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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Why Punishment is Easier than Positive Reinforcement

 I was an awesome dog mom yesterday. We started the day with an off-leash romp in an open field. Then we headed to training class where most dogs got some working time with me. When we got home, it was food puzzle (and calming tablet) time and we all had a nice nap before waking in the late afternoon. 

That's when all hell broke loose.

Did I mention that I'm currently living with six dogs? Yup, six in a very modest dwelling. (Five of my own and a board-and-train puppy.) It's quite the menagerie!

Upon waking from my nap, and still trying to kick a migraine that started over 24 hours ago, I had the silly notion that I would lie comfortably on my couch and catch up on my shows, namely "How to Get Away with Murder" and "Goliath." 

The dogs had another plan. Their plan was to drive me batsh*t crazy by refusing to settle. Like any typical homo sapien, I started scolding. "Stop it!" "Give me that!" "Quiet!!" "Knock it Off!" “ARGGGGGG!!” (And so on...)

In terms of efficacy, this strategy sucked. However, in terms of ease for me and satisfaction in "doing something" about the problem, it was highly reinforcing. 

You see, I always have my voice. I can always scold. I can always grab and push and restrain. Perhaps most importantly, I can do these things from the comfort of my couch. On a scale of easy peasy to damn near impossible, this is about a two on the effort scale. 

As Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes in her beautiful exploratory memoir, "The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn,"

"Punishing a dog - which frequently comes from being emotionally out of control*, as any dog owner necessarily is before** learning those scientific rules of teaching that insert a cool intellectual distance between behavior and cause - is a burdensome secret. First, it feels good, with its release of frustration and fear. Just as quickly it feels terrible. Someone was hurt or confused at the expense of an outburst that served no purpose. I have known that shame." 

* Such as suffering from a debilitating headache. 
**Or,  in my case, after. 

As the dogs continued to spiral like toddlers on Red Bull, my rational brain kicked in and I asked myself (as I often do), “What would I tell a client in this situation?" Well, duh - what DO you want the dog(s) to do?!

Oh, sweet redemption...

...victory is mine! 
But guess what: this is not easy. Not nearly as easy as using a louder than usual voice from the sanctity of my couch. This requires preparation. Observation. Participation. It's more like an eight on that pesky effort scale.

Hence, treat jars stashed throughout my house, at the ready when any desired canine behavior occurs.
Treat stash, hallway.
Treat stash, bedroom. 

Need another example? How about jumping up on counters and/or tables in search of food and other treasures, often referrred to as "counter surfing."

Here I am doing what I'm supposed to do about counter surfing: reinforcing four on the floor during my food prep. 

As the video shows, here’s the thing (or shall I say a thing) about positive reinforcement: one must encourage, notice and reward the often passive and less obvious presence of desired behaviors. 
(Punishment, on the other hand, involves punishing the active presence of unwanted behaviors, which is entirely more satisfying and tangible.)

Let’s face it, it doesn’t always feel like training when we’re reinforcing “non-behaviors” like being quiet, not jumping, not pulling on leash, chewing a dog bone, etc. 

And then we have this fact working against us: our all-too-human brains are pre-programmed to notice and remember "bad" before "good." 
(Want proof? Google it.) 

Yet these non-aggravating behaviors are the very essence of “being good” and if we want to see more of them, we’ve got to learn to catch our dogs in the act of doing it right! 

So yup, you read it correctly: the "positive" trainer is telling you it's often more intuitive to resort to punishment. It’s also usually more convenient. And even more satisfying at times. 
But you won’t hear me say it’s more effective or kind or that it builds trust and a strong bond between you and your dog. And don’t those things matter most of all?!

With a moderate bit of effort, you can become a more effective trainer and a kinder, more predictable dog guardian with a dog who knows what is expected and is happy to put his best paw forward.

You got this! If I can do it with six dogs, think what you could accomplish with one (or another reasonable number)! 
Sidekick. Train happy. 

P.S. For the flip side, negative punishment (preventing the reinforcement of unwanted behavior), see Denise Fenzi’s recent blog, "No You Cannot Simply Ignore Bad Behavior."

P.P.S. I was able to complete one episode of “HTGAWM” in under two hours. #Winning