Suppression Vs. Modification
We have all heard the analogy of keeping a beach ball underwater. This is the basic premise behind suppressive techniques of training. Keeping unwanted behaviours down through the use of painful and aversive stimulus. The problem is, you need to keep that beach ball down constantly, but your arms are getting so tired. What happens when you let go? Explosive force. In fact, the harder you try to keep that beach ball down, the more explosive it will be. Continuing to keep that behaviour suppressed will result in having to continue keeping that beach ball underwater or face the shit storm that happens when you let go. The typical relationship you get with suppressive methods of training is Oppressor and Oppressed.
That might sound like enough of a problem on it’s own, but what you also have to take into account with positive punishment is the associative learning your dog is doing at all times as well. The learning responsible for the smell of cookies bringing back fond memories of baking with your mom or the reason people learn to hate the sound of a dentist drill regardless of being in the chair with a dental dam in or not. That type of learning is always happening at the same time operant conditioning (punishment and reward based learning) is. You cannot escape it.
So what are dogs that are being suppressed learning at the same time? While you are administering that leash “correction” (put in derisive quotes due to the actual lack of effectiveness of this technique), that shock, or that pinch when dogs pull or get excited to see other dogs, what else in the environment is your dog associating that pain or fear with? It most definitely is being associated with the handler as they are the constant presence in the picture. But what about children, other dogs, cats. Even something as seemingly mild as the ultrasonic birdhouses for barking in the yard can cause a negative association with the backyard. I have seen dogs unable to bring themselves even to go out for a pee after a single use.
On the other hand, what if suppression was not needed? What if we could teach a dog alternative behaviours (what to do instead) at a threshold they can be successful at and then work to reduce that threshold? What if we could maintain the positive associations the dog has with outside stimulus and ensure they see their owners as people who will never cause them harm or a moment of fear? Enter positive reinforcement training. If the relationship you are looking to have with your dog is more teacher/learner then you have to take the learners feelings into account. Would you rather a teacher who hurts you for getting it wrong or one who patiently teaches you what the right answer is?
We want to also look to esteemed, trusted sources for training and behaviour. There is a real overabundance of trainers who have seen a few episodes of a reality tv training show and are off on their YouTube channel or social media exhibiting what Dunning Kruger (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect) actually looks like. While these trainers look like they are getting results, they are merely suppressing the outward manifestation of emotions that have gone untreated. It’s like going to a dominatrix for unresolved emotional issues rather than a trained, educated psychiatrist.
Luckily there is a large community of educated, skilled and experienced trainers, behaviourists, organizations and scientists pushing back against the tidal wave of ignorance with good information and policy. Places like AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour) https://avsab.org/resources/position-statements/ , CVMA (Canadian Veterinary Medical Association) https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/policy-and-outreach/position-statements/statements/humane-training-of-dogs/ , Dr. Sophia Yin https://cattledogpublishing.com/dr-sophia-profile-history/ , The Pet Professional Guild https://petprofessionalguild.com/ , the IAACB (International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants) https://m.iaabc.org/ and many others.
Knowing where to start looking for credible information is a critical component of being well informed and educated so you can spot bad information, discount it and recognize the harms that come with them. We will be exploring how to vet not only information, but organizations in future blog posts, but for now, these will provide a reputable jumping off point and link to other credible information.