Thursday, 31 January 2008

punishment and dog training

Tonight I told Penny off for misbehaving. It rarely happens, partly because she is obedient and partly because I don't believe in 'punishment' anyway - though I do believe in consequences - as a teacher of young children and as a dog owner. If a child breaks a toy then that toy isn't available for play; if a dog doesn't give the ball back to the human then the human can't throw it again.

I told Penny to get in the car. She took one look at me, turned away and dashed off, tail low, to try to grab some food I'd thrown out for the birds. (She always holds her tail low when she's trying to get away with something.)

She'd been outside for hours looking longingly at the food, unable to get out of her fenced area to reach it. And now she saw her chance. However, she'd miscalculated. She ran into a dead end. Aha!! I strolled after her, picked her up, marched her angrily back to the car and set her down by the open door. This time, at the command 'In the car' she positively dashed in. Lesson learned...until the next time the temptation to disobey is too strong.

I didn't see any way to deal with this behaviour except anger, because there didn't seem to be any positive way to deal with outright disobedience. So, I guess I did 'punish' her, even though it was mild.

However, I am totally opposed to aggressive punishment of dogs. So it is reassuring to see that the AmericanVeterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released a set of guidelines for American vets on what is acceptable in punishing dogs. It's an interesting read and says, in part:
Even when punishment seems mild, in order to be effective it often must elicit a strong fear response, and in such cases, the fear response can generalize to things that sound or look similar to the punishment. Punishment has also been shown to elicit aggressive behavior in many species of animals. Thus, using punishment can put the person administering it or any person near the animal at risk of being bitten or attacked...
Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to use punishment sparingly is that punishment fails to address the fact that the bad behavior is occurring because it has somehow been reinforced—either intentionally or unintentionally. That is, owners tend to punish bad behaviors some of the time while inadvertently rewarding these same behaviors at other times. In this way, they accidentally set their pets up to receive punishment repeatedly by sometimes unintentionally rewarding the bad behavior, which is how the behavior was learned in the first place. This inconsistency is confusing to the animal and can cause frustration or anxiety. Punishment also fails to tell the animal what it should be performing instead. Without an alternative appropriate behavior the animal may have no option but to perform the undesired behavior. A more appropriate approach to problem solving is to determine what is reinforcing the undesirable behavior, remove that reward, and reinforce an alternate desirable behavior instead. For instance, dogs jump to greet people in order to get their attention. Owners usually provide attention by talking or yelling, pushing them down, or otherwise touching them. A better solution would be to remove attention by standing silently and completely still and then to immediately reward with attention or treats once the dogs sits. This learning-based approach leads to a better understanding of our pets and consequently to a better human-pet relationship.

I came across the news about these guidelines when reading a most interesting blog called Dolittler that discusses the issues that come up in the daily life of Dr. Patty Khuly a vet in Miami, Florida, in the US.

Dr Khuly refers to the "aggressive techniques and dominance-based methods of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan. Now I'm wondering if I wasted my money recently buying a set of DVDs by him. I haven't watched them yet. I guess when I do I should keep an open mind about his methods.


Slavenka said...

Nice article, thanks for the link to the stroy about the fish catching dog ;)

parlance said...

Hi, Slavenka. Thanks also for all the humorous things you post. I enjoy the variety of things you find!