Thursday, April 7, 2016

If you add it and it works, it hurts.

Lately, I've seen an incredible number of "gentle" tools and methods designed to stop dogs (and even cats) from doing X, Y, and Z. Product manufacturers can be incredibly sneaky with wording so that owners may not even realise how the tools are working or what potential risks might be involved. So here's a super simple way to determine whether something designed to stop behaviours is aversive or not: if you add it and it works, it hurts.

It just gets their attention without hurting them.

A common claim about various tools and methods is that they gently get a dog's attention, thus interrupting an unwanted behaviour and preventing future occurrences. I have to admit, I actually do use various attention-getting tactics: "whoop-whoop-dee-doo!", "up-pup-pup-pup-pup", smoochy sounds, barks, howls, meows, the rapidly repeated notes from Der Hölle Rache, and whatever else leaps out of my mouth before coherent thought. The big difference is that my attention-getting tactics aren't intended to change future occurrences because they truly just get attention. Consequences change future behaviour, not "gentle taps", smoochy noises, and other supposedly neutral stimuli. In order for an attention-getting tactic to be useful in learning, a separate consequence must be applied. When I use these types of prompts, such as in The Name Game, to manufacture a desired behaviour, I follow up with food, praise, and play, the reinforcers that actually help to sway the dog's future decisions.

The dog decides what's gentle or not.

Let's back up to Die Zauberflöte for a look at how a learner's future actions determine whether a stimulus was appetitive (desirable), aversive (undesirable), or neutral. Let's say I weasel my way into the middle of a large university crowd and begin singing Der Hölle Rache at the top of my lungs. It's going to get the attention and head-swivel of anyone who can physically hear it. But unless someone takes off running with his hands over his ears, that doesn't tell me much about who liked it, who hated it, and who doesn't care either way. Over the course of the semester, however, some pedestrians will make alterations to their routes in order to either avoid or seek out my daily concert. Others will simply tune me out. My dog is not one of these. I inadvertently trained her to avoid my washroom at all costs while simultaneously training another family dog to recall to the sound of a shower head while the third family dog showed neither inclination nor disinclination for any kind of music. These alterations in future behaviour are what determine the nature of a particular intervention, not my operatic ego or the fancy label on a pet correction product.

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About the Harenbergs

Audrey, Aipa, and Steve Harenberg on the Blue Ridge Mountains

We build strong working relationships between dogs and handlers through the use of modern learning theory and the development of technological aids.

Audrey has been involved with numerous non-profit organisations, as foster mom, therapy dog handler, and obedience instructor. In addition to teaching private lessons, group classes, and in-home training, she's busy creating free blog articles and books to help make progressive dog training accessible to all.

Steve is finishing his PhD in computer science and will be taking over technological development once he is freed from academia.