Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Positive reinforcement vs. positive punishment

EDIT: I posted this, then ended up taking it down and going over it again because something didn't sit right with me. It's back up now, and I want to reiterate that these are just my opinions. Some people really can train dogs using their voice alone, and that's great! Feel free to share some tips. I just wanted to offer my thoughts - that's all.

So I've been looking into Cesar Millan (famed Dog Whisperer)'s methods lately, and I wanted to share some more thoughts on dog training. Positive reinforcement, like clicker training, is the method I favour, which I covered in my earlier dog training post. Positive punishment is what Cesar Millan uses: responding to undesirable behaviour with something aversive, like a "nip" on the neck.

(Yep, punishment can be positive. I know it can get confusing! When you're talking about operant conditioning, instead of the normal connotations of 'good' and 'bad', positive means causing something to happen (after the behaviour), whereas negative is causing something to stop happening. It's like in math, where positive adds something and negative takes away. In dog training, an example of positive reinforcement would be clicker training - rewarding the dog immediately after desirable behaviour with a click and, summarily, a treat. Positive punishment would be a Cesar-type response or a shock collar, causing a mild electrical shock following barking or leaving the property.
Negative reinforcement, taking away a stimulus after the desired behaviour is performed, would be like shaking a can of pennies until your dog stops barking. Negative punishment would be like taking away your dog's toy as soon as he gets overexcited and bites you, and walking away from him. I'm looking at the "positives", so if you get confused, look at it this way: are you going to wait for your dog to do something good (and reward him), or wait for him to do something bad (and punish)? Much more simple!)

Now, to start off I have to say: I might be very pro-clicker training/positive reinforcement, but I think BOTH methods of training very much have their place in the dog world. Often times they'll coincide. With reinforcement you want your dog to keep doing whatever it is he's doing; with punishment you want him to stop. If your dog is an excessive barker, you can either teach him that not barking is a good thing and deserves rewards, or that barking is a bad thing to be punished. He can learn either. If your dog strains at the leash, you can teach her that walking beside you is preferred, or that pulling is undesirable. Before you decide to take either route of training, try and see how many of your objectives could be achieved either way like this. YOU know your dog's temperament, and you should know which method of training will work better for them.

With a puppy, you want to start with reinforcement right away. Your new baby doesn't know what you want at all, and you want to teach him in a way that won't foster uncertainty. He can't be punished for not sitting when he doesn't know what 'sit' means! And like I said in my other post, remember not to punish just because your dog does it the 'wrong' way - like taking too long to come when called. Keep on rewarding, and he'll keep on trying to please you. He'll get better as he learns, and puppies need patient teachers, especially if they're sensitive (researching your dog's breed will nearly always tell you whether that breed tends to respond poorly to harsh methods).

Other puppies need a firmer hand, and it's okay if you need to correct. If baby is showing undesirable actions, you want him to stop NOW, before he grows up and what was cute (like jumping up on people) becomes annoying or even frightening for some people. Worse, maybe he's biting or out of control. In these cases, pay attention to what Cesar teaches: Tone of voice and attitude, even your stance can tell the dog a lot. Plenty of dogs learn fast what "NO" means, because of the way you say it. If puppy bites you, even lightly, yelp or say "OW!" or something, and stop playing. Puppy wants to play with you, and she'll learn that she has to bite much more gently, and eventually not at all, if she wants to keep her playmate.

I won't tell you never to lay a hand on your dog. Why? Because I've raised a Border collie puppy ... I've been there! Even if he is a lovable teddy bear now, Tip was exactly the same as any other Border collie pup in the beginning - that is, he acted like he was perpetually riddled with cocain and running on a six-pack of Red Bulls, and that everyone he met was a "sheep" (not that he tried to herd me, but he played the dominant role). Convincing a Border collie that you're not a sheep is a lot of hard work, and these dogs stay puppies for a long time!

I KNOW we're not all saints, and I KNOW learning all the "be the pack leader" stuff just doesn't come naturally to some people, and that not everyone has time to learn the most positive training methods possible. I will NEVER, EVER tell you to hurt your dog: you're not just the "pack leader" to him, you're his best friend in the whole world. Keep it that way. But, in my opinion, getting "hands-on" can be okay if you do it carefully, and not in anger. Try to look at it like this: you're not aiming to hurt him physically (or emotionally; Tip's probably not the only crybaby out there), but just to get his attention or convey that you're unhappy. A light smack on the rump with an open palm was as far as I ever went personally; some trainers will tell you it's okay to grab your dog by the scruff and give it a shake, but that doesn't sit right with me. It's a matter of personal preference. Either way, I'm sure you realize that dogs get hands-on with each other! It's not the end of the world if you want to use physical contact to redirect your dog. Still; this should be a last resort. You should have already tried using tone of voice, or walking away, or whatever was needed, before touching your dog. And your puppy is probably a little saner than a Border collie - I hope you don't need to touch him. :) (I once dog-sat my neighbours' cockapoo puppy - they went to Florida for two weeks just after acquiring him; yeah, real bright idea - and didn't need to lay a hand on him. Just so you don't think I'm some kind of dog-molesting psycho with the uncontrollable urges to stomp on puppies and live in trailer parks and wear wife-beaters.)

Note: I never felt the need to use physical contact with Tip after he'd grown up a bit. I find the older a dog gets, the more receptive he is to you and the less I would recommend touching him. Tip was hell in puppy form, but now all it takes is a stern word or glare for him to look abashed.

But now your dog is grown up, and still showing some problems. You decide which method will work on him - he's your dog, you know him best, and you know how he should respond. Some dogs don't really need a "pack leader", I feel. When Tip pulls at the leash, it's because he's just excited to be outside and wants to sniff that tree, not because he thinks he's the top dog. Somebody recently told me I should give him a light KICK when he does that - we made a bet that I could stop him from pulling in two weeks using the clicker. Three days in and Tip now simply glances at those trees as if they're hardly there! Clickers can solve a lot of your doggy problems, and I'd recommend using one for just about any issue.

But personally, I think Cesar Millan knows what he's doing. Before you judge his methods, you should try getting into it with an aggressive pittie, and see how far tone of voice gets you! I love that he trains the owners simultaneously, because attitude, and the energy you put out, have a lot to do with how your dog's behaving. And no matter how aggressive the dog, he never harms them: "punishment" can indeed be as simple as a "tsst" (or a more calming "shhh"), or touching the neck.

What I don't like is that people think these are sound methods for training any dog. I can almost guarantee that your Lab doesn't need a "tsst"! Cesar works specifically with aggressive dogs and I think a lot of people lose sight of that. (The person who told me to kick my dog - my dog who is just like that kid you knew in kindergarten that ate paste and crayons, God bless - had just seen one episode of the Dog Whisperer.)

Try positive reinforcement first. If that really doesn't work, well, time to pull your head out of your ass and take some tips from Cesar: be calm, be assertive, lay the foundation using positive punishment until reinforcement can take its place. (But if the dog is super-aggressive, leave it to the professionals.)

(Another note I almost forgot to cover: Positive punishment will work for dominance aggression, but not so much for fear aggression. This I learned from C, my dog guru. I also got this handy chart from her. Fear aggression is something quite different from dominance and possibly one of the most difficult behaviours to break a dog of. I won't go into it now because I have no personal experience; but if you think your dog is fear-aggressive, forget using corrections. Be quiet and unthreatening, don't validify his fearful behaviour by coddling him, and give him treats and love when he is not acting fearful. Obedience training will be your best ally, as it will help strengthen the bond between you and your dog.)

I lost my train of thought two or six times writing this, so I'll sum up my thoughts real quick:

- For teaching your dog new things
- ...OR to train him out of certain behaviours
- Makes training fun for uncertain or sensitive dogs
- Is the clearest way to convey to your dog what you want him to do
- Tends to have good results!

- For correcting bad behaviour ASAP (like biting)
- ...Or laying the foundation to a more mentally sound dog, in order to move on to positive reinforcement
- Best used sparingly and as a last resort
- Will not make you a monster if you do it right, and safely. :)

Lastly, remember that a good trainer keeps an open mind. (Me, I'd never use a can of coins - it hurts my ears, for one thing! But I wouldn't condemn the people that do, either.) Every dog is different and some need different training strategies than others. Breed can be a good indication of how your dog should be trained, so be careful with your muttpuppies. And keep in mind that this is all just my opinion, and you have no particular reason to listen to me. ;) Feel free to disagree. Happy training!

1 comment:

GoLightly said...

Trés Brilliant:)
Very well-done, I hope more people will read this.
Gotta work, make $$ for dog-food.
have a great day!