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Insights on Behavior, Training, and Raising Companion Dogs

Post 131: The Problem with Obedience Training

For those of you who have seen me work-- you know that I don't use Obedience Training with dogs. Well that isn't exactly true of course.  But it's often the case, and it's especially true when I'm working with a new dog or when I'm teaching a dog not to do something.  But Why?  If you can get a dog to perform a behavior, isn't that all that matters?  If the dog performs the behavior you want, who cares whether or not you use a verbal cue/command, right?  Well it does matter, and it matters a lot. Trainers especially are overly focused on performance-- the measure of a physical action or outcome. Rarely it seems does anyone bother to consider what the dog is actually learning during training or from similar interactions.  What a dog learns from an interaction or training session is far more important than whether or not a dog performs the action requested.  Let's see a few reasons why...

Post 130: Punishments and Aversives in Training

There always seems to be an ongoing controversy and subsequent debate as to whether or not 'punishment' or aversive/unpleasant consequences can or should be used in training.  The debate always gets extra hot when these discussions include dogs and dog training.  In fact right at this moment, there is legislature pending in numerous jurisdictions that would ban or outlaw the use of certain types of training equipment, just because these devices might cause a dog discomfort or pain.  Let's dive a little deeper to see why this debate continues, and discuss how and when aversives might be used effectively in training...

Post 129: Emotions & Aversives in TrainingA Volatile Cocktail

The one thing that every dog owner has experienced with their dog is…  Emotionality.  Dogs are emotional creatures, possessing nearly the same emotional system as we humans do.  Dogs get excited, nervous, anxious, afraid, angry, jealous / possessive, happy, confident, sad, lonely, panicked… nearly any emotional or behavioral state that we experience, dogs experience too.  Emotionality is of course normal and healthy.  However, problems can arise when emotional states become too intense or are expressed at inappropriate times.  In fact, nearly every significant behavioral problem that you can think of in dogs is caused or driven by an underlying emotional state.  Everything from Separation Distress to Fear-based Aggression; from Social/Competitive Aggression to Food & Bone Guarding; from Territorial Behavior to Pulling on the Leash and Leash Reactivity.  All of these behaviors and more are driven by a strong emotional or instinctual state.  This is a most critical fact, especially when it comes to addressing the observable behaviors that result from these emotional states.  Attempting to correct, address, or re-direct the behaviors we observe but do not like often fails to resolve these issues, and in some cases creates additional behavioral side-effects.  Of particular concern is the use of aversives to suppress emotionally driven behaviors.  Let’s look at why this practice is so common, even amongst trainers who should know better, and the potential pitfalls of doing so…

Post 127: So what's wrong with Operant Conditioning (OC)?

If you've heard me speak before, you know I'm not a big fan of the so-called "Operant Conditioning" Paradigm or Learning Principles.  But why not?  Hasn't OC been around for 100+ years, and more importantly, doesn't everybody use it to explain / describe / justify learning procedures?  Perhaps, but that doesn't mean it's right, it may just be a QWERTY phenomenon.

This is a HUGE topic, and an even BIGGER can of worms to open.  We're only going to scratch the surface here, but we'll still need to divide this commentary in to 2 parts.  If you are interested in learning more about the pitfalls and shortcomings of conceptualizing learning processes through the Operant Conditioning paradigm, be sure to check out the video "Meta-Modern Learning Theory"  

Part I of this post will cover Operant Conditioning-- what it is, how it got here, and what it's supposed to represent.  Part II will discuss the fundamental problems with the Operant Conditioning construct, how it is misinterpreted by many, and why it's a bad idea to view learning through 'Operant' eyes.  So let's get started...



Other News

March 30, 2017

From Bad to Worse in Hillsborough County Florida-

The Board of Commissioners in Hillsborough County, Florida is now seriously considering an ordinance that requires licensing for dog trainers thanks to a campaign by extremist activists.  This ordinance is an attempt to require dog trainers and owners to use only those specific training methods endorsed by these activists.  From the IACP:

  • Section 3.c.3 relates punishment to “dominance training techniques”.  This is a very misleading association. Punishment has nothing to do with “dominance”; it is a natural, important, and unavoidable part of learning for all animals and humans alike. This section also prohibits causing “undue physical or mental discomfort”.  In theory I agree with this statement, however the word “undue” leaves it open to wide-ranging interpretation. Given the broad range of ideologies in the industry this could mean something as rational as “don’t physically beat a dog” or something as extreme and irrational as “never require a dog to do something it doesn’t want to.”  The latter would make virtually all dog ownership and care impossible.

  • Section 3.c.4 states, “In no way shall a Dog Trainer use or promote any aversive training methods or techniques.” The use of an aversive (Negative reinforcement and Positive Punishment) is an integral component not only of dog training, but also as a part of the universal laws of learning and cognition. You have likely been led to believe that “science says” - negative reinforcement leads to fear, aggression etc. I know that this statement strikes a sensitive chord in anyone who cares for the well being of their dog(s), and leaves reasonable concerns about the possibility of trauma and abuse.  The truth is there are only a small handful of studies that suggest this, and they have all been discredited for faulty research methods and clear biases. In fact the vast majority of legitimate science reports the exact opposite. As a part of a balanced training program, negative reinforcement not only adds exponentially to the efficacy of training, but also has been shown to improve the animal’s psychological resilience to stress. In other words, measured usage of negative reinforcement is an essential component to creating happy, well balanced companions that are prepared for the challenges of the real world.

  • The science is very clear that positive reinforcement methods alone are not sufficiently effective when it comes to managing and resolving problem behaviors.  As long as people own dogs, there will be a need for some amount of aversive training or punishment. The way this ordinance may be interpreted could make it very difficult for professional trainers to properly educate dog owners about how to use negative reinforcement and positive punishment in fair, humane, and effective mays. Without proper education, dog owners will be left to improvise which will certainly lead the way to greater harm and abuse. 

    Both positive reinforcement and punishment have their advantages and disadvantages: punishment is better for suppressing behavior, positive reinforcement better for generating behavior; avoidance (punishment) schedules tend to produce more persistent behavior than reward schedules, and so on. The effects of positive reinforcement also dissipate when the reinforcement is withdrawn, and there is no positive-reinforcement procedure (including all differential reinforcement procedures) that produces such persistent behavior as a negative reinforcement schedule.  Just as any other form of learning, Positive Reinforcement protocols can also provoke aggression and have undesired side effects. There are plenty of arguments on both sides, but the net conclusion is that the scientific evidence is pretty neutral in deciding between reward and punishment.  Favoring reward over punishment is inconsistent with science and the basic laws of learning.

  • The discussion of the “Five Freedoms” is taken from the Farm Animal Welfare council. Key descriptions of what those freedoms are intended to represent/prevent have been omitted in this ordinance, again opening the door for extreme interpretations that could be damaging for companion animals. 


Call, write, spread the word... do something.  If it can happen here, it can and eventually will happen in your city or town.  You can express your concerns to the following officials in Hillsborough County:

March 23, 2017

From Hillsborough County Florida-

The Board of Commissioners in Hillsborough County, Florida is contemplating a vote on an ordinance that requires licensing for dog trainers.  More importantly, this ordinance implies requirements for a reward-based-only approach to training.

Paragraph 3 of the ordinance:

3.         However, in no way shall a Dog Trainer use or promote any aversive training methods or techniques, use techniques that are improper for the particular behavior (or breed), causes undue physical or mental discomfort, is cruel, painful, or will cause or are likely to cause injury, torment, suffering, or death.

Clearly, such language can be easily used to justify and enforce the use of a specific approach to dog training, while simultaneously prohibiting the use any technique or method that could be interpreted as aversive or uncomfortable.  The banning of certain types of training equipment would surely follow should such an ordinance pass.  Remember, these are the goals of such fringe groups-- to push their own extreme training agenda while banning any training tools or equipment that does not fit their ideology, thus effectively outlawing any training approach other than their own.  


There will be a public hearing on April 5th to discuss the matter. This meeting is the most important one, so if you are in the area, show up!   Call, write, spread the word... do something.

March 6, 2017

From the IACP Newsletter-


"It was just brought to my attention that a bill has been introduced into the Georgia Assembly (House Bill 313 ) which would require that any time a dog is being sold or adopted which belongs to the any of the following breeds: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Doberman Pinscher, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Chow Chow, Husky, Great Dane, Akita, Boxer, or Wolf Hybrid breed, that an “informational document” be provided which includes dog bite statistics (not specific to that particular dog, but general dog bite statistics). These statistics would include injuries caused to humans by dogs, reported number of humans bitten by dogs, total medical costs related to injuries caused by dogs in the United States, and the total amount of damages awarded to victims of dog bites or attacks in the United States.  This legislation obviously is an example of breed discrimination and is intended to deter individuals from owning dogs of these breeds."

March 2, 2017

It seems that Toronto has banned slip leashes, choke-type collars, and prong collars. Apparently, the legislation was slipped in as the City Council was amending their City of Toronto Municipal Code. Toronto residents can find their Councilperson using the link below.

Speak up.  Don't think this can't happen to you in your town...

Link provided by IACP

February 15, 2017

Another Bill (bill # 1640) has been introduced by the New Jersey Senate, concerning the care and confinement of dogs. This bill proposes to place restrictions on keeping dogs outdoors, the practice of tethering, and the crating/confining of dogs.  This bill has already passed through its second reading by the Budget and Appropriations committee, so it's up for serious considerations by law-makers.  

Contact your NJ State Senators to be heard.  You can view the Bill at the link below.

Link provided by IACP

February 11, 2017

Also in New York, Nassua County has proposed additional legislation (bill #619-16).  This Bill spells out more specific licensing requirements for dog trainers operating in the County.  It would require all new dog trainers to attend a dog training school, or be apprenticed under another experienced trainer, gaining at least 150 hours of experience.  Of course the County would collect a nice fee for the Certification requirement.

January 4, 2017

On December 16, 2016 a Bill (bill # s144) was introduced into the New York State Senate which would require licensing and educational standards for individuals providing canine training for non-police and non-service dogs.  Obviously, this licensing requirement would greatly impact the lives of all dog trainers living and/or operating in the State of New York.


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