As responsible dog parents it behoves us to ensure that our pet behaves according to acceptable standards both indoors and when out meeting other dogs, people, cats, etc. How we deal with a ‘situation’, for example lunging on lead and barking, will depend on our understanding of the dog’s emotions and of the steps necessary to resolve the situation and ensure it does not happen again – or at least take baby steps in the right direction. A dog acting in an aggressive way does not mean the dog is aggressive per se – something else may have caused the display. Very often this is fear-aggression. Why, and what is the dog fearful of will need to be addressed to placate this. The lead itself may exacerbate the dog’s anxiety! Behaviours have consequences, a pleasant one will likely mean repeat of the behaviour, whilst an unpleasant one will likely mean the behaviour will NOT be repeated. Of course this is the fundamental theory of training and of the subject’s learning.
This then raises the question: to punish or not to punish. “Of course not, I would never punish my dog”, I hear you say. According to behavioural psychology something as apparently insignificant as the word ‘no’ constitutes punishment – perhaps not so in every-day usage. Degrees of punishment will fall on a continuum with extremes at both ends. The withholding of a treat/reward is technically punishment, albeit negative punishment (P- something is withheld or withdrawn to help decrease a behaviour, for example, jumping up at a visitor [time to get back to basics]).
There is a school of thought that we simply ignore an unwanted behaviour. Well fine, as a rule of thumb. This may work if the dog, for example, ‘lays’ instead of ‘sits’ – it’s fairly benign! It’s a question of context and if there is any imminent danger. If your dog is jumping up in excitement at a visitor whilst mouthing (but why is your dog/puppy doing this in the first place?!) or is about to run into a busy road, would you ignore this? Of course not. The dog must be aware that this is not acceptable and, ideally, offered an alternative behaviour. In other words we teach a positive rather than a negative.
Your dog WILL appreciate feedback rather than being ignored or left in limbo. But, how and what feedback do we give. Punishment would be punitive and, in any event, depends on consistency and precision timing – which of course most people don’t have. If the punishment does not work – which invariably it doesn’t – the temptation will be to increase it. Where would it all end? – with an unhappy dog, a battle of wills and a relationship breakdown. The goal of training is to produce an internally-reinforced and self-motivated dog that is under reliable verbal control when off-lead, at a distance and with distractions. Understanding the science and theory is one thing but let’s bring back feeling and communication – feedback.
Feedback needs to be unambiguous, binary, analogue, precise and instructive especially for eliminating misbehaviour or lack of compliance. The dog needs to know if he got it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – binary feedback. But what about the grey area in-between? Did he get it ‘almost’ right or a ‘completely’ right. He needs to know how well he did. The DEGREE of feedback and praise – differential reinforcement – reflects this. Verbal feedback, therefore, is effortlessly analogue. Differential reinforcement allows us to concentrate on the positives rather than the negatives insofar as the dog succeeds whatever the scenario! A previous blog further discusses this concept: