Snoqualmie Pets 101: Punishment Based vs. Reward Based Training

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This is the latest from guest columnist, Melissa, who is a Pet-ology Expert and In-home Dog Trainer at Le Chic Pet in Issaquah.  To get more training tips visit the LeChic website.

Recently I was in an uncomfortable situation. I witnessed what I believe to be the abuse of two dogs. It started out innocently enough…a normal looking family out for a day of fun and romping with two large enthusiastic dogs.

The scene was straight out of central casting. Dad handsome and smiling, two small daughters in pink gazing lovingly at their handsome dad and a teenaged son who soon will grow up to look just like Dad.

I smiled as I watched the scene play out in front of me…and then it happened, BOOM!  One dog appeared to ever so slightly misbehave; Dad took a hold of his muzzle and punched him in the side of his face. The dog did stop being naughty, but the nice moment was shattered forever. Well for me that is.  The family just kept walking like that brief moment of violence hadn’t even happened.

I was shaking, enraged and wanted to run over and confront the man I had seen so carelessly hit his loyal friend, but upon watching further I saw that my initial impression of this scene was far off the mark.  Dad was red-faced, angry and speaking gruffly to three rather cowed looking children. The dogs were twitchy, fearful and reactive. I chose to hold my tongue. My heart ached for all involved, but using force to train dogs is not illegal and is actually being popularized by some very famous TV stars.

Back when I was growing up everyone used compulsion or punishment based training. In short, the theory is that your dog is taught behaviors by being modeled or otherwise compelled to perform a behavior and is physically corrected for noncompliance.

For example, if you are training loose leash walking and Fido is pulling on the leash, Fido is given a collar jerk for pulling on the leash. When he stops pulling the pressure on his neck is relaxed. So the training is accomplished because the dog is doing what he is told to avoid something he doesn’t like. So basically people interacted with their dogs physically. They popped and jerked their way to obedience. Not an always pleasant way to deal with your dog but it was all we knew. Examples of compulsion or dominance trainers would be The Monks of New Skete or Cesar Milan.

Now we have a different way to train our dogs, reward based training. Instead of the dog doing something to avoid something it doesn’t like, the dog does what it’s told to gain something it does like – such as a treat. There is no popping, jerking or hitting in reward based training.

We give a dog a treat when he sits to increase the probability that the dog will sit again next time when we ask.  To me, it’s a much more enjoyable way to interact with my animal friends. I don’t feel enraged or shaky like I did when I watched that man strike his dog. Examples of this new way of training are Victoria Stilwell or Karen Pryor, not larger than life TV stars, but smart trainers quietly doing good things for dogs.

To me, the choice of how to train quickly became obvious. Research shows that punishment based training can stop a behavior, but fails to replace it with a desired behavior – leaving a kind of “behavioral Vacuum.” The dog never learns what is right or what is expected of him.

It can increase anxiety and defensive aggression, putting everyone (especially children) who comes into contact with the dog in danger. The animals can habituate to punishment and need stronger and stronger corrections to behave. This can lead to injury and I’m pretty sure is what I saw the other day with the family out for a walk. Lastly, it doesn’t support a healthy human-animal bond and that’s what we all want from our animal friends isn’t it?

So please, when choosing a training method, consider the positive approach. Your furry friends will thank you.

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