She must have been abused.

If you have an anxious or fearful dog, or even one who displays explosive reactivity or aggression, there’s a good chance that someone, maybe even yourself, has asked if your dog was abused. Frequently this assumed past of physical violence, neglect, trauma, or general mistreatment is practically insisted upon by well intentioned souls, even when there is no known history of such– outside of the “proof” of the dog’s behavior.

I get that a lot about both my girls, but especially about Stormy.

Stormy is almost certainly part or mostly greyhound, the rest could be some kind of Shepherd. She’s tan, she’s got a lovely pointy sighthound nose, long legs, a deep & narrow chest, and she is an utter delight. She is also very, very fearful.

Stormy was brought into the shelter where I worked in Chico when she was about 10 weeks old, along with the rest of her litter. We sent the litter to our best puppy foster, a woman named Kathy who had redesigned her entire backyard to be appropriate for rearing foster puppies. She called me two days after taking this group home and said, “Lindsey, there’s one I can’t touch.” Stormy was backing away from the (very savvy) foster mom and growling at her. After discussion, we decided to move Stormy to a different foster home where she could live with another, more confident, adult dog rather than just her siblings. That seemed like it would work, but unfortunately after just a couple days she escaped through a small hole at the bottom of that second foster’s backyard fence and got herself lost in the wilderness of a park during a major, pipe-freezing cold snap. We all thought that she was gone at that point, but both her first and second fosters made an effort to keep walking the trails looking for her. To everyone’s surprise, she turned up and was brought back to the shelter. That was when I took her home.

Stormy immediately bonded with my other two dogs, Kisa, then 6, and Shine, who was about 3. They made a lovely pack together and enjoyed exploring the backyard, wrestling, and doing all the normal doggy things. But like her other fosters before me, Stormy wouldn’t let me touch her. She seemed happy and comfortable in the home with the dogs, but was still very fearful of human contact and interaction. I could not walk towards her, even indirectly, without her running in the opposite direction. Just being in the same space as me was hard for her, and numerous times I wondered if I was doing her a disservice not to have her euthanized because of the constant upset and fear she seemed to live with.

Like many fearful dogs, she avoided feeling “trapped” at all costs – she was much less anxious around me outdoors where she could easily flee than in the house. When the dogs were out in the backyard, in order to bring Stormy inside I would have to call everyone into the kitchen, toss a bunch of treats on the floor, and then go around from the opposite side to close the back door while everyone was eating the cookies, or else she would run out into the safety of the trees and bushes.

We made some progress over the months of fostering before I officially “failed” and adopted her, but it was very very slow. I remember one day when she was standing beside the arm of the couch where I was sitting and she allowed me to scratch the side of her neck while I wasn’t facing or looking at her; I felt incredible joy and gratitude for that moment. Small mercies.

Stormy finally bonded with me over the long and arduous drive from Chico to Vista (12 hours in the car with 3 dogs = no fun, though my ex got the worst of it: he was in the U-haul with 4 cats in carriers). It’s possible that her sudden increased comfort with me after the move was due to “stress bonding such as one sees in rabbits, or because once we got down here I was simply more familiar than the rest of the world, and more familiar = safer (“the evil you know,” etc). Whatever the case, she warmed up to me, but new people were still The Worst and she would at times blow her anal glands when I had friends come over.*

Stormy & Shine, circa 2016

People who do not know her history assume that Stormy was abused. Because of her anxiety and fear around unfamiliar individuals, the way she spooks when people make sudden moves, and her sensitivity to environments and sounds, everyone wants to see her as the victim of some kind of mistreatment or trauma; I do not believe this is the case. As I said, we got her with her whole litter at 10 weeks old: they had all had the same upbringing, Stormy was just more fearful than the rest of them. Did the stress of being lost in the wods for a few days have an impact on her, too? Most likely, but let’s not forget that she was already growling and fleeing from humans prior to that event.

Generally speaking, people want to view dogs as blank slates when they are born: that “it’s all in how you raise them,” and that “it’s not the dog, it’s the owner”. We want dogs to be inherently “good”. But what is “good” for a dog? It’s no easier to discuss inherent goodness for dogs than it is for people, because like our canine family members we are born with baggage.

Science has shown over and over and over again that none of us, dog nor human, is a blank slate. We already know that genetic factors play a very significant role in the development of a dogs temperament and how they move through the world. If you aren’t already familiar with Belyaev’s silver fox experiment I’d strongly suggest doing some reading. It’s fascinating. (Sidebar: I was just reminded of the role of genetics in human personalities again listening to this episode of the wonderful podcast, Hidden Brain.)

There are plenty of factors other than trauma and DNA and that can cause behavioral changes. Lack of proper socialization as a puppy is the best known. An little known one that is both sad and interesting is that stress experienced by a mother can affect her babies. Another is that a dog may associate an unpleasant event with something that was present at the time, even if that particular stimulus didn’t cause it–this is in fact how shock-collar rattlesnake avoidance training works… that is, when it doesn’t cause dogs to become aggressive to snake-shaped things or fearful of other stuff present at the moment of the shock.

I recently had the opportunity to assist and do a bit of teaching at a birthday party for a litter of 13 puppies who had all just turned one year old. The human who helped deliver mama-Shadow’s exceptional number of puppies took incredible notes during the whelping process including the time of each puppies birth, and therefore birth order. The yearlings that I met included some very confident and outgoing dogs as well as a few much more fearful, anxious, and timid ones… and the spectrum of most to least confident paralleled first to last born, almost exactly.

Assuming that this birth order thing is in fact a case of causation causing correlation rather than coincidence, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you why that was the case. There are probably articles out there, you’re welcome to look them up and get me some answers, about why birth order of puppies has an effect on temperament. It might have to do with placement in the womb, nutrients getting to the puppies in utero, or access to the best milk once they are out of the womb and nursing.

Whatever case, I’m guessing that Stormy was probably the last puppy out from her litter. It’s a guess, but I think it’s a safer assumption to explain her increased fearfulness compared to her littlermates than that she experienced some kind of trauma, abuse or in-utero stress that the other four puppies didn’t.

Was she abused? Not by a person, not likely. Maybe she was mistreated by fate, to have been handed the short straw and the life with more stress, anxiety, and fear than the average dog. She doesn’t like meeting new people, going for car rides, taking walks outside of familiar spots, and the booms from Camp Pendleton, thunderclaps, or dreaded 4th of July fireworks send her info a panic. There’s some much about her life that’s difficult, but did she really draw the short straw? It was because of her problematic behavior and unstable temperament that she landed in my home, with my pack, bringing joy, snuggles and laughter along with the moments of fear.

I have no regrets about taking Stormy home as a foster, despite the number of times in the beginning of our life together that I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing by keeping her alive: I could see how hard it was just to be her, but that was over 10 years ago.

She is now super cuddly with me and (eventually) with visitors to my home. She demands butt scratches in a way very similar to this, and while she still doesn’t know the “sit” cue (which is another post entirely) she is an integral part of the pack, quirks and all. No matter the reasons that she is who she is, I am grateful for her and the weird twists of fate, DNA, chemicals, and circumstances that make her who she is and that brought her into my life.

*Liz and Athena – thank you for being the incredible & stink-tolerant souls you are. Love and miss you both. ❤

What’s in your toolbox? (part 2)

Last month (remember my intention to post every other week? HA!) I wrote about using the basic tools you and your dog already have at your disposal, this week I want to discuss specialty tools – the things we teach our dogs that we never would have taught if we didn’t need to.

Some dogs get get through life easy-peasy with the basics they learn in a group class while others have more, greater or just different needs. The people who live with these dogs are often the ones who call professional trainers to help: they can’t figure out how cope with particular challenging scenarios with their dog. Sometimes the answer is as simple as creating a new and functional cue to circumvent the issue completely.

Here are a few real life examples:

Bear, a puppy I worked with a few months ago who would regularly growl if one of his family members tried to move him off the couch with physical prompting (a nudge, gentle push, etc). While he had more generalized handling sensitivities that we dealt with, for this particular situation we taught him an “off” cue, which meant, “get yourself off the couch and onto the floor”. It worked beautifully.

Lilly the Goldendoodle who played keep-away when it was time to go for a walk needed to learn a “get dressed” cue that prompted her to voluntarily place her face and head through her harness.

Tomlin and Winston, canine brothers-from-another-mother who would rush the front door and explode with barks when visitors arrived. For them we worked on a stationing cue: where they would “go to [their] couch!” when prompted verbally, or, with the eventual goal of being cued by the doorbell.

…but obviously this post finds its foundation with Kit. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Kit necessitated me training a bunch of stuff that I’d never needed before. Here are a few:

  • “Back it up” to reverse him out of my personal space bubble, especially when tying my shoes (this is almost certainly followed by a sit-stay).
  • “Easy” to slow his pace down on walks, not to reduce leash tension but to anchor him back into his body when he would get hyper-aroused.
  • “Couch” to station him on a piece of furniture & keep him out of the way (and from giving Shine dirty looks) when I’m preparing the dogs’ meals.

These are clearly solution oriented cues: used to address specific problems or scenarios. None of these are taught in your standard group training class, but as you can see they are wildly practical.

How how do you know if there’s a specialty cue out there to help you resolve one of your doggy dilemmas?

It’s worth noting that cue-based training is not typically effective on it’s own for addressing behavior concerns that involve a dog’s emotions. By that I mean if the dog is doing something you find undesirable because she is scared, anxious, or otherwise upset, you will (as in the case of Bear mentioned above) almost certainly need to develop a behavior modification plan that focuses on the dog’s emotional state, not just the external expression of it. A specialty cue may be a support, but it is almost never the solution.

Let’s try a quick visualization exercise: think about the issue you’re having–again, try to think about one that does not center on an emotional reaction–now back up, what is the scenario, your mind set, the dog’s location, yourlocation, maybe even your intention immediately before the problem occurs? Is there something you can think of that you could ask the dog to do, in this moment before the dog does That Thing that would prevent it from happening?

Let’s break down some of the above examples:

Kit’s Back it Up

The scene: Human is about to bend down to put on/tie laces of shoes
Dog’s undesirable response: Leaping forward to lick human’s face
Solution: PRIOR TO bending down, dog is prompted to back up away from the person, sit, and stay

Bear’s Off

The scene: Human wants to move the dog off the couch (to sit down, adjust position, etc)
Dog’s undesirable response: Growling when dog feels hand pressure applied to body
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to move physically, dog is verbally prompted to jump off the couch

Lilly’s Get Dressed

The scene: Human moves towards dog, harness in hand to put harness on the dog
Dog’s undesirable response: Moving away from the human & harness
Solution: PRIOR TO attempting to walking towards the dog, the human prompts the dog to place her head through the harness

You see how it works? The real key is the “PRIOR TO” part – we’re not looking for a fix once the dog has started doing That Thing, we want to know what we can do to avoid that behavior completely.

Of course, it’s important to note that all of these specialty tools have to be honed PRIOR TO (there it is again!) actually using them in the situation. To go back to our tool box analogy, you wouldn’t try to use a saw that hadn’t been searrated yet or a drill bit that was blunt on the end: you need to have your tools fully formed before putting them to work.

So, what’s in your dog’s toolbox? Probably a sit and a down–our hammer and screwdriver–but is there an empty slot where some specialty tool needs to go? Maybe it’s a chainsaw, maybe it’s bolt cutters, or perhaps a pipe wrench. There’s no end to the cues and tricks you can dream up to find creative solutions to suit your and your dog’s needs, but the responsibility to discover that missing tool, to train it, and then, ( most importantly!) to remember to use it, is in your hands.

What’s in your toolbox? (part 1)

At some point in your life you probably bought your first tool, probably a hammer or a screwdriver. It was likely shortly after you moved out of your parents’ home and you realized you needed a tool to perform a particular task: put a nail in the wall, put together some DIY assembly furniture, something simple that you needed a simple tool to complete. Depending on your needs, over the years you more likely than not have assembled a whole tool box with a variety of tools for all your different needs. Some you may use frequently, others only rarely, but on those occasions you are so so glad to have that specialized tool (for me it’s the specialty drill bits for ceramic and tile).

When we first bring home a dog, if they don’t already know “sit”, that’s likely the first thing we teach them. That’s our hammer: the most basic tool in our training toolbox. We can use sit in a whole mess of different ways that create behaviors or behavior chains that we like or use it to stop other behaviors that we don’t. It’s simple, it’s useful, and easy to teach, but just as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll go through life only needing a hammer, you gotta add more tools to your dog’s repertoire.

In group training classes most dogs are taught to respond to sit, down, stay, come, leave-it, and maybe one or two other things. The thing that isn’t always taught is how and when to use them. Some applications are obvious (dog loose on the street? use your recall!) but so so often we don’t use the tools that we have spent so much time and energy crafting at the times that they could be really useful.

I regularly tell a story in my group classes about Kisa, my first dog, and how she reminded my why cue-based training is really really valuable. The super short version is that I was able to use her “stay” to keep her from getting mud all over a carpet. It was a lightbulb moment for me because I really hadn’t used a ton of her training in real life scenarios up to that point. Some, yes, but never in a way that I really saw what the outcome of the situation would have been if I didn’t have a particular behavior on cue. That moment to me really solidified why most “regular” dog owners (as opposed to dog sport & activity people) should really train their dogs – it’s not for the sake of having a dog who has been through multiple training classes, it’s to give the dog and the person the hammer, screwdriver, drill, wrench, and staple gun that they’ll need to get through life together peacefully.

Here are a short list of common cue-tools, and how we can use them. This is SO SO far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start to get your brain going so that when you’re doing life with your dog, you remember to reach into your toolbox and use the tools that you have invested in… don’t let them rust!

Name recognition (to the dog: “Make eye contact with me”):

  • To ensure you have your dog’s attention prior to giving another cue
  • To orient your dog towards you when on a walk (rather than pulling the leash)
  • To provide a quick, easy to reinforce behavior when your dog is frustrated

Sit (to the dog: “Put your put on the ground, duration optional”)

  • Preemptively to curtail jumping during greeting
  • To create a pause before entering exiting doorways
  • To create momentary stillness on the scale at the vet’s office

Stay (to the dog: “hold your current position”)

  • To maintain a sit or a down while you open the front door
  • To keep your dog in place while you walk away from your sandwich for a moment
  • To keep a Malamute with huge and muddy paws outside while you grab a towel for her feet

Finding Balance

A dear friend who also self-described as my “favorite troublemaker” recently wanted to hear my thoughts on “balanced training.” I thought that was a little bit hilarious because she knows perfectly well how I feel about punishment-based training, generally speaking (and yes, I know that so-called balanced training isn’t just based on punishment, but it does feature consistently and/or often). But in light of some recent conversations and internal philosophical musings, I’ve decided to expound my views. This post is far from the be-all-end-all of my thoughts on balanced training or punishment in general, but it’s a start. If there are particular parts of this you, dear reader, would like to discuss, I am happy to engage in a respectful, compassionate dialogue. If you just want to hear more about what I think, I can certainly elaborate on anything, too.


When I started learning how to train dogs at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland back in the early aughts, I was trained not only how to use a clicker and deliver treats at the appropriate time, but also how to use a choke chain. We didn’t actually put them on the dogs, we placed them on a chain link fence so we could practice “pop corrections” without actually inflicting pain or discomfort on a real dog. I never in fact used a choke chain while I worked there, but it was part of my education because I was told that I needed to learn how to use all the tools. All the tools. This was at a time when shock and so-called “e collars” were not nearly as popular or prevalent in the training world, at least not for pet dogs. The philosophy that that we worked under, at that shelter, at that time, was, we use what works for the dog.

There was one dog from my time there who seemed to be fairly uncontrollable–a large fluffy German Shepard mix named Pellinore. After trying standard treat-based training methods the decision was made by leadership to try a pinch collar on him to reduce his jumpy/mouthy behaviors to the point where he would be considered “adoptable”. He wore that for a very brief period of time before he was transitioned to a head collar, but the fact remained that we, the training staff at an animal shelter, placed a dog on a punishment device intentionally.

In hindsight I feel that the reason a pinch collar was chosen and utilized was because the skill level and education of the handlers and decision makers, myself included, was not nearly where it should have been to create a force-free plan for this dog at that time. Everyone was doing the best they could with what they had, and no one had any ill intent. The dog certainly was not irreparably harmed (to my knowledge) by the use of this tool, and he ended up in a wonderful home with a family who loved him very much and renamed him “Wookie”. From my perspective now, with well over a decade of education and hands-on experience behind me, it wasn’t the right choice to use that pinch collar, but it was something that probably would have been used by a “balanced trainer”. Now I think we could have done him better.

Folks who call themselves balanced trainers, to the best of my understanding, are trainers who utilize a combination of punishment techniques as well as reinforcements. Things that fall into the punishment category include corrections with choke, pinch, slip, or similar collars, verbal reprimands, and/or shocks from electronic collars. Those aversives, used to reduce undesirable behaviors are “balanced” by the use of various reinforcers such as treats, praise, play, access to toys, and so on, which are used to increase the likelihood of desired behaviors.

The deep dark dirty secret of behavior and behaviorism is that punishment works. There have been studies upon studies upon studies on all kinds of species, including human children, that show that punishing behaviors through use of applying aversive stimuli is an effective method for behavioral change, and often a fairly fast one (though it should be noted that speed of efficacy is typically based on severity of the aversive; i.e. level of pain or fear [of pain] inflicted). There are of course caveats to this – you can google “punishment doesn’t work” and read a plethora of articles on the ineffectiveness of punishment in dog training, criminal justice systems, classrooms, and so on. That said, there are also plenty of other studies as well as endless anecdotal reports from dog owners, professional trainers, not to mention the sales data for electronic collars and invisible fences that speak otherwise.

Let’s take it as a fact that some types and applications of punishment do in fact work to train a dog to do or not do a variety of things. If this is the case, why on earth are so many dog trainers and behaviorists opposed to using effective methods, even just sometimes?

In short, because there’s a better way.

Let’s say you have two options in front of you to modify your dog’s external behavior (what he is doing with his body):

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your dog stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the person.

The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the dog, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the dog’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis while achieving the desired behavioral result. It requires more time, patience, energy, and commitment from the human.

Both these methods work, but the big difference to me isn’t simply how they work, but who they are working for. Option one (punishment, obvi) works for the human. There’s no major impact on the person’s life, they don’t have to change much at all, and they will see (external) results in a reasonable period of time. It should however be pretty damn obvious that this method is basically crap for the dog, as it becomes up to them to learn what’s desired of them, or else.

For people who do not recognize (or care?) that dogs experience emotions, including fear, joy, frustration, and anxiety as well as experience stress and all it’s physiological consequences in ways shockingly similar to humans, for those people I can see how they justify the use of positive punishment* methods in fairly pedestrian situations: jumping on guests, barking at delivery personnel, pulling towards other dogs on leash, and so on. And I can also see “balanced” trainers feeling okay with using punishment knowing that they would still be doling out the praise and/or treats for tasks accomplished well.

But let’s look at option two:

Option two has little negative impact on the dog, but requires comparatively quite a bit from the human. The responsibility for behavioral change is in the hands of the person to make sure that the dog is set up to learn without stress (which, for the record inhibits learning – you can Google that one yourself). In many cases this method requires huge shifts in how we live and work with our dogs, and therefor requires the pet parent to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their dog’s well-being.

That’s asking a lot, but I don’t think it’s asking too much. If you think that sounds like too much, let’s read the descriptions of the two options again, but replace the word “dog” with “child”.

One option is shorter in duration, but would certainly cause your child stress, fear, discomfort and/or pain, and would very likely do nothing at all to modify his or her internal processes (emotional responses, state of physiological stress) for the better; it may even make it worse. There is little time, effort, or energy lost for the parent.
The other option is slower, requires significant accommodation for the child, but is most certainly not going to cause pain, and if any stress or fear elicited it is minimal to the point of not causing a pronounced behavioral (external) response. The aim of this option is to specifically change the child’s internal processes to reduce unpleasant emotions and maintain physiological stasis. It requires more time, patience, energy,, and commitment from the parent
.

Suddenly seems a little more obvious which method to choose, doesn’t it?

No, dogs are not children, but there are a lot of clear parallels, the most relevant being: adult humans are responsible for looking out for both children and dogs’ mental, physical and emotional well being and best interests as they cannot sufficiently advocate or care for themselves.

For the most part, people now agree that you can raise children without hitting or yelling at them, but for some reason, a large number of folks still think you “need” pain or fear to train dogs. That’s just one of the many falsehoods that trainers who emphasize punishment in their protocols are holding on to: it justifies their methods. In addition to the “punishment = good” (or at least “useful” or “necessary”) half for the story, there are also misconceptions spread about what positive reinforcement training is, allows for, and both how and why it works.**

The claim is made by many self described balanced trainers that positive reinforcement (R+) or force-free dog trainers believe in “never saying ‘no'” or let problematic behaviors go ignored without interruption. This is far from actuate. Most, if not all, R+ trainer use some methods of punishment, some of the time, because technically just turning your back on a jumping dog can be a punishment, or using a head collar for an anti-pulling walking device.

For the most part, well educated and skilled R+ trainers follow what’s known as The Humane Hierarchy when working to resolve training or behavior concerns. The Humane Hierarchy is A Big Deal, and it’s awesome. It is a road map to addressing issues by starting with the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) methods, and as one method is exhausted, then move on to the next least intrusive/minimally aversive method. The Hierarchy places the animals’ well-being front and center because, again, they can’t advocate for themselves, so we have to take their welfare not only into account, but make it the most relevant thing in a training plan, right up there with efficacy.

You can see from looking at the graphic below that use of positive punishment (adding an aversive consequence) is on the list of options, but as a last resort. That means, if you’ve tried and exhaused everything else and your options are now re-homing/euthanizing the dog or using a punishment based method, maybe it’s worth trying.

The problem arises with the phrase “tried everything else”, because most of the time “everything else” hasn’t been tried, or at least has not been correctly/sufficiently/appropriately to say that method is exhausted.

Most balanced trainers do not follow the Humane Hierarchy roadmap or operate under the guidelines of LIMA. Maybe there are some who do, but when LIMA & the HH are in place, you almost never get to the point to need positive punishment because all those other methods work, and work well. The use of positive punishment is reserved for seriously extenuating circumstances, not because it’s easier for the human to press a button or jerk a leash than modify their own behavior, because, again, we are our dogs’ only advocates: it is our responsibility to care for them: physically, mentally, emotionally. They can’t do that for themselves.

The Humane Hierarchy places methodology on a scale to be balanced against the animal’s emotional and physical well-being, which gets the most weight, always.†

There will be times that circumstances are extenuating, or certain methods not accessible. For example: if we have a dog who continues to escape his yard, scaling over even a 7′ solid wooden fence, and the possible repercussions of those escapes include getting hit by a car or killing a neighbor’s cat, would it be okay to put in an invisible fence? What are the other options? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the dog is receiving age-appropriate exercise and enrichment, a tie out or runner have been tried in the past but the dog has managed to get dangerously tangled, and it is unrealistic for the dog to be attended/babysat every time he’s in the yard†† for what would likely be the duration of the learning process, which removes most of the training options. If it boiled down to getting rid of the dog or using an invisible fence, which would you choose?

Is it better for the dog to be sent to a shelter (to potentially be euthanized for untreatable escape behavior) or placed with another family who will still have to deal with this problem (it’s not like changing homes will make the fence jumping behavior magically go away), or for him to stay with the family that knows him and loves him, but to experience the discomfort/pain of an electric shock as many times as it takes for him to learn the boundaries of his yard? Knowing that invisible fences are not guarantees and many dogs push through the shock to get to the outside world, is it worth trying?

In this case, IF we have made it though all those other options on the Hierarchy and eliminated them as either “tried correctly and completely” or “not available”, then I say, give the invisible fence a shot.

After saying that I still maintain that I am a force-free and R+ trainer, because this is the only option left on the scale that balances against the dog’s physical and emotional well-being as training with a shock collar in my opinion is in this case preferable to death.

You see what I did there? I’m still advocating for the dog’s welfare.

This is an extreme hypothetical case, but not too unrealistic. It is one of the rare, rare times when all other options have truly been exhausted in one way or another and we’re left at that last turn-off on the Hierarchy map before we hit the dead end.

Most training and behavior concerns don’t have to go all the way to that last turn off. A well educated and proficient R+ trainer can get satisfactory resolution out of nearly every issue prior to hitting that positive punishment turn-off, and we choose to do so because it’s fairest to the dog. It might take more work, commitment, and ownership of the issue from the person, but you know who’s job it is to care for that animal? The person.

Let’s sing it from the rooftops: we are our dogs’ advocates. With that fact clear as a bell, we are doing a disservice to our voiceless animals to cause stress, pain, or fear when there is another option available, and that other option is, with only very rare exceptions, always available.

So, balanced training?

I’m happy balancing the dog’s very real needs with an effective training plan, and so far use of positive punishment hasn’t needed to come into the conversation.



*Positive here does NOT mean “good” it means that the punishment is added, as in: when the dog behaves undesirably, an aversive consequence (shock, pinch, etc) is added/applied: Dog barks + electric shock = less barking. For more on the terminology of operant conditioning, check this info-graphic out.

**I want to make clear here that I do not believe that the trainers who espouse these views are inherently bad people or intentionally spreading untruths. I think, that similar to my history at the East Bay SPCA way back when (they have changed since then!), they are truly doing what the think is best given the tools and education they have.

†I would love, more than anything to reclaim the term “balanced training” to mean that all training methods used are placed on this scale – that any trainer who calls themselves “balanced” is implying that they are weighing everything they chose to do against what’s best for and fair to the dog. Not gonna happen, but a girl can dream!

†† If you’re having a hard time imagining why it would be impossible or unrealistic to stay out with the dog every time he needs to use the yard, imagine a single parent with one or more kids under the age of 10. The dog can not reasonably command 100% of that person’s attention every time he needs to potty.