Define “Works”

Some say that statistics lie.  Personally, I’ve never met a dishonest statistic.  I have however met dishonest people who misuse statistics.  There are people who misread them.

Unless you want to be the person who is spending $50.00 a month on the latest supplement or therapy program, take some time to learn about controls.  Let’s face it, if all those miracle treatments worked, people wouldn’t have drawers full of fads that did not work.  Same goes for dog training miracle treatments.

Let’s have some fun with statistics by creating some really basic fake study results.

Here is our study:

Scientists told a bunch of people to eat strawberries three times a day.  They want to know if strawberries help people with upset stomach feel better.

You look in a magazine and see that strawberries offer clear benefits to people with upset stomach.  Within the article is a diagram – a graph.  It looks something like this:

do nothing copy
Impressive looking results.  Forty percent of people felt better when compared to people who did nothing to change their diet.  Oddly, some people who did nothing felt better too.  Maybe they had the flu and it cleared up on its own.  It certainly looks like we should be eating strawberries with every meal.

Another researcher repeated the same study with one change.  They found similar results, so we have the beginning of a possible trend.


Forty percent of people felt better eating strawberries.  This time the researcher compared junk food eaters to the newly named Strawberry Miracle Diet.

Seriously, how is that revolutionary?  Comparing real food to junk and candy is an absurd idea.  We know junk food is bad.  Comparing to a bad control obviously makes the strawberries look good.  Overall, it doesn’t prove a “Miracle” strawberry diet works.

Researcher number three is skeptical and their study has yet another chart.

This researcher did something interesting.  They created a placebo group.  This means that some of the people ate strawberries.  The other half were given a sugar pill.  A placebo is a treatment with NO medical effect.  Comparing strawberries to a treatment with no benefit helps weed out the placebo effect – when people truly think something is helping but it’s not.  Yes, our quirky human brains are funny that way.

Researcher number three has provided clear evidence that strawberries are no better than sugar pills – a treatment known to do NOTHING.  Suddenly the Strawberry Miracle Diet looks a bit hinky.

Some might say, “Who cares, as long as people feel better?”  In certain cases, certainly this is true.  For example, people in severe pain might be given a placebo if they have reached the maximum dosage on pain medication.

Exceptions aside, an insidious danger lurks.  One more chart to illustrate what could potentially happen.

pineappleAnother researcher compared a variety of fruits to each other..  Most fruits made 40% of people feel better – except pineapple.  Pineapple stands out, with almost 80% of people feeling better.  That is a significant difference.

Who knows why pineapple is superior.  We need more research.  Perhaps it’s all the digestive enzymes.  Pineapple is better than placebo.  Pineapple is MUCH better than strawberries.  Pineapple actually seems to offer some REAL benefit.  As real as a fake study can be.

For numbers to be meaningful, you need a point of reference for comparison.  For example, a horse is big compared to a mouse.  A horse is small compared to an elephant.  The horse’s size does not change.  However, you only get a real indication of size if you compare to other things.

Similarly, treatments can seem to work.  Only by thoughtfully comparing them to solid reference points can we understand what the numbers really mean.

This is a sticky topic because with our irrational minds, placebos “work.”  You could probably test bracelets made from the hair off a monkey’s butt and some people will swear it “worked.”  Their testimonials will convince other people to wear monkey butt hair bracelets too.

The real tragedy of eating strawberries isn’t that strawberries are bad, immoral or evil.  The tragedy is that it takes people away from pineapples – treatments that work.

You could substitute supplements, holistic remedies, conventional medicine, anxiety treatments or any other “cure” on the planet.  This applies for dog training treatments as much as it does for “Miracle Diets.”  In a world where dog training results are evaluated with owner surveys, you cannot completely avoid the placebo effect.

The fact that something “works” doesn’t mean it works better than placebo.  If you want to know if a protocol, therapy or product works, you need to spend as much, if not more time looking at the control groups.

Go Buy Milk (Or Teach Heel).

Not too long ago, I asked my husband to stop and buy butter and milk at the store.  It’s such a simple request.  “Please buy butter and milk.”  How hard can it be?

Buying dairy is harder than it seems apparently.  Between organic, 2%, skim, homo, fine filtered, lactose free, goat, I know that “Please buy butter and milk” will probably result in a flurry of text messages.

That confusion is absolutely my fault.  I know the dairy counter is filled with wall-to-wall milk choices.  I failed at communicating.

If two humans can miscommunicate about “Go buy butter and milk”, a seemingly easy task, how much more likely is it that we miscommunicate with our pets?  We are not even the same species.

For example, heel position means many things.

  • Put your behind on the ground.
  • Do so beside my left leg.
  • Keep your body parallel to mine.
  • Sit tall.
  • Look at me.
  • Move your body into heel following a precise series of steps.
  • Sit not too close and not too far away.
  • Learn to control your hind end as you swing in tight.

Sit in heel is about as complicated as “Go buy butter and milk.”  There is a lot going on behind that very simple request.  Communication is hard.

How hard can sit be

Dogs can learn to understand us.  They are at an incredible disadvantage.  Using words is not in their nature.

Some handlers have a knack for making these skills look easy.  It’s not because they have some magic in their pocket, but rather that they engage in thoughtful, planned training.   Communicating a beautiful heel position is a skill – like a teacher that captivates a classroom or a couple that understands each other’s nuances.

A skill taught well to a dog, polished and finished is an indication that someone cared enough to teach well.  We should absolutely celebrate improvements along the way.  However, habitual crooked sits or the inability to wean away a lure speaks volumes.  Never finishing and polishing a skill is a shame.

The art of completing just one skill, from start to finish speaks to the question:

“Can you communicate with your dog well enough that you can finish and polish behaviour?”

Which skill does not matter.  No one has to enter the world of competition behaviours.  Completing your dog’s “shake a paw” trick is a very worthy goal.  Get the behaviour on cue and achieve stimulus control.  At least it has the benefit of stopping enthusiastic and repeated swatting and scratching of people’s arms.  It develops skills that carry over to other real life scenarios.

The beauty of a perfect heel, chase turn, rear cross or cute trick is not in a ribbon or medal.  It is in the experience of learning to finish a task from start to finish.  We learn to persevere, adapt and communicate more fully.  The dog shows its comprehension by demonstrating the skill – flawlessly.  The dog learns to attend to the cue, and not a lure.  Dogs learn to offer behaviours only when asked.  Our gestures and movements begin acting like spoken words.

Make that journey.  Achieve the most perfect form of behaviour possible.  Eliminate lures, create stimulus control, and work on minute position changes on at least one skill because it’s an important skill to have.  Eliminating lures and contextual cues in a routine are the same skill set found in rehabilitation programs.  They are not optional accessories in a dog-training toolkit.  A trick can be a opportunity for growth.

Effort is required for the simple things, perhaps even more than for the complex.  Mistakes glare on simple skills.  It’s just you, the dog and a sit.  Not much hides a sloppy sit or unfaded lure.

Failing to communicate all the elements of a behaviour is not much different than saying, “Go buy butter and milk.”  It’s too vague.  Be prepared to eat some crow when they bring home buttermilk.  Don’t expect dogs to do much better with partial instructions either.

Good communication looks like magic, but it is really just a whole lot of effort on our part.  Only in its absence do we miss it.  It is something that everyone can achieve with their dogs if they set a goal, create a training plan and go for it.  Start with, “just one behaviour – as close to perfection as possible.”  Finish it.  You may find that it gives you something more valuable in return.

Treat Training Trinity – Why positive reinforcement did not work for my dog.

About fifteen years ago, when I started apprenticing as a trainer, I used leash corrections and other forms of “discipline”.  I no longer leash correct, and have not for more than a decade.  This is not because I had a moral agenda.  I simply needed an effective training solution.

Kiki, my learning dog pulled like a tugboat.  We tried so many techniques we could have been the poster child for:

“But I tried positive reinforcement and it did not work.”

I chuckled and snickered with other trainers, “Ignore bad behaviour?  So you just LET the dog knock grandma to the ground?”  Teaching with food and then proofing with corrections seemed to make more sense.

We ran the gamut on protocols:

Food luring Collar corrections – flat collar
Collar corrections – nylon slip Head halter use
Head halter to reposition dog Head halter corrections
Chain choke collar correction Special choke collar correction (sits behind the dog’s ears)
Clicker instead of verbal marker Penalty yards
Be a tree Change of direction
Reward dog for releasing leash pressure Reward with approach to distractions
Hiding food rewards/surprise Finger poking the dog


Failure was not from a lack of effort or poor timing.  That special choke collar came from a very large, well-known training facility.  Ironically, they market themselves as being positive.

I have heard people say that positive reinforcement did not work for their pets.  Upon further digging, their chart looks oddly similar to mine. This is not positive reinforcement.  This is a mixed bag of reinforcements and punishments, more aversive than not.  We don’t even know if any of the elements were executed correctly.  In hindsight, I know that in Kiki’s case, they were not.

Kiki was lucky because I am stubborn.  Despite multiple trainers telling me to give up on her, I kept searching for a solution.  Our journey took us to a workshop and some private sessions where some exercises had a profound impact on my way of thinking.  I realized that intending to use positive reinforcement was not the same as using it effectively.

In each of these exercises, we initially fed so quickly it was obscene.  The clicker took on a machine gun staccato.   Feed!  Faster!  Click – TREAT!  Click – TREAT!  Again!  Again!  Faster!  You’re clicking too slowly!

I can’t emphasize how fast we were feeding that dog.  She was right and right and right.

Twitchy toes Kiki, who couldn’t stand still on account of her tail wagging so hard, learned a stand for exam.  On the formal recall, she learned to target a bulldog clip attached to the front of my shirt.  I stepped back 5 cm, asked for the touch – click and treat.  Five centimeters seems absurdly easy!  (That’s two inches for my American friends.)

Wouldn’t you know: it worked.  Not only did it work, we finally moved AWAY from food rewards.  The gasp I heard at her first competition as she charged toward me and sat in a perfect front , I can still hear it.  It’s one of my fondest memories of Kiki.  Within months of measured, planned and well-executed positive reinforcement, Kiki stopped pulling on leash.  Did I mention, she did this on a body harness?

Properly executed, positive reinforcement works.

It all comes down to the Bob Bailey trinity.  Timing – criteria – rate of reinforcement.  While providing feedback at the right moment in time is important, it is equally important to raise expectations in small, measured increments.  Too big of a leap and the dog goes from right to wrong.  We also need to provide fast feedback in the initial stages of training.  Pause too long between reinforcements and the dog checks out, gets bored or would rather be elsewhere.

The greatest irony being that strong technique allows owners to wean away from food treats faster.  A few weeks or a month of good technique may include bursts of obscene machine gun clicking.  The alternative is months or years of slow feeding and searching for the miracle cure that may or may not come.

It doesn’t help when fear of food mongering encourages people to reduce treat use.  Stingy feeding and large leaps in criteria create a weak technical foundation.  That weakness is what creates, “I tried positive reinforcement, but it did not work.”

Technique matters…period.  The tougher the dog, the more important technique becomes.  I see those dogs as the ones that point a paw at me and say, “You have more learning to do….I shall point out your technical weaknesses!”  I cherish those dogs for the lessons.  I truly hope that I never fall into the mindset to think that I know it all.

Re-visit the dog training trinity first when a dog is not responding in the way you want.  We seem to spend so much time, effort and money adding new tools to the toolbox.  It pays to sharpen and hone the essential tools we already have.

It’s like buying a food processor because your dull knife won’t cut a tomato.  Of course the knife isn’t working.  You have not maintained it.  Sharpen it.  Don’t neglect the essential tools of timing, criteria and rate of reinforcement.  They are the ones you need to count on.  Really, it’s not a moral issue.  At the end of the day we want dog training that works.

“A” Sucks. “B” Stinks. What Kind of Choice is That?

Each year we go to a large Chinese buffet restaurant for a family event.  This particular buffet offers a plethora of choices.  This apparently is good because “everyone can find something that they will like.”

Unless you hate greasy Chinese food.  What draws me to this restaurant is not the food, but the company.  I enjoy visiting with extended family.  My little foodie rant is rather trivial.  It goes to show that having choices is not the same as having good choices.  Children understand this.

“Sweetie – blue pants or red pants?
“I want to wear a tu-tu.”
“You can’t wear a tu-tu.  You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”
“I want to wear a party dress.
“You can’t wear a party dress.   You have a choice.  Blue pants or red pants?”

It doesn’t take long for a kid to realize that choices have been limited.  Beneath the guise of choice lies the ultimatum of “You will wear pants.”

Not all choices are good choices.

Not all choices are good choices.

Dogs also get limited choices during training.

Sit = cookie – Don’t sit = no cookie.
Come = praise – Don’t come = correction.
Pee = treat – No pee = stay out in the cold until you do.
Bark and lunge = scare away other dog – Flee = avoid the scary other dog.
Choose to do anything you want, but you are doing rehab setups today.

Choice sounds good creating the assumption that all choice based programs must be good.  Choice sounds good unless you ask, “What are the choices?”

Just because a dog made a choice, it does not mean that the dog enjoyed it.  Dogs can pick the best of the worst.  What other choice do they have?

Choice is no gift when A sucks and B stinks.

When a dog retracts, retreats or refuses, the dog has made their choice.  The dog is saying, “A sucks.”  Communication goes two ways.  We can respond to the dog’s message that “A sucks” through our actions.

I can continue doing the same thing, justifying it by saying that the dog is free to leave.

I can change what I am doing, so the dog no longer wants to leave.

When we make an error – when the dog tries to retract, retreat and refuse – we should respect the dog’s wishes.  Apologize, do not let the dog suffer.

Listening to the dog once during an error is not at all the same as planning and creating scenarios where the dog is stuck between many lousy, unpleasant or irritating choices.

When our dogs communicate that we have erred, it is our choice whether to adapt the training plan or continue forcing the issue.   Humans should not dump the responsibility of our own behaviour onto our dogs – our lack of listening and adapting to feedback – by cloaking it in a guise of choice.

Once is a mistake, twice is stupid.  It is a human choice to engage in the same scenario that triggered the retreat, retraction and refusal in the first place.

Which choices are available is up to the human.  There may be 2,3, or 100 of them.  Owners can create choices the dog avoids, tolerates, or seeks out.

Shrugging one’s shoulders is akin to saying, “They can always leave.”  It is an example of hearing rather than listening and responding to the dog’s attempts at communication.  Listening means that I alter the training plan so that the dog wants to stay and participate.  Signs of retreat and resistance disappear.

We can choose to take responsibility for our own technique.  We can swear to better our skills, trying to provide choices that the dogs not only want but enjoy and love.  We can promise to look for signs of refusal, retreat and retraction.

Some may argue that we really cannot fully know what the dog wants.  Perhaps that is true.  We can make educated guesses.  Researchers are finding ways to test choice and preference.  It seems cold to not try to listen to our pets.

Why put a dog in a position where it has to chose between one aversive and another?  At the very least, it’s really not so hard to lay out the dog’s choices, like a buffet table of behavioural menu items.  Take a good look and ask yourself if there is anything on the menu that your dog actually likes – or are you giving the dog a choice of A sucks and B stinks?

Avoidance Makes for Happy (Looking) Dogs

This New Years, I made a resolution.  I am leaving a number of Facebook groups.  It was triggered by a couple interesting exchanges, one that left me sobbing.  I can’t say that I was sad or hurt.  I have to respect someone in order to be hurt by them.  I can’t say that was the case.

In hindsight, I suspect it was stress release.  When you keep trying to not rock the boat, there comes a point where a straw breaks the camel’s back.  Low-grade, long-term stress sucks.  The relief of making up my mind and leaving just opened the floodgates.

Leaving the first group was difficult.  It felt like I was shunning people.

Click…you’re gone.

Each subsequent group became easier.  I needed less of a reason to go.  I didn’t even need to feel personally threatened or offended.  Seeing others bicker was enough.


You know something, it feels GOOD.  Damn good.  Click!  You are gone.  Click!  No more Facebook baiting.  Click!  No more trolls.  Click!  You are banished from my little world.

Click … I have the power to leave.

It gave me an epiphany.  Everyday social situations can be extremely aversive.

Some people will chime up that we should have the choice to leave abusive situations.  Absolutely:  Leave and stay away.  This blog is not about the right to leave abuse.  Although I do find it interesting that people go back to abuse.  That just goes to show that returning to something does not mean it was pleasant.

Dogs should live a life free from abuse too.  Let’s be really clear.  This blog is not about leaving abuse.  Nor is it about accidental situations where a dog becomes scared.  Chalk that up to a mistake and don’t let it happen again.

This blog is about using aversives intentionally in training.

When you leave an aversive situation, you get a sense of relief.  In social situations, it boils down to, “I feel good knowing that I can escape or avoid you.”  That is negative reinforcement.  All negative reinforcement involves aversives.  That is what negative reinforcement means – the cessation of an unpleasant stimulus, increasing a particular behaviour.

There are two special forms of negative reinforcement.

Leaving an unpleasant situation is escape.  With practice, you can hit the abort button soon enough, before things become unpleasant.  That is avoidance. If you’re at all clever, you’ll learn how to avoid unpleasant situations entirely if you’ve had to escape them.

Tears notwithstanding, I am grateful that I felt the joy of leaving that first group.  You don’t need shock collars, prong collars, choke collars or other tools to make something aversive.

I also realized just how good escape feels.  Click…you are shunned.  Woo hoo!  Holy sh!t it feels good.  I don’t have to face this anymore.

That creates quite a conundrum.  Escape and avoidance legitimately feels good.  If you feel good, you LOOK HAPPY once you have figured out the process.  Looking happy as you leave does not mean that you didn’t feel lousy at some point in the past.  The same goes for the dog.

If the dog is escaping, it could have felt lousy a few seconds ago.
If the dog has learned to avoid (escape before they feel lousy), then they might have felt lousy in the past.  The “happy” dog you see is possibly avoiding an aversive that happened days, months or years ago.

Negative reinforcement is powerful.  It is extremely resistant to extinction.  You have to face what you fear in order to realize that you’re not actually in any actual danger.  That fear, of facing what we fear, keeps us avoiding again and again and again.

Negative reinforcement is deceptive that way.  If I I can avoid discomfort, I look happy, not because I have overcome a fear, but because I have become a master at avoiding fear.  The embarrassing blowups might stop, but that does not mean the fear has disappeared.  The fear of fear lingers and supports the avoidance.

The quadrant police, whoever they are, have it right.  If you cannot trust your eyes, then trust the science.  Blurring the lines of the quadrants obfuscates and hides the aversive control.

I care why my dog looks happy. In negative reinforcement your dog can look happy AND be under the control of aversives.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps I might not ever know for sure, but if I know which quadrant I’m using, I can make a reasonable assumption.  If I can identify the behaviour, I can try to answer whether my dog is happy to approach or happy to leave.

As tempting as it might be to curl up and avoid social situations, I have decided that I dislike avoiding life as much as I dislike seeing dogs practice avoidance as a method of choice.  I don’t feel truly happy escaping and avoiding a small handful of jerks because it deprives me of the smart, interesting, good, quirky people out there.  So, I’ll continue reaching out.

It would break my heart to suspect that my dogs look happy because they are successfully avoiding the people and animals in it.  I certainly don’t want to worry and watch for signs that my dog is recoiling from the people who love them.

JV Kip dirtyPerhaps the idea that a dog can look happy and be under aversive control is a tough pill to swallow.  I would rather face that uncomfortable idea.  If my dog is a master of avoiding, I need to micromanage my dog, making sure no one assumes that looking happy means that the dog wants social contact.  The implications of that would frankly scare me.

YOUR Dog is Stressed! MY Dog is Doing Calming Signals.

Many years ago, I went to a seminar by Turid Rugaas.  She pointed her finger at me as I struggled with my dog and said, “That is stress.”  My dog was energetic and young, bouncing and pulling at the end of the leash.  Kiki was friendly to embarrassing extremes.

During the two days, those were the only three words she spoke to me.  She said it only once.

“That is stress.”

It had a strong influence on the way I perceived seemingly happy, playful dogs.  The squiggly “OMG I did it! I did it!” dog that people think is happy – might not be happy.

No, I didn’t feel insulted.  I felt relieved.  Kiki was the dog by my side when I started out.  While I could have been insulted, it made more sense to consider that our struggles might, possibly be rooted in stress.  The hardest but most valuable pill to swallow is self-reflection.  Turid writes in her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals:

Find the reasons for your dog to be stressed.  By looking critically at yourself and your surroundings, you can often find out a lot all by yourself. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask someone to help you see the situation from the outside. We often become blind to what we do.

It’s really quite simple.  If you see calming signals, look deeper.  Identify the root of the stress.  Deal with the root of the stress.  Do not be blind to stress in your own dog as it can easily happen.

Reading other people’s dogs looks easy.  People point a crooked, denouncing finger at pictures and videos of other people’s dogs.  “YOUR dog is stressed.  He gave a whale eye.  She looked away.  Your dog sniffed the ground.”  Funny how sure people are with their accusations when they are pointing away from themselves.

Assuming to KNOW what other dogs are experiencing in short video clips is presumptuous.  It is about as accurate as saying that someone who bites their nails IS stressed.  It’s equally possible that the person has a hangnail or a long standing habit.  Nail biting MIGHT mean stress or it might not.  Context is important.  An intimate knowledge of the subject also matters.

For example, I can take a series of SLR pictures of my dogs.  One second they look happy.  Less than a third of a second later, the white of the dog’s eye is exposed, their head is turned away and their mouth pinched tight.  Some might scream, “Whale eye! Tight mouth!  Looking away!”

Kip slr
Little do you know that the cat walked by.  My dog turned his head, looked sideways at the cat and closed its mouth in order ascertain the cause of the noise to its side.  My dog is not stressed in that instance.  My dog is looking over its shoulder.

Here is where things get interesting.  Some people reinforce calming signals during training.  They put the dog into a position where the dog WILL give off calming signals.  Accusatory fingers point at others: “YOUR dog is stressed – but MY dog is doing calming signals.”

Stop right there.  OTHER dogs are stressed but YOUR dog is happily self-soothing and using calming signals?  Maybe it’s time to revisit Turid’s warning that, “We often become blind to what we do.”

The problem with opinions is that my opinion is just as valid as your opinion.  If your pointy finger is aimed at my dog while you wrinkle your nose clucking “Stress,” then I can just as quickly point at your squiggly, seemingly happy (I say twitchy) dog and retort right back.  “No, YOUR dog is STRESSED.”

Opinion only really leads to wars.  Pity, because there is a way to know if your dog is using calming signals or showing stress signs.  Read the definitions and apply them.  The quagmire of word choice isn’t that difficult to navigate.  Several words are used in similar contexts and here is what they mean:

Displacement Behaviours:  Behaviours that bring a dog comfort when conflicted.  Observing displacement behaviours is considered a non-intrusive way of measuring stress, potentially indicating a negative effect on the animal.

Calming signals:  The signals are used at an early state to prevent things from happening, avoiding threats from people and dogs, calming down nervousness, fear, noise, and unpleasant things.  The signals are used for calming themselves when feeling stressed or uneasy. (On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals)

Appeasement gestures:  Stereotypical gestures made in response to threat gestures that tends to inhibit an attack.

Stress signs:  Signs of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.  To subject to pressure or tension.

The differences between these words amounts to hair splitting.  Stressed dogs use calming signals.  Calming signals may indicate stress.  How is one better than another?

All of these terms describe stress, discomfort and adversity.  The difference between stress signals, displacement behaviours and calming signals should not be the direction your finger is pointing.  The use of these words should not be a marketing strategy, making stress signs more palatable by making these behaviours seem desirable.  Really, that is the key difference.  Calming signals sounds warm and fuzzy.  Stress sounds bad.

I respect Turid’s observations, and have for many years, enough that I am not going to candy coat or change the definition she created.  She says that dogs often do these things when yelled at, threatened or scared.  Look for the root of the problem and solve it.  If you believe that calming signals/stress signals/displacement behaviours are important indicators of stress, then changing the definition for your dog (or your friend/guru’s dog) is more of a reflection of personal bias than objective analysis.

I also respect another mentor.  Many years ago, when I wanted to capture and reinforce my dog’s yawns she said, “You’re going to let your dog feel stressed so you can reward them for yawning?  How exactly will you know when the dog is actually stressed or just wanting a cookie?”

Harsh questions are good questions.  I’ll never forget that one because it did make me feel pretty lousy.  For an instant I forgot that capturing a calming signal meant that I would need to cause my dog discomfort.  Calling a stress sign a calming signal doesn’t change a thing about that moral dilemma, regardless if it sounds better when spoken out loud.

Yes you can reinforce fear…..or at least enable it.

A number of recent articles claim that, “You can’t reinforce fear.”  What they mean is that you cannot use positive reinforcement to create or maintain fear.  This would be true.  I can pay you to fake an Oscar worthy performance of being afraid of spiders.  However, I cannot pay you to BE afraid of spiders.

However, you can, absolutely enable fear via negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is a bit challenging to understand.  You can read how it works in more detail here in a previous blog post.

The Reader’s Digest condensed definition of negative reinforcement is that you stop something unpleasant in order to increase behaviour.  Presumably you have to start being aversive in order to stop it.  For example, you can’t turn off a car unless someone started it first.  The important point being that it is the cessation of something unpleasant that has all the power.

In dog training, negative reinforcement is used a fair bit.  Turning off continuous shock when a dog obeys is one example.  Nagging is a classic example of negative reinforcement.  Fear also works.  Dogs can learn if they act calm, they can move away from something that makes them nervous.

Negative reinforcement supports a wide range of fears and phobia.  For example, some people stay in their home because they are afraid of social situations.  Anxiety reduces when outings are successfully avoided.  Staying at home increases.

In order to survive in this world, we develop coping strategies.  Not all of them are healthy.  Some people might brave the world if a close friend tags along.  For lack of a better word, the friend acts as a crutch or buffer.  Their presence prevents the phobic person from facing the root of their fear, on their own.

These are maladaptive coping strategies.  Other publications call them safety behaviours and safety signals.  Maladaptive strategies create a rapid drop in anxiety, but stand in the way of addressing the primary fear.  Continued practice of these maladaptive strategies makes the patient better at avoiding the real problem.  Fear festers in silence.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

Similar things happen to our dogs.  Fear can be maintained with negative reinforcement.  In order to cope, our pets can create maladaptive strategies that deceptively look like cures.

For example, nervous dogs might take a back seat to another dog in the home.  So long as “big brother” takes the lead in social situations, owners fail to see any sign of fear.  Anxiety festers.  The dog fails to develop social skills – until one day big brother is no longer around.  The poor dog is ravaged with terror.

Owners can also become a crutch by repeatedly bailing (rather than occasionally helping) dogs out of difficult situations.  Dogs become dependent on the owner in an unhealthy way.  Instead of learning how to handle difficult situations, they learn how to escape when thing get uncomfortable.  Owners offer an easy out.

If it makes you recoil at the possibility of being an enabler, understand that negative reinforcement is powerful and subtle.  The curative appearance that safety behaviours create can fool expert eyes.

Our role, as owners or coaches is to help empower our dogs.  We need to give them roots and wings.  This means careful self-reflection – bitter, painful, self-reflection.  Are we serving the dog, teaching it to face its fear?  Or are we intentionally giving the dog an escape route?

By no means am I advocating that dogs sink or swim.  There is no reason to work a dog to the point of discomfort.  There are plenty of options such as desensitization and counter conditioning.  New advances in their execution are improving upon already impressive results.

However, what I am pointing out is that you can enable fear through negative reinforcement.  You can fool yourself into thinking that you have cured said fear if you intentionally or accidentally create a safety behaviour that allows or encourages escape.

Perhaps you are fine with that, so long as your dog stops being embarrassing in public.  Remember that life isn’t always fair.  Owners get sick, divorced – heck they go on holidays.  Dogs become lost and end up in a shelter.  Like the dog that lost its “big brother”, how will your dog feel and behave when abruptly forced to face a very scary world all alone?  What will your dog do when they no longer have you to turn to as a routine escape plan?  What will you do when your dog is cornered unexpectedly because they are charged by something or someone scary?

Regardless of your personal decision, understand that negative reinforcement plays a role in keeping phobias alive whether you like it or not.  If you’re helping a nervous dog to overcome its fears, it pays to understand how negative reinforcement works, how it maintains fear, and the risks that tag along for the ride  When a quadrant has this much power, it pays to know it inside out..

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