As responsible dog parents it behoves us to ensure that our pet behaves according to acceptable standards both indoors and when out meeting other dogs, people, cats, etc. How we deal with a ‘situation’, for example lunging on lead and barking, will depend on our understanding of the dog’s emotions and of the steps necessary to resolve the situation and ensure it does not happen again – or at least take baby steps in the right direction. A dog acting in an aggressive way does not mean the dog is aggressive per se – something else may have caused the display. Very often this is fear-aggression. Why, and what is the dog fearful of will need to be addressed to placate this. The lead itself may exacerbate the dog’s anxiety in the sense that there is no escape!
Behaviours have consequences, a pleasant one will likely mean repeat of the behaviour, whilst an unpleasant one will likely mean the behaviour will NOT be repeated. Of course this is the fundamental theory of training and of the subject’s learning.
This then raises the question: to punish or not to punish. “Of course not, I would never punish my dog”, I hear you say. According to behavioural psychology something as apparently insignificant as the word ‘no’ constitutes punishment – perhaps not so in every-day usage. Degrees of punishment will fall on a continuum with extremes at both ends. The withholding of a treat/reward is technically punishment, albeit negative punishment (P- something is withheld or withdrawn to help decrease a behaviour, for example, jumping up at a visitor [time to get back to basics]).
There is a school of thought that we simply ignore an unwanted behaviour. Well fine, as a rule of thumb. This may work if the dog, for example, ‘lays’ instead of ‘sits’ – it’s fairly benign! It’s a question of context and if there is any imminent danger. If your dog is jumping up in excitement at a visitor whilst mouthing (but why is your dog/puppy doing this in the first place?!) or is about to run into a busy road, would you ignore this? Of course not. The dog must be aware that this is not acceptable and, ideally, offered an alternative behaviour. In other words we teach a positive rather than a negative.
Your dog WILL appreciate feedback rather than being ignored or left in limbo. But, how and what feedback do we give. Punishment would be punitive and, in any event, depends on consistency and precision timing – which of course most people don’t have. Punishment may appear to show instant results but does not teach the dog what to do instead. It is reinforcing for the trainer who is tempted to repeat this. However, if the punishment does not work there is a further temptation to increase it and where would it all end? With an unhappy dog, a battle of wills and, potentially, a relationship breakdown. The goal of training is to produce an internally-reinforced and self-motivated dog that is under reliable verbal control when off-lead, at a distance and with distractions. Understanding the science and theory is one thing but let’s not forget feeling and communication – feedback.
Analogue feedback is a term borrowed from electronics. Feedback can be either analogue or digital. As with dog training there is also both negative and positive feedback. Imagine digital as an on/off light switch – there are two poles, there is no in-between except a nanosecond’s time delay between the two. Now imagine a dimmer light switch as analogue – it is continuously variable and instantaneous. With dog training the aim is to give the dog appropriate and instantaneous feedback. Hence we have ‘analogue feedback’. As with voltage (input) and current (output), input from the trainer = output from the dog!
Furthermore, feedback needs to be unambiguous, binary, precise and instructive. The dog needs to know if he got it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – binary feedback. But what about the grey area in-between, the intervening variables of thinking it through, attention, perception, and decision making (known as cognitive psychology)? What happened between the initial stimulus and the response (more broadly known as S-R psychology or cause and effect)? Did he get it ‘almost’ right or ‘completely’ right? He needs to know how well he did. The DEGREE of feedback and praise – differential reinforcement – reflects this. Verbal feedback, therefore, becomes effortlessly analogue. Differential reinforcement allows us to concentrate on the positives rather than the negatives insofar as the dog succeeds whatever the scenario! A previous blog further discusses this concept: