Quick fixes

Frankly I don’t believe genuine, reliable, permanent quick fixes exist.

Sometimes you can use management as a quick fix. This means you change the situation so you can avoid the behaviour.

1. Your dog runs away.  Fence him in; lock him in a kennel and run, or use a leash.
2. Your dog steals food from the kitchen.  Shut the kitchen door or keep the bench clear.
3. Your dog raids the rubbish.  Shut the door or put the rubbish somewhere the dog can’t get to it.
4. Your dog barks at the window.  Keep her out of the room or close the curtains so she can’t see.

Instructive reprimand
Ian Dunbar uses an ‘instructive reprimand’. This is something he has already thoroughly taught the dog to do e.g. sit. If the dog is then about to make a wrong choice (e.g. jump on someone) he firmly tells her to ‘sit’. If necessary he repeats the word, even more loudly and firmly. The dog can then be given a treat, praise, attention etc because she sat.

Management or training?
Both! I always use management as part of training or retraining. I don’t want the dog to do the wrong thing AT ALL while I teach her the right thing. Think about it – if you want to go on a diet, you aren’t going to spend your day in a cake shop to test your will power.

What about if you had to spend the day in a cake shop and were scolded or hit every time you reached for a cake? I know it sounds crazy, yet people regularly ask more than a dog can give and punish the predictable failure. How is that okay?

Positive Reinforcement

This is my method of choice, alongside management. I set my dog up to succeed and reward (reinforce) the behaviour that I want.

Emotion and behaviour are connected. Intense emotion will show in intense behaviour. I want the dog feeling and acting calmly; learning new skills and then carrying those skills into harder situations. This means I need to know what I want, teach it and reward it.

Consequences for unwanted behaviour

I mainly use a lack of reinforcement (reward) e.g. the dog who is set up to succeed and fails receives no reward. If a dog was losing its mind with excitement etc I might use a time out to give it the opportunity to calm down, then restart the lesson at an easier level. 

If a dog is making a wrong choice and needs further information – and some do because the lack of reward isn’t meaningful to them – I might use an NRM (a No Reward Marker word like Oops or Wrong). With really unpleasant behaviour (like over excited biting) I may use an interrupter like a sound which stops the behaviour in the moment (‘Oi!’) 

In my experience, changing behaviour is usually a long, slow adjustment of the emotion and behaviour of both handler and dog. I think it’s a thoroughly worthwhile process.

Punishment

Many so called quick fixes involve the use of punishment. It’s important to know how to use it well and the risks you run. Then you can make an informed choice.

In general, tools and methods don’t train dogs, people train dogs. Whatever tool or method you use, you will be a novice at using it in the beginning. You will make mistakes and these will have an effect on the dog. Think hard before using tools or methods which may involve force, fear or pain. Be aware there could be short and long term fallout.

We all use punishment in some way. Punishment doesn’t have to seem mean or cruel. In science speak, it just means a consequence which makes a behaviour less likely to occur in future.

Removing access to a reward is a form of punishment. For example; if the dog was jumping towards someone seeking attention and the person backed off, the backing off would have removed access to the reward (attention). If this reduces the behaviour of jumping towards someone, it has worked as a punisher.

Common forms of punishment are stronger than this. Instead of removing rewards, they involve adding something which the dog dislikes e.g. scolding; leash corrections; shock/ citronella collar corrections; slaps; kicks; alpha rollovers (pushing the dog over and holding it down) etc.

Punishment doesn’t teach an animal what to DO, it only suppresses (reduces) behaviour. If you are focused on trying to stop your dog doing something, you are probably trying to use punishment (and may or may not be succeeding!)

(Adapted from Steve White’s 8 Rules of Punishment)

To be effective:
1. The punishment must work (i.e. suppress the behaviour) . If it doesn’t, then the intended punishment isn’t a punishment at all, it’s just a dog being handled in a way it doesn’t enjoy. The ‘punishment’ may even act as a reward (reinforcement). For a bored, active dog, being yelled at when you bark or dig or jump up or steal things, may be better than being ignored!

2. The punishment must be of the perfect intensity. Too much could overly stress the dog. Too little and the dog may just get used to it.

3. The punishment must happen the instant the unwanted behaviour occurs. For example, when teaching the dog to walk at heel, the dog shouldn’t drag you for 3 metres before you correct it. Decide what you want. If the behaviour you want is the dog’s shoulder in line with your shoulder, then watch closely and correct the instant the dog is out of position.

4. The punishment must happen every time the behaviour occurs, otherwise it is hard for the dog to understand what you want, and when or where you want it.

5. The punishment must be linked to a behaviour. Punishing an attitude like ‘dominance’ or ‘stubbornness’ or whatever you think the animal is thinking, is guesswork and makes it hard for the animal to understand which behaviour should stop.

6. The dog must be able to do something else instead. This ‘something else’ will turn off the punishment. E.g. you yell at your dog for eating the cat’s food and the dog leaves it alone. STOP yelling the moment the dog leaves the food, even praise the right choice. If you keep shouting when the dog is doing the right thing, he cannot understand the lesson. If the dog is cornered and can’t leave, he can’t ‘do something else instead’.

7. Ideally you will teach the dog what you want him to do before you begin to punish errors for failing to do it.

Risks of using punishment

1. Working out the perfect intensity is difficult. Too soft for one dog can be far too harsh for another. One dog may bounce back quickly, another may never recover its confidence.

2. Punishment often only works in the presence of the punisher  e.g. you, your partner or a shock collar on the neck. When the punisher isn’t there, the unwanted behaviours still persist (like drivers slowing down near a speed camera, but speeding elsewhere.)

3. Unwanted connections can be made. The dog may learn to distrust you and/ or other things. Although you intended to punish ‘pulling towards other dogs’, the dog links the corrections with the sight of other dogs, not ‘pulling towards them’. He becomes worried about dogs in general because they signal punishment (from you.) Being with you around strange dogs may be even more stressful than just being near strange dogs!

4. Punishment can suppress a lot more behaviour than you intend. If the dog isn’t certain which behaviour causes the punishment, he may do less of everything. ‘Learned Helplessness’ occurs when an animal has no idea what to do to turn off the stress, so simply does nothing. These dogs are often no trouble, however, you can’t actually do much with them. Because the safe option for them is to take no chances and not even try to work out what you mean, they avoid situations which put them at risk.

5. Some dogs will defend themselves. The fight response is when the dog starts trying to defend himself, fights back and perhaps bites. This may happen. Most of us will leap back in pain and fright. This REWARDS (reinforces) the bite – it tells the dog biting works (so he may try again.). If you push on to show the dog that his biting doesn’t work, either you, the dog or both may get hurt. Whether you push on or withdraw after a dog bites, the result is still distressing all round.

Once you stop trying to physically force compliance, your dog may not try to bite again. However, he might. He might even bite sooner, harder and with less warning. You may not feel able to trust your dog again, and he may lose trust in you. Unfortunately, you won’t know which of those possibilities will happen until after you’ve tried and at that stage, it’s too late. You can’t undo what has been done.

6. Dogs can develop a punishment ‘callus’ . If your punishment isn’t severe enough to stop a behaviour, you may have to punish more intensely. Are you willing to do this? Some dogs learn to tolerate higher and higher levels of punishment. Some dogs eventually retaliate when the level gets too high.

Conclusion
Are problem behaviours ever ‘fixed’? I doubt it. They can be improved and may never show up again, but given the right mix of conditions, a problem behaviour can reappear. It may not be as intense or last as long as previously, but can you ever relax, safe in the knowledge it has vanished forever? I don’t think so.

Please educate yourself, so your choices are informed and carefully made. Most problem behaviours can be vastly improved with a mix of management to avoid the problem; the patient development of handler knowledge and skill; and training using positive reinforcement.

Punishment can work and does work. It suppresses behaviour. If it didn’t, people would have stopped using it years ago, but punishment doesn’t teach what to do instead and it carries risks.

When you study dog body language and become familiar with displacement behaviours and cutoff signals (commonly known as ‘calming signals’) , you may be quite surprised by what your dog is trying to tell you.

Please check out the Dog Behaviour page for links to more information.

 

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