When Reward Becomes Punishment

We all act and interact according to our species (nature) and what we have experienced in our lives (nurture). We subconsciously meld these two things together in order to form our personalities, our likes and dislikes, our fears and our desires. In this realm, we run a parallel with our dogs.

As a species, we tend to be very verbal and very tactile. We are the hugging, patting, kissing species. We often find solace, happiness, and security in the touch of another person. When we have a very close relationship we tgrouphugend towards plenty of hugging, kissing and ‘petting’. We show our excitement or approval through loud verbal outbursts and more exaggerated body movements. Here is where we deviate from dogs and where many training issues as well as behavioral issues can arise.

Dogs are not genetically predisposed to showing affection or approval through the same methods we use. Dogs use their body as their first form of communication. They are masters at body language and they use this language first and foremost when conveying their emotional status to other dogs and to humans. Their language tends towards subtlety, their movements measured.  While they do use verbal communication, it is by far the less used form. As humans, we are not well versed in their body language and quite often misinterpret what they are trying to tell us. This is where many training issues arise.

Let’s talk about two components of training; punishment and reinforcement. Punishment means that the behavior will diminish and reinforcement means that the behavior will increase. Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not. The
reason for this is the interpretation of the two as they are applied to the behavior. Simply speaking, what you may considepetting headr reinforcement, your dog may consider punishment.

Often, people’s response to a dog doing well is patting, hugging, petting and even kissing. Since these are some of the human activities that dogs often find discomfort in, the consequence for the behavior is punishment, npetting head 2ot reinforcement as was intended. Since the dog perceives it as punishment, the behavior decreases and the human is left puzzled.

As I said earlier, not all dogs react to the petting, hugging, kissing and patting the same way. The ones that completely dislike it are very good at getting their point across through what’s known as a ‘distance creating behavior’. We will go over that behavior in another article as it is not relevant to this one. The dogs that tolerate it are the dogs central to this article because they can be the hardest to read and therefore the easiest to misinterpret.

If you are training a behavior and either the dog ‘isn’t learning’, or the dog’s reliability in the behavior is decreasing, you may have a punishment versus reinforcement miss-communication. If this is the case, stop training and analyze the situation. Look at what you were using as a reinforcer, and then think about your dog’s reaction to it. Were you patting the dog’s head? If so, did the dog lower his head, move to the side or lift his nose so his head was almost vertical? Did you hug your dog for a job well done and when the hug was over the dog moved away?  Did the dog squirm in your arms? Did you try to kiss the dog and the dog turned away? Backed up? During or after your reward or praise did the dog lick his lips? Yawn? All of these reactions are ones that can indicate the dog considering your reward uncomfortable and therefore a punishment.

If after your review of the situation, you decide that your dog was feeling punished, what do you do with the damaged cue? If you continue to use the same cue with a different reinforcer, you will have to overcome the dog’s prior association with what was considered a punishment. Rather than do that, make things easier on both of you, pick a new cue word for the action and use your new reinforcer.

Remember, it doesn’t matter what you consider a reinforcement or punishment, you are not performing the behavior. Your dog’s interpretation is the only important one in this situation. Your dog learns by association, to be successful, your dog must associate his behavior when cued with a positive consequence.

Happy training!!


Public Dog Walking Etiquette, Dealing with the Overly Friendly Public

As a trainer I get loads of questions on a continual basis. One of the questions that I get most often concerns walking dogs in public locations and specifically, what to do when someone is approaching with total disregard to your dog’s body language or your verbal requests.

The most common scenario I hear about is people approaching with their flexi leash dogoverly friendly dog, often on a flexi-leash or a similar contraption. The dog is not under control and has no manners. As the person and dog get closer you call out “Please keep your dog away from mine, my dog is not friendly”. The approaching person calls back, “It’s ok, my dog is super friendly and everyone loves him”, while they continue their unwanted approach.

We have become a rather PC society where we worry about what people will think of us, so again you call out in a somewhat more frantic voice “Please don’t come closer! My dog bites!” The person still oblivious to the danger continues to approach and the dog is almost to you. Your dog is already alert, standing rigid, tail up, maybe the hair up on his back and is looking nervously between you and the approaching dog, licking his lips and even whining possibly. The stress in your voice has served to heighten your dog and adds to the already present reactivity. Now you are looking for an escape route to get you and your dog out of danger. As the approaching dog just about reaches you, you turn and start moving away quickly with your dog, dragging him along because he is already over his threshold now and is growling and lunging towards the other dog. You move as quickly as possible away from the person and the other dog, all the while cursing the person under your breath while your dog struggles at the end of the leash. The person that was approaching finally stops with their dog bouncing at the end of the flexi-leash while they tell themselves how rude you are and how dangerous your dog is.

This is a very common scenario where all parties loose. So what can you do?  You can decide to keep your dog home to avoid such situations, but that diminishes your dog’s life. You can walk early in the morning or late at night, but really, how long are you going to be willing to do that? How soon will your dog find himself sitting at home with no walks? Those are not good solutions and can actually worsen your dog’s reactivity level

. So what do you do to protect yourself and your dog from the unwanted attentions of the overly friendly dog and owner?

When I am in a situation where I am working with a dog that is being counter conditioned for dog/dog reactivity, the last sessions are in busy park settings. I do not set my dogs up to fail, I want them to win every single time. I keep alert as to the dogs and people arounstop handd me and I constantly place myself and the dog I’m working with in a position where we are under the dog’s threshold. This means if I see an overly friendly team coming towards me, I will turn happily away with my dog before threshold is met and I will keep going, working happily as I go. The overly friendly owner will probably think that I am rude but that is not my concern. My concern is to keep my dog safe. If I am in a position where I cannot get away quick enough, I will look at the overly friendly team and put on strong body language that can be read as ‘keep away’.  I will put my hand out in a ‘stop’ signal and I will simply say STOP, in a very firm, strong voice. Usually this will stop the person in their tracks. I will then say thank you and I will move on with my dog to a safer distance. I see no need for explanations that they won’t listen to anyway. With my voice and body language, I have not heightened my dog and I stopped the situation from escalating. The more you talk, the less the other person will listen. Be strong and demanding in your voice, who cares if they come away thinking you are antisocial and mean? Your dog has been spared the attentions of the dog and the need to react.

Another thing that you can do is to counter condition your dog to a sound that is generally scary to dogs such as the sound of forced air being sprayed. If you counter condition your dog to be happy with the sound, you can then use it to move unwanted dogs away without scaring your own dog. Never spray the spray towards your dog, you are counter conditioning to the sound not the air. This method is often very effective for scaring off loose dogs as well.

If you have a dog reactive dog, I always suggest dealing with that issue. No dog should have to go through every walk worried and tense because they are afraid another dog will show up. If you have these issues, I suggest you find a qualified positive reinforcement trainer that will counter condition your dog. This will change their emotional status towards other dogs to a more positive one.

Remember, your first responsibility is to your dog, not to the general public or how the general public perceives you. You don’t need to be friendly and you don’t need to explain yourself. You just need to provide a safe and comfortable environment for your dog. Be alert to your environment; adjust to it and make being out and about a positive experience for your dog.

Being a dog and being a dog owner should be fun, not traumatic.


Greenies bad for Dogs?

I recently read an article were someone reported dogs dying from eating Greenies. They also reported doing a test by soaking a Greenie in water overnight which produced a highly expanded substance that looked much like carpet padding. No pictures were shown nor any other substantiation, So I decided to do a test myself. So far I have posted three progress pictures on my site and will be posting more as time goes on. You can view these progress pictures at http://www.northcountydogtraining.net