Myth’s About Dog Training and Behaviour
#1 My Dog is not food motivated, so I can’t use R+ (positive reinforcement) with my dog.
All dogs are food motivated. They must eat to live. That said, there are times when some dogs will not take food from us but this is not related to not being food motivated. If a dog is worried or fearful, their brain goes in to survival mode and shuts the body down from being able to take food. It is like the brain is saying “You have no business eating right now! We need to get out of here!” In addition to this, some dogs become too aroused and over-stimulated around certain stimuli and environments and again, their brain is in “I am far too over-stimulated to take food right now!” Dogs must be below their fear/excitement threshold to take food, so in working with an experienced force-free trainer, we can often figure out what is needed to start having our dog below threshold and take food in all sorts of environments. We also find that some dogs are more motivated to learn by toy play (i.e.: a game of tug) in which case we can begin to incorporate toy play as a reinforcer in high distraction settings.
#2 I tried R+ training with my dog and it didn’t work.
Part of the problem may have been the above scenario or it may have been that you did not have a good understanding of timing and mechanics, in which case we can be inadvertently reinforcing unwanted behaviours and not the ones we wanted.
#3 Using food to train is bribery.
This is a deeply ingrained myth that finds its origins in a combination of a lack of understanding the science of animal learning theory and the good ole human ego. All animals (this includes dogs AND humans) must be motivated in order to perform behaviours (you do not go to work without the promise of a paycheck). Animals are motivated by what we call “primary reinforcers”. These are things that are hard-wired in the animal’s brain to be linked to survival. Scientific research has discovered 5 primary motivators in animals…food, water, sex, the avoidance of something scary or painful and choice or control over their environment. We know that it is difficult to use water and sex as reinforcers in training. We also know that based on countless scientific studies, training with methods that are scary or painful have high percentages of negative behavioural fallout and/or causing physical harm, therefore science recommends avoiding the use of this in training. This leaves us with food and choice which are both extremely powerful in motivating behaviours.
Since ALL animals need motivation to perform behaviours in the form
of primary reinforcers, we humans need to let go of the erroneous ego-based
notion that you are “bribing” the dog and embrace the truth and the science…you
are motivating the dog. You will not ALWAYS need food in your hand to get your
dog to do anything. Once a behaviour is strong, we can move to an intermittent
reinforcement schedule where we will only need to reinforce periodically enough
to keep the behaviour strong. This means we will
either need to periodically reinforce with something the dog loves OR punish or threaten
to punish the dog with something scary or painful. Many of us have heard from trainers who lack an education in the science of dog behaviour that our dogs should just work for praise. Praise, like other verbal markers and clickers, are what we call a "secondary reinforcer". What this means is that they have been paired with a primary reinforcer and thus predict what is coming. If we are a rewards based trainer, they predict something wonderful is coming. If we are an old school aversive/punishment based trainer, praise predicts for the dog that they won't get punsished. Either way, if we move strictly to praise from now on, we will
see behaviours weaken and fall apart because the power of the praise is based on its
predictability of being paired with a primary reinforcer. Either primary reinforcer (rewards or the avoidance of punishment) will work to motivate, but as educated and
intelligent human beings, we must know that the choice we make will determine
the relationship we will have with our dogs…one based on respect or one based
That said, as Dr. Susan Friedman, world renowned animal behaviourist explains, the idea that we even need to go to an intermittent schedule and/or fade out treats as is taught by so many trainers, goes against what science has proven repeatedly. Many of these ideas are simply more cultural fog myths that have embedded themselves in to society. More and more we are seeing working dogs being reinforced with every sequence of unnatural behaviour they perform in order to keep behaviours strong. Even for a service dog or trained working dog, the requirement to move to an intermittent schedule or fade out treats altogether, is not only stressful and unnatural to the animal, but completely unnecessary. This is why so many dogs fail out of these types of highly demanding training programs. Let’s set our human egos aside and ask ourselves… truly, what is wrong with giving our companion dog something they love for giving us good behaviour?
#4 My dog should work for me because he wants
to please me/should respect me.
Referring back to #3, this is simply untrue. It is not based on
science. It is based on Disney dogs and Rin Tin Tin that we grew up watching on
television. Those dogs were trained using science…off screen there was a
trainer giving cues and reinforcing with food rewards. Dogs are like every
other animal on the planet…there must be a primary reinforcer to motivate a
behaviour. Many trainers will tell us that our dogs should just work for
praise. This again simply demonstrates a lack of education in the science of
animal learning theory.
In regards to our dogs “respecting” us, let’s be very clear. If we look up the dictionary definition of “respect”, it means admiration/inspiration. It is a guarantee that if we use scary or painful punishment to train, our dogs will not respect us but fear us, so they will comply out of the fear of being punished. This is not the same as our dog complying out of a trusting bond which is the true meaning of respect.
#5 R+ training is permissive.
Good positive reinforcement trainers do not allow unruly and unwanted behaviour. First and foremost, they set the dog up to succeed by preventing the unwanted behaviour in the first place, teaching it what they want it to do in a certain context or scenario and then reinforcing that behaviour repeatedly until it eventually takes over. This works based on something called “Thorndike’s Law of Effect” which works as follows… behaviours that are reinforced, stay… behaviours that are not reinforced, go away. And when necessary we do use punishment. We use something called negative punishment, meaning we remove the reinforcement for the behaviour. Negative punishment is highly effective in teaching animals and the great thing is, it is not scary or painful resulting in negative behavioural fallout like fear and aggression that scary or painful punishment can often cause.
#6 R+ trainers just ignore bad behavior.
It may appear that way to the untrained eye, however, as stated above in #6, when needed, good positive reinforcement trainers make use of negative punishment which to some may seem like they are simply ignoring, however, they are making use of science and ensuring the behaviour is not being reinforced.
#7 R+ trainers use punishment but just don’t
know it or won’t admit it (e.g. not giving a reward is punishment!).
Yes, they do. They use P- or negative punishment (removing the reinforcer) as a last resort if the dog is not learning what it is we want them to do in place of an unwanted behaviour.
#8 R+ training does not work on strong/stubborn
All animals (this includes all dogs) learn the same. Animal learning theory is animal learning theory regardless of the species. In zoos, animal trainers haved trained a 2 ton killer whale to pee in a cup, a hyena to present its vein for a blood draw, an electric eel to swim in to a net voluntarily to be removed from its tank for tank cleaning and so much more, all with strictly force free, rewards-based training, so it is simply a lack of understanding the science of animal learning theory that makes people go to harsher old school training methods.
#9 All dogs are different and require different
methods to train them.
There is absolutely no scientific research to back this claim up whatsoever. There is however, plenty of research to support the opposite…all dogs learn the same. That said, some dogs have fear issues or higher arousal levels so take adjustments as to the reinforcers (food, toys, etc.) we use and the distance we need to be from stimuli to begin to be effective with our training.
#10 I’ve trained my own dogs with corrections
for years and it worked.
No one ever said corrections or positive punishment (adding something scary or painful that the dog works to avoid immediately following a behaviour) didn’t work. The issue is that years and years of research has shown that there are actually 9 adverse side effects of training using these types of methods, one of the main ones being creating stress and fear in our dogs (see the position statement from the American Society of Animal Behaviour on the use of punishment in training).
So yes, the methods can work but watch your dog carefully for subtle signs of stress when they comply to your wishes and you will also see lots of stress signals such as lip licking, ears pinned back, look aways, tails tucked, slinking, etc. We at the AFFA believe that you love your dogs and if you were actually aware that this was the result of the way you trained, you would use different methods that would produce compliance without the stress in your dog.
#11 Shock, prong and choke collars, when used
properly, do not cause pain or discomfort; they simply get the dogs attention.
This statement simply demonstrates that whoever is saying it does not understand the quadrants of operant conditioning.
There are four quadrants in operant conditioning…#1. Positive Reinforcement (R+) where we add a consequence the dog loves immediately following a desired behaviour which will see the preceeding behaviour increase (i.e. – dog doesn’t pull on the leash, the dog gets to keep going forward and maybe even a yummy treat and as a result we start to see loose leash walking increase since the dog desires going forward and getting a yummy treat). #2. Negative Punishment (P-) where we remove the thing the dog wants immediately following an undesired behaviour which will see the preceeding behaviour decrease (dog pulls on the leash, we stop and the dog doesn’t get to move forward or the yummy treat so we start to see pulling on the leash decrease since the dog desires going forward). #3. Positive Punishment (P+) where we add something aversive (scary or painful) that the dog works to avoid immediately following an undesired behaviour in order to see the preceding behaviour decrease (dog pulls on the leash, we leash pop the dog with a prong or choke collar or zap it with a shock collar and the dog’s pulling reduces in order to avoid the pain of the aversive tools) and #4. Negative Reinforcement (R-) where we remove a scary or aversive consequence immediately following a desired behaviour in order to see the preceding behaviour increase (the dog doesn’t pull on the leash, we don’t leash pop them with the prong or choke collar or zap them with the shock collar). So that is it. There are no more quadrants.
So what quadrant do shock, prong and choke collars fall in to? They fall into #3. Positive Punishment (P+) adding something scary or painful that the dog works to avoid. They work because the dog works to avoid the pain of the shock, prong or choke. End of story. Peroid. *Notice there is no ‘5th’ quadrant that says, “a consequence that doesn’t hurt the dog immediately following a behaviour that will see the preceding behaviour decrease”.
Interestingly enough, when we understand the quadrants properly, we can train the same desired behaviours using Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment only, which do not make use of anything scary or painful. So if we can, why would we not?
#12 Spray collars, vibration collars, spray
bottles, alpha rolls and loud noises (such as pet corrector) are not aversive
because they don’t cause any pain.
Although they may not be physically painful to the dog, the intention of these devices is to interrupt behaviours by startling the dog. So what is wrong with this? We have not addressed the underlying reason as to why the dog is doing the behaviour in the first place. Most often barking at strangers out the window or through the fence is based in fear or anxiety. So if each time the dog barks, they are sprayed, pinned or restrained, can you see this making them less fearful or less anxious? Ultimately as a result, we often see dogs habituate to the devise and they no longer work at best. At worst, the dog becomes more fearful or anxious and because their barking, etc. was suppressed, that stress comes out in some other area such they can start to get aggressive, become destructive or do self-mutilating behaviours.
#13 The Prong collar works to simulate the mother biting the puppy to “correct” the behaviour. It’s natural!
There is no scientific evidence to back this up whatsoever.
#14 My dog is trying to dominate me, and I have
to show him who is boss!
A good portion of this idea that we need to be the “alpha” or “pack leader” with our dogs dates back to 1970 and a book that was published by Senior Scientist, David Mech. He had studied a group of captive wolves for his research that was comprised of all unrelated problem wolves that had been captured all over the U.S. due to causing problems for ranchers, etc. After his book was already published and on the best seller list, his colleagues came forward and pointed out that he had not actually studied wolves in their natural habitat as an actual pack (a pack is a family…a primary breeding pair and the rest are their offspring who eventually go on to form their own packs). As a result, when scientists later studied wolves in their natural habitat, they found there was very little dominance aggression to one another. Why the difference? The group of captive wolves were all unrelated, mostly male and all in competition for limited resources in a very small unnatural territory. This was not how scientists later discovered that wolves normally interact with one another. David Mech can be seen talking about the fact that he is mostly to blame for this myth that has embedded itself in to society’s general knowledge about dogs since we know some dog species came from wolves some 150,000 years ago.
15,000 years ago we began domesticating dogs and it is in their
genetics to naturally defer to humans. We do not need to be their “alpha” or
“pack leader” however we do need to be kind and understanding as we teach them
what we do and do not want them to do in our worlds. Making the erroneous assumption that everything they do is based on them attemtping to dominate us creates a relationship with our dogs that is adversarial and confrontational which is not in any way conducive to establishing a relationship founded in love, trust and respect.
#15 I was told I have to eat first, walk through
the door first, etc so that my dog knows I am the boss.
It is not that dominance does not exist between dogs, but the problem is, many uneducated trainers will have us believe that dominance is the basis for every behaviour our dogs do and this is far from the truth.
Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993). So, if #15 were true, then that would mean that if we tried to eat first, walk in front of our dogs, walked through the door before them, etc. they would attack us with force and aggression. This simply is not the case.