Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 3

MousetrapNow that we’ve laid out the foundation for the topic it’s time to talk about specifics. First and foremost I have to clear up a widely held fantasy. Training is not the only situation where your dog might experience some fear inspiring or painful events. People who predict dire consequences from using aversive control in training seem ignorant of this fact. Scary and often painful events are part of life. Dogs are built to deal with it. Some of those events change a dog’s behavior and sometimes – like a vet performing a terrifying and/or painful procedure – they simply have to bite the bullet.
The Really, Really Scary Boogeyman: DVMs
Your veterinarian is the most likely person to “hurt” your dog – regularly, at your request and for a fee. This means that if you decide that aversive control in training is automatically harmful you have to explain something. How does your dog differentiate training from other experiences as regards their reaction to aversive events? If giving a correction that causes pain or fear automatically implies damage, what makes accidentally stepping on your dog’s foDogHurtPaw159615229ot somehow harmless? The logical answer is that it doesn’t. Your dog cannot be protected from all punishment. It is “punished” if it accidentally runs into a glass door. It is punished every time you put a leash532cdc37a8fc4.preview-620 on it. It is punished when it shoves its nose too close to a cat’s claw. It can be scared, spitless, by a loud noise.To some, those very normal reactions to aversive events are not integrated into their rhetoric about punishment. To them only punishment in training automatically has a detrimental effect on behavior. (In reality this is a self-serving ego-motivated concept. As long as the trainer never applies punishment they claim to be morally superior – even if the lack of punishment hurts or kills the dog. This calloused pretension is simply a form of cowardice. Would you pull the quills from the dog’s nose? Would you simply ignore the dog and make someone else do it? If so, you might simply be emotionally weak and you can be forgiven. What if you actually worked against people who do pull quills from noses and claimed that quill-pulling was somehow inhumane? That goes well beyond forgiveness. Why? The animal is left at risk because a “humane” trainer wishes to be perceived as a saint.) So let’s look at a couple of practical aspects of the vet hurting your dog. If pain and fear cause trauma then vets and animal shelters should include warnings to owners and adopters after they have cranked heavily on a dog. They don’t. Since pain and fear cause aggression, according to a multitude of experts, a dog so treated is a ticking time bomb. Legally if a vet, groomer or shelter scares or causes pain to a dog they would be liable when the dog explodes. That isn’t what happens. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that.

Before you freak out about all the punishment your dog experiences, don’t panic. Your dog is designed to integrate that form of learning and get on with its life. Any normal dog has a relationship with pain and fear that your imagination doesn’t. They get over an aversive event – or they don’t. In most cases they learn and don’t repeat the behavior. The dogs with the most difficulty are those that are innately fearful and those that are coddled by their owners. Those dogs never toughen up to life because they are shielded from any consequence that would make them frown – except the ones that are paid for by their owners -things like grooming and veterinary care. That means that often, their inability to deal with aversive events is up to you. Coddle your dog and you set the stage for a life not fully lived. That is because life includes good things and bad things. Some things need to be avoided because they can do harm. The mechanism whereby we identify those things is called punishment. Punishment is good. It prevents your dog from drinking anti-freeze. It can prevent your dog from going out the gate and being hit by a car – which just happened to my neighbor’s dog. The famous last words are “he never did that before so we didn’t imagine that it would happen.” So, instead of imagining all the harm that punishment can do, imagine the harm that comes if your dog isn’t punished to create an inhibition against doing dangerous things. Then imagine the benefits of inhibiting behaviors that could harm your dog. My neighbor’s dog is dead because they didn’t think that a behavior could happen, merely because they had never seen it before. Very sad.

Note: If your head is reeling from seeing the words, ‘punishment is good’ there is a simple reason behind it. Behavioral psychologists and other academic experts have spent 80 years spinning a fraud. They have successfully associated the word punishment with abuse. To hear the word punishment one instantly imagines some harm. This concerted effort to demonize a natural, beneficial behavioral effect has been incredibly damaging to our culture. If my neighbor had punished his dog for slipping out the gate the dog would still be alive. Anti-punishment ideologues never weigh the outcome of their ideology with real consequences. Would you have suggested punishment to my neighbor as a logical, beneficial, prophylactic procedure or would you have opposed the suggestion? That brings us to an obvious conclusion. The intelligent use of punishment to protect an animal is best done in advance. That requires planning and most of all it means you have to know how to do it and have experience applying the fundamental rules. If you have never used punishment and oppose it, you might as well open the gate yourself.

The Other Shoe Drops:
If that last comment smacks of blaming someone for this dog’s death you are right. However, the culpable parties are not my neighbors. They were lulled into a complaisance that is the result of the drum-beat of learned academics and “humane” people. Here’s what those learned behaviorists and modern trainers don’t want examined. The real cause of this dog’s death was positive reinforcement and the absence of punishment. Both. The dog was trying to chase after his loved ones as they drove away in their car. What negative association could have caused that? None. What behavioral consequence caused the fatal behavior? Months of positive reinforcement that built a loving relationship caused the dog to want to follow them. No, no one gave him a treat for slipping through the gate but the cause of his death was still the warm-fuzzy feeling of being close to his family. Positive reinforcement strengthens behaviors pleasantly. It was that strength that caused the dog’s death. Advocates of positive reinforcement punish any discussion or application of punishment because of all the horrible side effects – but never address the horrible side effects of their steadfast worship of all things “nice”. They don’t deal with the reality of their nonsense. They are elsewhere when the blood hits the pavement. They refuse to acknowledge their responsibility in selling a utopia that is often fatal. That isn’t sad, that is evil. If that sounds harsh, for three years of my life one of my jobs was picking up dead dogs off the street. It was all the positively reinforcing experiences associated with running free that killed them. Correctly applied punishment could have saved most of them. That isn’t hyperbole, that is a fact…but you have to know how to do it and have the will to protect your dog in the face of cultural pressure.

The Rules:
The first thing to know about punishment is that there are two basic types; contingent and non contingent. They most often occur simultaneously. A contingency is created when the animal realizes that the punishment does not occur unless a specific set of criteria are met. For instance, put your finger in a mouse-trap and push. It will snap your finger, every time. That will make you stop pushing on the trigger of a mouse-trap but likely will not prevent you from using one correctly. It is not the mousetrap that universally snaps your finger, it is handling it willy nilly that causes problems. The purpose of punishment is to create such a contingency. Non-contingent punishment means an event occurs that suppresses behavior generally without any specific trigger. The two types of punishment are commonly differentiated in a canard often promoted by educators. “You’re not punishing the child, you’re punishing the behavior.” This statement is absurd on its face for several reasons. First, educators are not taught how to make a behavior contingent with a predictable punishment and they are not allowed to use the tool in any meaningful sense of the word. Second, the first effect of punishment is to suppress behavior generally across a broad spectrum. In almost all cases you are “punishing the behavior and the child” at the same time. Third, practically speaking, teaching through a contingent punishment procedure is a skill like any other. (Yes, the punishment is teaching something) You get better at it through experience. That means it is not a reasonable goal to assume you can eliminate a behavior on a single repetition of punishment. The dog has to become sophisticated about adapting to punishment before it can get good at it and any specific event may have multiple criteria that have to be covered. To understand the process requires having a much more sophisticated approach that goes beyond catch phrases and one-dimensional rules.

Contingent Punishment:
The most common exception to using punishment is that it is supposedly incredibly difficult to create a perfect contingency. That is most often true if the speaker is incapable of examining their own experience on planet Earth or an entrenched and myopic ideologue. (See http://clickandtreat.com/wordpress/?p=731 for more information) Think back on your life. You have experienced punishing events and seen people and animals punished. If you think about them logically you can find the rules yourself without some peer-reviewed paper to prove something. (Note: Good science does not validate nature. Good science reveals nature. There is a lot of bad science in the scientific discussion of punishment. This means that many reports from nominally scientific sources contradict nature and should be an embarrassment to the authors.) In reality, the process of using contingent punishment is pretty simple. There are only four criteria that you have to obey.

Criteria for creating a punishment contingency: 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 This is a good test of how much anti-punishment Kool-Aid you’ve consumed in your life. If you can oppose a procedure that stops a behavior but doesn’t even make the dog stop wagging it’s tail you are officially a blind ideologue.

2. Immediately Identified: The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has a public “position statement on punishment”. You can find it on line. In essence their position is that you shouldn’t use it because they don’t use it. They list a bunch of reasons why it’s a terrible, dangerous process. One of the most critical is this guideline. Apparently, 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. (Consider the phrase, “Wait ’til your father gets home and see what you’ve done”)  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 or just shut the door, thereby preventing escape. 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 the connection 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 if your goal is to inhibit the behavior.

To read the series, use these links
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


8 thoughts on “Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 3

  1. Another Great Article Gary. Somehow there has come the mantra in modern dog training that punishment is bad. You show clearly that it is not and that is a valuable part of learning. I have maintained for many years. both in dog training and child rearing, that punishment is a natural part of life, just as you illustrated with common occurrence such as a swat from a cat. Even a puppies mother will nip and bite at the pup when the pup bites her too hard. This teaches the dog bite inhibition, something that is socially necessary for interacting with humans. I will repost your article on our site for my clients. Thank you.

  2. I think that this kind of stuff might have to go under the heading of awkward truth: You might not want to admit it but you can’t deny it.

    I also cannot agree strongly enough that we are trying to reveal nature and work with nature, not fight against nature.

    • Gail B, I couldn’t agree with you more, but I take it beyond that. Many behavioral scientists wish to contradict nature and claim that a myopic peer-reviewed foundational study or a scholarly text (and all subsequent studies based on those sources) prove that they are right. If common objective observation confirms universal facts about nature, putting a journal name on hogwash doesn’t make it nutritious.

  3. You should try an e-collar rather than a towel. It seems like it meets all the criteria, it doesn’t require any aim, and you do not need to be near the dog in order to deliver the punishment.

    • Chad, I am qualified enough with an e-collar to refine the way US Special Ops Delta Force handlers use one. I also bonked their dogs – dogs that know how to respond to an e-collar but were completely flummoxed by a bonker. A couple of other advantages – you don’t need batteries, chargers or a couple of hundred bucks. Learning to throw one is not exactly a difficult task. The advantages of an e-collar are primarily that it works at great distance or that you can trigger it when the dog believes he isn’t being observed – such as to stop pica.

  4. Dear Gary,

    I am a professional dog trainer in the Bay Area with 20 years of experience, 30,000 private consultations and thousands of hours in classes under my belt. When I first started out in this your work along with Karen Pryor’s was quite influential on me.

    Over the years I have learned to adopt a “balanced approach” to training with a high degree of success. But I have been dogged by the “positive only” crowd and all of their one dimensionality, false assertions and aggressiveness.

    Coming back to your work so many years later and seeing how directly your opinions regarding this topic reflect my own is like a breath of fresh air. Sometimes I feel like the Lone Ranger out here. Jean Donaldson ruined the Bay Area for dog training and her cult followers control about 85% of the dog training scene.

    Having refused to buy their positive only training nonsense for all the reason you mention on your various blog posts I am often the subject of all manner of personal attacks. This seems to be their m.o. – if you can’t argue with the training results attack the trainer by making up lies about him or her and casting them as some “old school neanderthal.”

    At any rate, I just want to tip my hat to you for your insightful, articulate and incredibly well informed contributions to this topic.

    I will look for your next seminar in the Bay Area and sign up. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken one and having re-discovered your work it might be time to continue to update my learning.

  5. Mike, thanks for the kind words. Before Karen and I introduced clicker training I had already clicker trained more than 1,000 dogs primarily by veterinary referral. I also had 8 years of experience working in shelters before that. Karen had about three years of experience with marine mammals (creatures confined in concrete buckets) and learned a great deal from me…while rejecting anything that would require a knowledge of or use of aversive control. Utopians are like that. So, after I got to the point where I figured clicker training would survive, even if I got hit by a bus, I quit working with her. She is a masterful manipulator of those who wish to believe the all-positive fantasy. I have stopped using references to clicker training in most of my business materials because far too many people have “peed in the pool’. The public now connotes clicker training with ineffective training. Congratulations for pulling yourself out of the fantasy – it’s the only way to offer effective training to clients…and I think that is the purpose. 🙂

  6. A few years ago I contacted you about a cattle dog at a shelter. You taught me about properly correcting a dog. I was taught only 100% positive reinforcement should be used in training at that point so I tried some corrections reluctantly. And continued to research more with various trainers. Result – I learned that a properly used correction is not abuse, and can be used with clicker and positive reinforcement training. I am very careful with them and still use clicker and rewards most of the time. But trying your correction methods do work in inhibiting behaviours that can be annoying and dangerous. Followed up by training by positive reinforcement you end up with a dog who know what to do without collapsing into the quivering mess that positive only trainers would have you believe. I used to be a close minded positive reinforcement only trainer but now can work more effectively and still have a wonderful relationship with my dogs.

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