door, lunging and attacking a passerby while on leash and, coincidental to the introduction of this article, biting someone over food or other possessions. In almost all cases, these most common forms of aggression could have been stopped long before they became serious. All that was required was intervention on the part of someone who understood how to inhibit a specific behavior.

Rationalizations that prevent the required interaction.

  1. You are just punishing the precursor to the aggression. You leave a ticking time bomb underneath.
  2. Punishment doesn’t teach anything.
  3. Positive reinforcement can do it better.
  4. If you use punishment you will trigger “rebound aggression”.
  5. Violence causes violence.
  6. Punishment is so difficult to apply that it can’t be done without causing terrible side effects.
  7. Punishment causes the dog to fear the handler.
  8. Punishment suppresses desired behaviors.
  9. The dog gets used to punishment which will require ever increasing levels of nastiness. In effect, the dog becomes calloused to punishment.

So what?

The logical response to these objections is, so what? The dog is going to be very, very dead in a very short while. None of the objections can be plugged into a real context and make any sense. Here are some examples.

  1. Fearing the Handler: This is another scare-tactic. The word “fear” is used to imply traumatic terror. Normal fear is a good thing. I fear the blade of a chain saw. That allows me to use one safely. I fear being hit by a distracted driver in a parking lot. In this case, the punishment procedure better cause the dog to fear the handler or the dog is going to bite the handler the first chance it gets. In case you don’t know it, dogs bite other dogs. That is how they control situations. So, fear is a good thing if it prevents future violence and is transitory. As the dog learns acceptable behavior, there is no fear. Also, how long does this fear last? Does it last beyond the quarantine after the dog is dead?
  2. Punishment doesn’t teach anything: People who say this are so obsessed with “positive” processes that they can’t imagine there is ever a need to stop a behavior, immediately and hopefully forever – or that those things are both possible, practical and humane. Punishment isn’t supposed to add to the dog’s repertoire (the meaning of ‘teach’ in this context) it is supposed to completely suppress an existing behavior. Either that is ‘learning’, in which case the dog does, indeed, not learn anything, or an inhibition is not learning but saves the dog’s life. We again meet a distortion of meaning to foster an impractical ideology.
  3. You are punishing the precursor to the behavior and not the behavior (aggression) itself. This is plainly said by someone who knows nothing of the real world. I saw a five month old puppy blast into a perfectly glass door and then fight like the dickens to prevent herself from being pulled through the doorway on a leash. If she had been left to the initial expterience, she would not have gone through that door voluntarily without some intervention. That is punishment. There is no evidence that aggression is special in this regard. Jumping on people certainly isn’t different from this. The puppy was not a ticking time-bomb waiting to plunge through the door when no one was watching. She was perfectly inhibited from offering that behavior.
  4. Punishment suppresses desired behaviors: First, if you don’t suppress the target behavior the dog is going to die. That suppresses all behavior, for all time. If a punishment procedure stops a dog from jumping on potential adopters and then is scared to “sit” or “roll-over”, who cares? Once the dog settles into its new home, reteaching those behaviors in a new environment is a snap.
  5. Correctly applied scientific, modern uses of positive methods work better than punishment: Punishment stops behaviors. Positive reinforcement increases behaviors. How does one stop a behavior immediately with a tool that increases behavior? The anti-punishment ideologue suggests that to stop any behavior we can merely teach it something new and give it lots of treats for the new behavior. OK. I teach you to speak French because I hate the sound of English. I then pay you to speak nothing but French. What would stop you from speaking English to an American who doesn’t speak French? Nothing at all. The great physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, demonstrated over 100 years ago that once an association is learned, it does not disappear through non-use or by learning new associations. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous. That means if you learn something new, you forget something else. Huh?

I would parse all of these rules, but it ends the same, every time. Because these things are not derived from an objective observation of nature they cannot be true. They are just words to enforce a catechism. Their intent is to obscure the context of the inevitable result of dogs not learning to live in human society – death. Consider that for a moment. In an obvious case of life and death we are not supposed to save lives unless we use a behavioral effect that can’t actually save lives. Dogs in shelters desperately need to stop whatever behavior got them dumped there in the first place. If you can stop them from blasting out the front door, jumping on small children and aged aunts and attacking people and other dogs, they live. If you can’t, the die. The abuse of our responsibility to these animals is not the planned, skilled, effective and safe use of punishment. The abuse lies in attacking it.

 Addendum: The organization mentioned in the lead paragraph is the Assoc. of Pet Dog trainers (APDT) Because of their exclusion of any discussion of aversive control and their intolerance of differing opinions, a rebel group within the organization left (or were forced out, whichever you prefer) They founded the International Association of Canine Professionals – thanks to many, but primarily to the vision or Martin Deeley. His goal was to create a forum that included all voices. Today, IACP and the much older National Assoc. of Dog Obedience Instructors are the only such trainer’s groups on the planet, to my knowledge.

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