Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fallout – Real Risk or Rhetoric?

I can’t believe how long it has taken me to get back into a routine after hurricane Sandy.  Don’t get me wrong, I was one of the very fortunate ones on Long Island with no damage and losing power for only a couple of days.  Wish I could say the same for most of my family and many of my friends.  I am amazed at the resiliency and positivity of the people I know that were affected – truly in awe of some of them.  

With that, moving on to the business of dogs and all things dogs…Warning, it’s a long one.  Guess I’m making up for lost time J
I hear it over and over again from the “positive” training camp that punishment = fallout.  I also hear over and over from the traditional camp that fallout = “possie” rhetoric.  For every example of fallout from punishment there is an equal and opposite claim of “BS”.  So what’s the truth?  Truth being subjective, this is strictly my truth.
I firmly believe that positive punishment (adding an aversive) carries a very real risk of fallout.  That’s it, the smart thing to do is end the post here.  But, let’s be real, it’s me and oh how I love to ramble…
First, let me say that punishment does NOT guarantee fallout.  Behavior is not math so 1+2 does not always mean 3.  I’ve seen punishment work without fallout.  That said, I’ve also seen fallout first-hand and still see it regularly.  In my experience, it is a fact.  So, I am very careful about employing punishments and, when I do, I attempt to use only negative punishment (removing a positive reinforcer).  But, I never say never. There may be an appropriate time, place, situation and method of positive punishment that I may feel is necessary at some point.  I’m not a “humaniac” that is so closed-minded that I throw science out the window in the name of the fantasy that is known as “purely positive”.  Let’s face it, there is no such thing as “purely positive” – even the simple act of refusing to reinforce a behavior is a form of punishment.  Then of course, there is the latest buzz phrase “error less training” more on that another time but suffice it to say, that while ideals are great, they are all too often unattainable.

That said, I do believe that training can and should be accomplished  and behavior can and should be modified in a force-free way.  Why would I use a shock/prong/spray collar, a squirt in the face or a scary noise to suppress a behavior when I can first try to remove the trigger that causes the behavior or teach the dog an alternate and/or incompatible behavior AND remove the reinforcement for the problem behavior, thus allowing the dog to figure out that the behavior he likes but that I don’t is just not worth it AND a different behavior (one I DO like) is more rewarding?  Why wouldn’t I do it the more positive way?  Well, I would and do but I know why others don’t…

Because it takes more time.  Because it takes more effort.  Because it takes more thought than simply yelling, squirting, jerking or shocking the dog. Because humans (I’m convinced) are inherently punitive.  But if the punishers would just look beyond the momentary cessation of unwanted behavior, they would see that those punishments often don’t work, especially in the long-term.  If they did, one would not need to punish the same behavior over and over and over again.  Dogs are very bright and, when taught properly, learn very quickly.  If you are repeating the same “lesson” endlessly, the fault lies in your method, not your dog.

Traditional trainers claim that timing is what makes the punishment effective and that repetition is how the dog understands that it’s his own behavior causing the punishment and not something else – thus no risk of fallout.  Really?  True, timing is essential and a good trainer has timing.  An APO often does not.  When I work with a dog I also work with its human and leave them with the ability to practice and follow-thru on what I taught.  That is one reason for not teaching punishment techniques to my 2-legged students – I simply don’t trust punishments in the hands of a novice.  Now about that repetition… hmmm, so just how many reps of punishment does it take to cross the line from “teaching” to abusing?  Therein is my second problem with punishment and my number one reason for NOT choosing it myself.  If the punishment does not work in 1-2 attempts, it is abusive, period.  It’s like my friend who insists on poking me when she speaks to me.  Presumably she pokes me to emphasize a point but I’m not really sure why and I don’t care, I only know that I distance myself from her whenever possible.  One or two pokes I can deal with, but one or two pokes every time I see her or more than that is just plain annoying and, yes, painful.  Despite each individual poke being mild, the accumulation has left me sensitive and sore.  Blatant and forceful abuse?  Absolutely not.  And, yet, I still feel abused.  Now, her intent is NOT for me to distance myself from her but that is the fallout from her punishing behavior toward me.  Plus, ha ha, to this day, I have no idea why I’m being poked.  If I, the human with the larger cerebral cortex, can’t figure out why I’m being punished, how can one expect his/her dog to understand the concept any better?

Here’s some very real fallout for you – a while ago I accidentally rolled my desk chair over my little one when I pushed back to go into the credenza behind me.  I don’t even know how much of her foot I hit but, based on the little bit of blood by the split nail, I think I, fortunately, only got her toenail.  She screamed quite a bit and the sound went right thru me straight to my heart.  I honestly am not sure which of us was more upset.  This one stays near me all the time when I’m working in my office – she’ll lie under the desk or in the open crate on the side of my desk.  It took her 3 days to even consider entering the room again and she still wouldn’t go much farther than just in the doorway.  10 days after the incident, she still would only enter as far as the doorway.  I even took the chair out of the room to see if she would come in when the offensive object was removed.  No way.  She was avoiding the whole room – not just the object that punished her.  I began working on CC and it took me about a week or so to get her into the room and another week before she was comfortable enough to once again “hang” with me in the room.   So, despite the fact that the chair committed the offense, she had superstitiously decided the entire room was a bad, bad place.  She had connected the pain with the location, not the object that caused the pain or, fortunately, me.  If I were a punishment-based trainer attempting to teach my dog to be avoid chairs in that manner, it would have been an epic fail.  Don’t laugh, many “trainers” feel the best way to teach pups to avoid things is to make those things scary and/or painful.  (ah, so many thoughts, so little time)

In a scenario where a counter-surfer is punished for jumping up on the counter, the dog may learn that it’s her jumping that brings the punishment – but how many times must you repeat the punishment for the dog to figure it out?  Maybe she NEVER figures it out… maybe she thinks it’s the counter that’s causing the punishment, or the sink, or the cabinet door.  So, you may think you’ve effectively suppressed the behavior but then you remodel your kitchen or take her to another house and suddenly she’s back at it… fallout!  And, I might add, for those people who can’t keep their counter unrewarding, what is the likelihood that they can deliver the punishment 100% of the time?  If they can’t, then the behavior is being intermittently reinforced and made stronger than ever.  But that’s a blog for another day.
Yes, we “risk” the same superstitious connections with clicker training as well.  My dog may think that the click/treat she earned while training is brought on by the proximity of a person, object or sound or by the shirt I wear.  But, now here is where I agree with the traditional trainer about timing and repetition.  If I have good timing, the reward will be connected with the behavior.  If I have poor timing, then repetition will teach the dog that the reward is tied to her behavior.  Yes, even with poor timing, repetition allows for the dog to eventually figure out it’s not my shirt, it’s her behavior that brings the rewards. But, what is the risk of fallout there?  And where is the abuse in the repetition?  As far as I can tell, there is none!

Yes, we all live in the real world and, sometimes, sadly, need real world fixes.  It’s a matter of knowing your client – 2 and 4 legged.  Long before I introduce the sledgehammer, if ever, I will try other things and desperately seek to educate my clients in alternate, gentler methods.  

I firmly believe that superstitious connections and fallout are very definite and real risks in punishment-based training, not rhetoric.  Fallout is not always huge or obvious, it can be subtle and it happens more often than folks realize.  Dogs have trouble generalizing and, yet, have an uncanny knack for escalating their own fears.  When it comes to fears, dogs corner the market on generalizations.  JMHO

So, let’s not add to those fears with punishments.  Let’s keep those Happy Tails and give

DIRECTIONS, NOT Corrections!