The Science Behind Dog Training — Myth, Fact, and the Unknown.

There are a lot of different ideas about what is right and wrong when it comes to dog training and behavior modification. In fact, there’s an old saying, “The only thing two dog trainers will agree on is what at third dog trainer is doing wrong.” To separate the fact from fiction, I’m going to focus on a few of the more popular ideas and look at a bit of the science behind dog training.

I’ll start by defining, in simple terms, the ideas behind classical and operant conditioning because these concepts are important to modern dog training.  Classical conditioning comes from a famous experiment by Russian Psychologist Ivan Pavlov, circa 1901. Pavlov set up an experiment with a dog and a bell. In simplest terms, a bell would ring, and food would then appear. This experiment, in essence, paired a neutral stimulus (the bell sound) with an unconditioned stimulus (the taste of food). When food appeared, the dog would salivate. Soon, the dog started salivating when the bell sounded, even before the food appeared. At this point, the bell sound became a conditioned stimulus and the dog salivating in response to the bell became a conditioned response. Put simply, the dog became conditioned to automatically salivate in response to the bell.

This is the very early precursor to forms of training involving a different type of conditioning — operant conditioning. Clicker training, for example, is a form of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning, in simplest terms, is a behavior modification that uses rewards or punishments to either increase or decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur. Many people confuse classical and operant conditioning, and the easy way to remember the difference between the two is that classical conditioning involves making an association between an involuntary response and a stimulus, while operant conditioning is about making an association between a voluntary behavior and a consequence.

I won’t go into all the ways operant conditioning can function, but I’ll list the most common ones briefly. You can reward an animal for desired behavior. You can punish an animal for undesired behavior. You can remove a negative stimulation when the animal performs the desired behavior. You can remove something the dog likes when the animal stops performing the desired behavior.

For example, you can give a dog a treat when the dog sits (reward desired behavior). You can spray a cat with a water bottle when the cat jumps on the counter (punish undesired behavior). You can remove an unpleasant stimulation (such as from a shock collar) when a dog moves toward you (for example, you can apply a low, continuous electrical shock that stops as soon as the dog moves toward you in response to a “come” command). You can end a fun game when the dog starts to get too mouthy or jumpy. All of these are examples of operant conditioning when a dog begins to associate a voluntary behavior with a consequence.

All of these training methods have proven effective in some situations, or else no one would ever use them. People repeat techniques that get them results (which is actually a form of operant conditioning)! The issue, however, is not whether one can get immediate results with a particular training method. The real issues we should consider are (1) the long-term results from a particular method, (2) the risks and benefits of the methods, and (3) the ethical implications of the methods.

The Effectiveness of Reward vs Punishment

For purposes of this blog, I’m using reward to mean something the dog likes and punishment to mean something the dog doesn’t like (in simplest terms). There’s all kinds of lingo that I’ll avoid (negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment; you can get a decent overview of those here). Most modern studies demonstrate that positive training techniques are, in general, more effective than techniques that rely on punishment. In fact, one recent study concluded that punishment-based techniques increase the likelihood of aggression. Meghan Herron from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that punishing techniques when training dogs tends to increase the aggression in the animals. However, not all punishment evokes aggression to the same extent. For example, 43% of dogs that were hit or kicked reacted aggressively, whereas only 3% of dogs given a quick verbal correction and 6% of dogs given a leash correction reacted aggressively.

Positive methods, on the other hand, are much less likely to evoke an aggressive response and are therefore safer to employ.

positive training

Why then, do so many people still resort to punishment? The quick answer is because it seems to work much faster in many situations than reward-based methods. For example, a dog that is shocked when it touches a fence is much less likely to touch the fence a second time.

In fact, the natural world provides many forms of “punishment,” though in the natural world, that term isn’t really appropriate. However, negative consequences are partly how animals, human beings included, learn what dangers to avoid. For example, when a child reaches to touch the flame on a stovetop, the moment her hand is burned, she yanks it back and cries. Odds are, she’s not going to touch the flame again! In fact, her experience touching the flame makes a much greater impression on her than any verbal warnings her mother and father could’ve given her about the perils of touching fire.

As another example, a wolf that tries to eat a porcupine gets a face full of quills and, if it survives, is unlikely to mess with a porcupine again (with the exception of canines vying for the Darwin Award). Skunks are also incredibly adept at inflicting negative consequences to those who harass them. Some creatures, in particular cats, are particularly adept at employing punishment to affect the behavior of those around them, as evidenced by this fun video.

In fact, intense experiences (i.e., involving fear, pain, etc.) are more vividly imprinted on the brain than most other experiences. There is a survival advantage to this memory imprinting, of course. In the wild, an animal that “forgets” a dangers and repeats a mistake is unlikely to survive.

So, many dog trainers rely on punishment to change dog behavior, but unfortunately, there are negative repercussions to overusing punishment that such trainers don’t consider. As studies show, punishment can increase aggression (i.e., flight or fight response). In addition, in nature, negative consequences are intermittent, not constant. Intermittent stress can be beneficial to animals. However, daily stress caused by constant punishment during training is not healthy. An animal that lives in fear of constantly being corrected will begin to exhibit other behavioral and health issues (inappropriate urination, chewing, vocalization, etc.).

Stress and adrenaline go hand in hand. The occasional stress-induced-adrenaline response helps keep animals sharp and responsive. A constant state of fear and anxiety, however, have a much different and more profound impact on animals. Dog trainers should not utlize techniques that put dogs in a constant state of fear; they should not use punishment to change all undesired behaviors.

Positive techniques, on the other hand, put dogs in an entirely different emotional state. Dogs learn commands better when training is fun. Children learn the alphabet by putting it to a tune, not by getting shocked whenever they miss a letter. Fun and learning should go hand-in-hand.

Punishment, on the other hand, does have a place, but not in the way most traditional dog trainers believe. When something is a life or death issue, the brain needs a quick and fast imprint to maximize an animal’s chance of survival. So, in summation, your daily dog training should be fun and positive. When you think about using more intense punishment, ask yourself how serious the situation is. Is it akin to a life or death matter? Is there a very serious safety issue at hand? For example, if you have a dog that tends to go over or through a fence in the blink of an eye, and you’ve tried positive methods and aren’t getting the results you need, that’s a serious safety issue that may require a different strategy.

A dog that gets out of a yard can be killed by a passing car, get into fights with other animals, and even end up confiscated by animal control. While you could stand outside all the time watching your dog, not even that action may be sufficient for a dog that can jump a fence in the blink of an eye. In that case, you’d have to keep the dog on a long line every time he’s outside. While some may opt to do so, others may want to try to stop the fence-challenging behavior completely, especially where other, less reliable family members may let the dog out and not be as diligent. A hot wire might be an appropriate tool to try to discourage your dog from touching the fence. Recognize that, to be most effective, punishment should be more along the lines of a “natural consequence” of a behavior, and it should happen every time the animal does something. It should also be intense enough to adequately discourage the behavior. Finally, punishment should never actually harm the animal (so if you’re using a hotwire, make sure it’s high enough to discourage behavior but not so high as to traumatize your dog; In fact, if it’s too much for you to touch, it’s too much for your dog).

Every time an animal tries to eat a porcupine, it’s going to get a face full of quills. Every time your dog touches the fence, it’s going to get shocked. It can avoid the face full of quills or the shock very easily. The consequences are consistent and entirely avoidable. Your dog isn’t living in fear, wondering when it’ll be hit or yelled at next. He knows the fence equals danger, and to avoid that danger, he avoids the fence. Even more importantly, the punishment is completely removed from you, the owner. The dog doesn’t just avoid the fence when you’re around. He avoids the fence all the time. He doesn’t see the punishment as coming from you, he sees it as a consequence of touching the fence.

Punishment can take many other forms, too. Many people don’t want dogs to jump on them for attention. When you turn away from a dog that jumps on you, that’s a form of punishment as I’m using the term. You’re doing something the dog doesn’t like in an attempt to alter behavior. When you pet a dog the moment it sits, you’re rewarding the desired behavior by giving the dog exactly what it wants–attention!

In fact, in society, we use reward and punishment all the time to convey to others what we desire and don’t desire. We boycott companies that implement policies we disagree with, for example. Boycotts are a form of punishment–an attempt to hurt a business’ bottom line and convince it to change its undesired policy. On the other hand, we may make a point to support a competitor with a different policy to reward that business decision. Parents use reward and punishment frequently in child-rearing, even parents who never lay a hand on their children.

Both reward and punishment have a place in dog training. However, knowing how, when, and at what level to use them is important. Your every day interactions with your dog should be fun and rewarding. One significant point to remember is that you can rarely create a more serious problem by using positive-based methods, but by inappropriately using punishment, you can very easily turn a mild behavior problem into a very serious one.