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“Instant Results” in animal training

When I have worked with feral dogs, it’s amazing to see how quickly one dog might show or tell all the other dogs “there’s a new supply of food over here!”  Once they’ve found a hole in the fence you probably won’t need to show them that particular hole again.

But that’s not the sort of learning so-called trainers are typically talking about when they  promise they can “teach” any dog to stop jumping up or  stop barking, or come when called in just one day or one week.  Here, their instant method involves shock or prong or other painful or fear-inducing punishment.

Of course it’s true that animals try desperately to avoid pain discomfort or fearful situations, and you can see that response in so-called “instant training.” The handler shocks the dog, and the dog naturally cowers immediately and tries to avoid whatever caused the shock.

It can look impressive, if you don’t look too hard or too long, but ask to see the dog in a year. In a new location, with a new handler, a new collar or a new situation,  dog owners may feel encouraged/required to shock/prong or choke the dog again, and again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPunishment creates unpredictable variable results over the long term.   Some dogs (typically mature dogs who already understand many behaviors and have a confident relationship with their handlers) might actually learn to leave the horse alone. But other dogs seem to be hard as nails. Pet owners might say, “he doesn’t even feel it.” Puppies might be completely confused, have no idea how to avoid the pain and become emotionally damaged. Think of animals who’ve learned to chase cars, or hunt porcupines,  and they keep chasing cars and hunting porcupines in spite of having been run over and quilled  repeatedly. Sometimes this isn’t because they’re tough, but they don’t associate their disaster with their fun. But let’s assume that your dog does associate the shock or prong or punishment with you or your commands (or your yard). How might that effect your dog’s behavior over the long haul of the next weeks and months and years?

Animals learn by association. It’s difficult to truly associate a punishment with a behavior that is or has been naturally rewarding to a dog. If I shock you every time you eat chocolate, you might not hate chocolate as much as you dislike me. At best, you might wind up with a dog who weighs his choices, who associates his own desired choices with risks. If he hasn’t learned that polite greetings (or coming when called, or waiting quietly in the kennel) is super rewarding,  he will weigh the risk of doing what he naturally would enjoy with the risk in the environment. Is he wearing the nasty collar? Is the handler who delivers pain nearby? And if he isn’t trapped by the situation or handler, he might well do what he finds reinforcing. 100_1335

Dogs are never learning just one thing. They are processing multiple associations at the same time. I’ve seen dogs who were “trained” by a choke or shock  who no longer want to get in a car, who freak out every time the microwave oven beeps, who chronically chew their paws raw, and who physically express anxiety(diarrhea) and “learned helplessness,” or  unwillingness to play or learn or explore anything new. Punishment methods aren’t  actually teaching dogs that sit or down or come on cue are wonderful things to do. They teach dogs to fear or distrust/feel anxious and want to escape/avoid training situations.  Shock/prong can damage your dog’s ability to trust you or to feel confident and safe in interacting with the world. Anxious dogs are far more at risk of behaving aggressively in  unfamiliar or unexpected situation.  People often don’t expect much of dogs, which is maybe why they don’t realize when they turn smart eager pups into depressed nervous wrecks.

Shock and choke also isn’t great for trainers. Animals instinctively will hide their response to pain and injury, because any appearance of vulnerability can make them more prone to attack. That’s why teeny nervous dogs act so tough. Trainers may misinterpret that response. “The shock doesn’t bother him,” just because the dog is not displaying anxiety at the collar (but instead the dog is likely displaying anxiety elsewhere).

You know from your own experience that animals (including human trainers) mature and grow and learn bit by bit by bit.  Think about how long it took you  to learn to speak French. Think about how you learned to  wait patiently. Don’t begrudge the time it takes to teach your dog a language and polite behaviors based on trust and mutual understanding, rather than on fear and pain. The end result — a curious happy dog who trusts you and enjoys working with you — is worth the time spent.