Why Your Dog Doesn’t Know Sit

When I was a young girl, my grandmother would send gifts of books from Czechoslovakia.  The books were filled with stunning moving pop-up illustrations.  I learned a lot from those books.  I learned how those illustrations popped up.  I learned how one moving part operated another moving part.  What I failed to learn was how to read Czech.  My attention was so fixated on the illustrations that I memorized the words.  I recited the story based on the illustration.  I never focused on the letters.  Illustrations overshadowed the letters.

fox with cheese

Overshadowing is a well-researched part of dog training.  One place it applies involves adding cues.  (Commands for those who still use that term)  Animals, when simultaneously given two or more cues are likely going to learn about the most salient – to the detriment of the others.  Which facet carries the most weight depends on many factors.

Lured downs offer an example many can envision.  Dogs see humans bending at the waist during the lure.  If owners simultaneously say, “down” while luring or pointing, the word is unlikely to register.  Despite dozens or hundreds of repetitions, the dog stays focused on the owner’s gestures.  The word, “down,” becomes irrelevant background noise.  It predicts nothing of importance because with each repetition, the movement gives the dog all the information it needs.  Touching the ground comes to mean “lie down” rather than the word.  Pointing is perfectly acceptable if one wants to touch their toes in order to ask the dog to lie down.  I just don’t know many people who put it on their wish list.

Overshadowing affects many areas of training.  This is not a luring problem.  It can affect targeting, shaping and capturing.  It is not a positive reinforcement based problem.  Overshadowing has far reaching tendrils that reach pretty much everywhere.

Gestures do not need to be grandiose.  It can be as subtle as the wiggle of a finger or a raised eyebrow.  We all have dog training tells much like poker players have tells.  It takes self-awareness to compensate.  Often it takes a second set of eyes to spot them.

did you say something copy

This does not mean hand signals are bad.  Rather that few people want ridiculous signals.  No one wants to touch their toes to get a down.  It’s annoying.  Holding an arm extended for “stay” isn’t useful.  You can’t hold your hand up to sign stay and tie your shoe at the same time.  If you train with a prolonged gesture, that’s what the dog will need in order to understand.

Good hand signals are functional.  It takes effort to teach a great verbal cue.  Teach both but don’t mash them together and expect the dog to recognize them individually.  Don’t blame a dog for misunderstanding cues that were never made clear.

This might seem persnickety.  Who cares if signals are mashed so long as the method is “positive?”  Frankly, it is a problem when many trainers tell clients to mash signals and then encourage “balance” to clean things up.  Many repetitions become justification that the dog ought to know better and do better without recognizing that the repetitions were flawed.

Clients may feel that positive reinforcement failed because the dog is not responding to verbal cues.  This perceived failure again leads to “discipline.”  Positive reinforcement didn’t fail.  It worked exactly how science said it would.  In the absence of another reasonable explanation “dominant, stubborn, willful” can sound reasonable to a frustrated owner.

That’s a real shame because overshadowing is pretty easy to deal with.  Cues need to precede the behaviour without interference.  Fade lures.  Remove training aides during shaping or targeting.  Get a clean behaviour.  Then purposely add in the cue, and only the cue.  Spend a little time highlighting that these words or signs that are important and have meaning.  Do this in a thoughtful and planned way.

If we dismiss science, then we don’t learn about factors such as overshadowing.  I suppose it must be easier to justify corrections and sleep at night if one remains willfully oblivious to such things.  It is a choice to ridicule science and then justify corrections under the pretense of “balance.”

Learning the science is hard.  It demands that we regularly rip off the bandage that protects our fragile egos.  We need to find the thing we have yet to learn.  It goes beyond lip service.  We can’t just say, “We all have more to learn.”  You have to do something about it.

Learn better.  Do better.  Get better results.  Often those who suggest this path went down it before.  At least I certainly have.  There are walls you hit where it seems like something isn’t working right.  Finding out why is worthwhile.

Individually we should all lose a little sleep wondering if there isn’t some variation of overshadowing playing havoc with our cues (probably).  We should wonder if it impacts other areas of training (it does).  We should wonder if there are other effects to learn about (there are.)

Owners absolutely don’t need to learn decades of research in order to train their dog.  The trainers they hire should.

The takeaway for owners is twofold.  First, don’t mash your cues.  Second, science often does have all the answers….and it makes training a lot less frustrating when you work with it rather than against it.

Becoming a RE-Crossover Trainer – Rallying Against the Slippery Slope

Several years back, I had a number of challenging dogs in class.  I work with a lot of rescue and feral dogs.  This doesn’t mean that I think that mutts are tough.  Rather, when dogs have a rough start, the odds of behavioural fallout are overwhelmingly high.  Not every puppy is born with a silver spoon in its mouth.  Many of my clients have dogs that were born on the wrong side of the tracks.

Those dogs had nice and highly permissive owners.  Those that work with animals will know what I mean when I say that permissiveness can be a huge problem.  While I appreciate the gung ho positive vibe that these families embody, allowing dogs to rehearse unwanted behaviour is a huge problem.

This combination of tough dogs and permissive owners was a perfect storm of pressure.  In a desperate effort to communicate the need for consistency, I used a standard expression.

“Nothing in Life is Free.”  There isn’t anything particularly wrong with this idea.  Dogs should learn appropriate behaviour.   We shouldn’t allow dogs to run amok.  There’s nothing wrong thus far.  My mistake was in what I omitted.

Nothing in life is free still requires good training mechanics.  I didn’t lean on this fact strongly enough.  Without a plan to increase criteria, proper timing and a fast rate of reinforcement, it creates a client that is asking too much, frustrating the dog, and using aversives.

While the distinction may be slight, let’s look at an example.  Pretend we have a dog that would like to play with other dogs, instead of sitting politely on a loose leash.

By skillfully reinforcing the animal, it learns what is expected, and is proofed to distractions.  With practice, owners can switch dogs to a variety of reinforcements.  Instead of earning a treat for sitting politely on a loose leash, the dog transitions toward learning that polite behaviour gives access to free play.  We are well within the realm of positive reinforcement and Premack Principle.  The dog gets what it wants by doing what the owner wants.

Without strong technical training skills, a very different scenario arises.  The owner fails to reach the dog, or fails to proof the dog.  Incorrectly they assume that the dog can meet expectations.  The dog, in over its head, fails to comply.  As frustration builds, the dog starts to strain at the leash.  The owner stands firm, waiting for a response that comes slowly if at all.  Very quickly, that tight leash stays tight.  Owners wait for a release of pressure.  Pressure and release – or negative reinforcement.  This negative reinforcement could have been avoided.

slippery slope
Just that quickly, we step across that invisible line between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement/positive punishment.  We slip into aversives.  More importantly, we unnecessarily slip into aversives.

When owners spend prolonged periods of time, hanging onto a dog that is forcefully and painfully yanking at their arms, the temptation to correct increases.  It leads to a verbal correction, a touch, a poke, a little tug on the leash, a leash correction.  Each step is small – almost insignificant.  However, the changes over time culminate into dramatic differences in training methodology.

Badly done positive reinforcement is the funnel that fills the coffers of force trainers.

Poorly executed positive reinforcement strengthens the conviction that aversives are needed and frankly not that bad.  Force trainers have a valid point when they point to dogs straining against leashes.  This is not positive, nor is it kind.  Snickering, they have reason to laugh as someone aimlessly walks about or literally walks in circles doing changes of direction.

It didn’t take very long for me to recognize the error that I had made and to correct it.  Not all people do.  Some people slide down the slippery slope of aversives.  Encouragement, from other individuals who feel similarly makes it seem more palatable.  If others were also failed by positive reinforcement, it’s easier to blame the method than to admit to screwing up.

Others, seeing that they are sliding, dig their nails into the dirt, pulling themselves back up to where they want to be.  Despite erring, they bravely swallow that bitter pill.  Holy heck does it hurt.  Recognizing that the frustration in the dog’s eyes is a result of our shortcomings is excruciating.  I’ve slipped into that tenuous place where a “little firmness” or some “natural consequences” look tempting.  I’ve immediately regretted that misstep.

Owning our mistakes and our mechanics is a good thing.  We are all fallible human beings.  Making mistakes is to be expected.  Repeating them because we wear blinders made of ego is wrong.  Since we all make mistakes, our first course of action prior to sliding into aversives is to find our own errors.  Failing that, we need a trustworthy, honest person to give a second opinion.  Hubris does not belong in dog training.

Stepping out onto the precipice is costly.  It absolves trainers of personal reflection and growth.  As we habituate to minor aversives, what was once unthinkable gradually becomes acceptable.

Sloppy execution begets sloppy results.  Dissatisfied clients, people who assume they were using positive reinforcement, become convinced that it doesn’t work.  These people don’t know that their execution was flawed, nor do they know that they were using aversives.  We fail both the owner and the dog.

Poor mechanics create a need for aversives.  Aversives come bundled with side effects.  Perhaps there are trainers who are comfortable with minor aversives.  Perhaps they feel that the results that they obtain are good enough.  I hope that they also embrace the term balanced in their marketing material.

If we want positive reinforcement to be a method that appeals to the masses, then we need to deliver on results.  That will only happen if we all embrace the idea that our learning never stops.  The experience of training in the zone of correctly executed positive reinforcement is something that words cannot describe.  Unless one has been there, you cannot understand how quickly and efficiently the results come.  Only by experiencing these results can one understand the importance of rallying for professional proficiency.  Only then can someone understand why it’s so critical to rally against the slippery slope that lack luster mechanics can bring.

We can always develop our mechanics and technical abilities just a little bit more.  Only perfect people have a right to claim otherwise.  I just don’t happen to know any perfect people.

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.

Trinity
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.

Are you positive? Ask your dog.

I think most dog owners want to be as kind, gentle and humane as possible, while still effectively training their dogs.  If you read training blogs, you might start to think that withholding rewards is rather…punishing.  Others claim that rewards and punishments have a ying yang relationship.  You cannot have one without the other.

Many of these blogs have a technique-centric approach.  For example, cookies are positive.  Hitting a dog is punishment.  Verbal corrections (No! or Eh eh) are punishment.  Petting and praise are rewards.

If you think this is true, then you would be very wrong.

The DOG determines if you are using the carrot or the stick.  You, the human, trainer, owner do NOT get to determine what is naughty or nice.  Technique-centric trainers are wrong because they are presuming to know how the dog feels and thinks about various consequences.  They are painting all dogs with the same brush.

All dog training (not rehabilitation – different ballgame) uses carrots and sticks.  The technical terms are reinforcements and punishments.  You can giveth or taketh them away.  Not everyone has the same likes and dislikes.

For example, some people hate snakes while other like them.  Offering Johnny a trip to the snake exhibit for cleaning his room is a pleasant consequence only if Johnny likes snakes.  If Johnny refuses to clean his room despite a trip to the snake exhibit, you would be foolish to ignore that reaction.  The smart move is to consider that Johnny may be terrified of snakes.

So too it is with our pets.  Fasten your seat belts and leave your ego at the door.  It is time to ask the dog for some feedback on what they really think.  Here are some examples to consider:
Petting and praise for sitting.

  • If the dog sits more often, you have used a carrot.
  • If the dog sits less often, you have used the proverbial stick.

Your touch could be repulsive to a dog.  Puppy mill dogs and other under socialized animals cringe in terror at being touched.  Other dogs may tolerate your advances but really do not like it.  Some pets develop pain issues and no longer enjoy touch like they did in the past.  Never assume someone welcomes physical contact.

Push the dog off when it jumps.

  • If the dog jumps lesKip and Ic intense plays often, you have punished jumping.
  • If your dog jumps more often, you have rewarded it.

Many dogs love rough, physical play.  Rough handling can be play.  Pushing, shoving, grabbing – are fun for many dogs.   Being physically pushed is better than a slab of steak for many dogs.

Leash correcting a dog for pulling, then rewarding when the dog comes back to your side.

  • If the dog pulls less often, then the correction has punished the pulling.
  • If the dog stays right by your side, then you are reinforcing the dog for being at your side.
  • If your dog yo-yos between pulling and walking at your side, then you have rewarded pulling on the leash.  The dog has learned that pulling gets a correction.  The dog willing takes the pain in order to get a reward.

Dogs will learn to misbehave to get rewards.  You always get what you create.  The dog is not lying.  If you do not like having a yo-yo dog, look in the mirror because you probably created this problem behaviour.  I certainly hope no one would intentionally do this, but it does have some practical uses.  Think needle at the veterinary clinic means cookies.

Ignoring barking

  • You ignore barking.  Your dog’s barking worsens and then eventually stops.  You have used extinction.
  • You ignore barking and the dog quickly stops barking.  You have punished the dog by withdrawing attention the dog finds valuable, much like a timeout.
  • You ignore barking and barking escalates.  The dog probably wants you to go away.

You do not necessarily punish a dog by ignoring it.  If a dog wants you to go away, ignoring them is a carrot.  Even the happiest married couples probably realize it’s nice to see your spouse leave so you can have a bubble bath.  Love you – go away – come back later.  Do not assume your presence is always a gift to the universe.  You’re special, but not THAT special.  None of us is.

The point being that in order to aspire to compassionate – to be more humane and kinder, we need to stop talking so much and we need to start listening.

We listen by watching the dog’s reaction.  When you reach to pat a dog on the head and see that slight ducking and shying away, then take note.  Look for escape and avoidance behaviours.  They can be hard to spot.  Relief can look oddly similar to joy.

Avoid a technique-centric approach and choose communication.  When you stop – really stop – and listen, you realize that all dogs respond to positive reinforcement.  Unfortunately, too often, the human thinks they are being positive and the dog firmly disagrees.  You must truly hear what the dog is saying.

If you do that, you realize that the dog will tell you which quadrant is in play.  Open yourself up to the dog’s answer, even if the truth might sting a little.

Side note:  I love technical, jargon filled blogs.  I just happen to think that most people fall into a coma reading them.  Would recommend an introductory psychology text as a good source of information for anyone wanting to learn more.

Crisis of Conscience – Ultrasonic

Recently, I had a number of products sent to me for review.  They included several ultrasonic devices.

These devices emit a high frequency sound that is used to deter barking and other nuisance behaviours.  I had heard that these products worked for some, while other dogs failed to react.  I had also heard that a small percentage of people can hear the noise.

And so, I tried it out on myself first.  Yes, I can hear it.  I would characterize the sound as unpleasant.  Before you try this on yourself, warnings inside the packaging state that the device should be kept away from human ears.  Distance varies based on make and model.

The product I tried was a remote activated hand-held device.  You, as the owner, pressed a button when you wanted to correct the dog.

Here’s the dilemma.  Kip heard it.  He reacted badly, crouching low to the ground and then attempting to flee.  There is no doubt in my mind that he hated the ultrasonic.

Not dislike – hated. 

There was another sample, a bark activated ultrasonic box.  The inserts claim that you can prevent your dog from barking in the yard.  Or, you can install the box and have it correct your neighbour’s barking pets.

Each time a dog barks, a high pitched sound is emitted.  All dogs within range would hear this sound.

Think about this for a minute.  Imagine you live in an urban environment where yards are small.  Imagine that a barking dog lives nearby.  Your dog however, is calm, well-mannered and trained.  Each time the OTHER dog barks, ALL dogs in hearing distance are corrected.  You, as a human probably will not even know that this is happening.

Your dog can be punished for living in close proximity to a barking dog.

How is this a crisis of conscience?

I think people need to see how some dogs perceive ultrasonic sound.  Imagine if your dog started acting strangely, but you could not figure out why.  How does ultrasonic impact some dogs?

The question is, do I post video of Kipper and his reaction for the greater good?  Should people see the type of reaction they might expect, especially since they may be completely oblivious that their dog is being corrected?

I struggle to understand how anyone can legally use these devices on other people’s dogs, without their knowledge or consent.  Owners are generally liable for their dog’s behaviour, yet neighbours can secretly meddle with other people’s dogs.  How is this at all right or just?

Those that have to endure nuisance barking might point out that they have a right to quiet.  I’d agree.  The problem is, you’re punishing ALL dogs, not just the barkers.  There are other options.  Police do respond to noise violations in most municipalities.

If I posted video, some people may claim that it can’t be that bad if I would risk filming and posting video.  Others may say, “How could you do that to your dog?”  They will say that I am being cruel and no amount of justification warrants causing my dog a moment of unnecessary discomfort.  It’s the dilemma of greater good versus knowingly causing a moment of suffering.

Question

No matter how long and hard I think this through, I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer.  I am torn between two wrongs.  So I’m tossing it out there for all of you to please tell me what you think.  Would it serve the greater good to show this?  Or is never worth momentary discomfort even if it’s for the greater good and I know that I can ensure Kip has no lasting side effects?  Thoughts?

Toolbox or Technique

I am a tool junkie – specifically, kitchen gadgets.  In dog training, there are also plenty of tools.  Some people feel that the more tools a trainer has, the more problems they are capable of solving.  That would be wrong.

Bear with me for a moment while I go back to cooking…..

My ability to cook is not tied to my tools.  Give me wood and a pan, and I’ll cook you something so good that you’ll go weak at the knees.  If you like a nice ceviche, you can even skip the fire.  Someone has serious technical skill when they can take the cheapest, toughest piece of meat and turn it into something succulent.  It’s all about having mad skills.

If you are good at what you do, you don’t need a whole toolbox of tools.

Realistically speaking, I don’t want to whisk egg whites by hand, so I have a stand mixer.  However, I don’t need one to have success.  The act of buying a thousand dollar Robot Coup will not magically transform someone into a cook.  Nor will it result in an edible meal.

Many tools that I have bought fall into the miserable uni-tasker category.  Meaning they do only one thing, or aren’t worth the time or money.  They wind up in the trash.  They are too frustrating and aggravating to drag out of the back of the pantry when a decent chef’s knife will do.

You can also waste money on dog training uni-taskers.  Introducing the Dog-a-matic 6000.  Fast results.  So easy!!  Anyone can do it just press the button for instant results.  Money back guarantee if you’re not 100% satisfied.

It’s a bit of a money grab in my opinion.  That’s not my real beef.  An editor’s comment is.  There is a screen shot circulating on social media.  It’s allegedly a snapshot from Dog’s in Canada Magazine – the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) publication.  It states:

“Purely positive trainers…are limited by their personal training philosophies, leaving them unable to fix difficult, long-term behaviours in a timely manner.  A balanced or integrated trainer may be more likely to have a variety of skills and methods to fix problem dogs because they have a wider set of TOOLS and approaches…..”  (Caps added)

Excuse me – but a plethora of tools is just a bunch of gadgets.  The only tools a trainer really needs sits squarely between their ears.  It’s called a brain.

Just as I do own kitchen tools, I do own dog training tools.  I use a clicker.  Do I need it?  Heck no.

Without timing and skill, that clicker won’t give effective results.  Neither will prong collars, shock collars, chock collar, leash correction on any kind of collar or using your hand to poke, swat, hit or otherwise punish the dog.  (None of those I use.)  If you’re struggling with the timing of food rewards, then you’ll also struggle with the timing of corrections.  It’s a hand/eye co-ordination problem.  How is it fair to use the dog as a guinea pig while you learn to use pain?

Some tools do more harm than good.  It’s like driving a nail with a sledgehammer.  It might be possible, but it’s a little crazy to think you won’t damage the wall.  Greater power does not always equal better results.

Plenty of dog training techniques come with a bunch of side effects, creating other problems in the wake.  According to research, some techniques trigger aggressionRetaliation toward discipline is the number 2 trigger for dog bites to children.  Pressure on a dog’s neck has been tied to eye problems.  When you’re playing with life and death outcomes, asking about potentially negative fallout matters.

When it comes to some of the gadgets such as shock collars, electric fences and citronella collar –  they come with a manufacturer’s warning that says, “Do not use on aggressive dogs.”  According to the makers, don’t even use them on dogs prone to aggression.  With restricted use, having these in a toolbox doesn’t seem to offer any benefit.

At the end of the day, I don’t NEED to buy a sledgehammer to drive a nail.  Frankly, I don’t WANT one either.  I don’t NEED a Robot Coup to make a puree.  I WANT one.  I really don’t WANT the latest Dog-a-matic 6000 gadget because it’s a cheap piece of marketing nonsense that will end up in the garbage.  Waste o’ cash.

Call me really old school if you like.  I believe in technical skill and practice.  I don’t NEED to use any pain or fear.  I don’t NEED any tools that cause pain or fear.  I don’t NEED silly gadgets.  That old school attitude does not at all compromise results because a multitude of gadgets and tools will never make up for lack of technical skills.

If you have solid technique, you never NEED a full toolbox to get results.

Pain: When in Doubt, Leave it Out

What makes pain … painful?    It’s an interesting question because let’s face it, some pain is just worse than others.

Think of removing a bandage.  You could rip it off quickly, suffering an intense short burst of pain.  Alternatively, you could gently ease it off, suffering less, but for longer.  Which is worse?

What do bandages have to do with pet training?  Bear with me.  This pain stuff is interesting.

Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, devised multiple experiments – inflicting pain on willing subjects so he could ask, “How did that feel?”  Creepy as it seems, Ariely was the victim of severe burns.

During his recovery, he begged nurses to remove the bandages slowly.  The nurses, experienced in patient care and no doubt caring people, disagreed.  They believed, based on experience and observation that a fast tug was kinder and less painful.  After recovering, Ariely began researching pain perception.  These types of pain studies objectively study the mechanics of pain so we can reduce the future suffering of others.

Others have followed similar lines of questioning for various reasons.  Some of the findings are as follows:

Individual tolerances differ.
The ability to tolerate pain differs from one individual to another.  Studies on electric shock found that some people felt pain when shocked with 0.30 mA of electricity.  Others could tolerate up to 2.0 mA.  Each individual feels things differently.  There is no really good way to predict how any individual will respond.  (For more information on pain   and shock, see my previous blog post.)

Escalating pain feels much worse than diminishing pain.
Some pain becomes worse over time.  Mild discomfort turns into intense throbbing.  Take the same pain but reverse it.  Start high and reduce the intensity.  Our perceptions change.  Given the exact same pain levels, we find increasing pain to be much more severe.

Duration matters.
Long pain feels worse than short pain especially when the intensity varies.  There is a very important side note.  Low levels of discomfort might not start out painful, but they can become painful over time.  Imagine a heating pad.  At first, it feels hot and possibly even therapeutic.  As time passes, heat builds to intolerable levels.  With the passage of time the pain threshold is crossed.  Just because something feels mild – nay pleasant – it doesn’t mean it stays that way.

Uncertainty increases pain sensitivity (Hyperalgesia)
Unpredictable pain makes us sensitive and less tolerant to unpleasant and painful situations.  Research shows that as little as three mild shocks can trigger this hypersensitivity.  It’s like watching a scary movie and then jumping at every bump in the night.  Our bodies have this built in survival skill that says, “This place is unpredictable and dangerous.  Be careful.  Be on high alert, extremely anxious and sensitive to any level of pain.”

Consistent outcomes reduce pain sensitivity (Hypoalgesia)
When faced with consistent pain, our bodies react differently.  When we can control and predict painful consequences, our brains release natural opiates to block pain sensation.  In other words, our brains self medicate in order to stay strong and carry on.  It’s a bit like getting injured while on pain medication.  Saying “That wasn’t so bad,” does not mean the incident was pleasant or safe.  It means we didn’t feel the full sensation because of the drugs coursing through our body.  The natural release of opiates is a coping mechanism and another survival skill.  It lets you keep going despite pain.  It’s handy if you need to ignore pain in order to escape a clear and present danger.

What it boils down to is that pain is complex.  You cannot measure pain based on a technique.  There will be variation that can increase, decrease or mask pain.  This raises concerns because pain is not about actual physical harm.  It’s about our perceptions and even the anticipation of pain.

With all the subtle nuances, how can anyone claim that physical discipline in dog training is not painful?  We cannot judge based on a happy demeanor because the dog could be hypoanalgesic.  “Gentle” or “mild” correction is dubious because it could trigger hypersensitivity toward pain.  If long in duration, it could cross that pain threshold.

Gimmicky videos of happy yet physically punished dogs is not evidence of lack of pain.

Many dog training techniques are at risk of triggering these problems.

  • Shock collars often have a continuous function for corrections that are longer in duration. Does mild ‘stim” cross the pain threshold, and if so, at exactly what point?
  • Inexperienced handlers and novice owners are notoriously inconsistent.  Consistency comes with practice.
  • Consistent trainers dismiss initial shrieks claiming that with time, the dog does not mind.  They say it’s surprise.  Couldn’t we also assume that pets are self medicating – releasing natural opiates to cope with their training.
  • Bark collars and electric fencing increase the intensity of pain when the dog fails to comply.

I can hear the objections now.  Dogs are not people, rats, mice or monkeys.  True.  Let’s remember, plenty of research indicates that our pets feel pain in the same way we do.

We have two choices.  We can assume that dogs and cats are freaks of nature – different from all other mammals.  We can turn a blind eye to the possibility that the “mild” or “correct” use of physical discipline has no pain or consequence.  We can pretend it ain’t so.

Or, we can look at the bandage question at the beginning of this blog – realizing that the nurses – the practical hands on experts on bandage removal in a burn ward were wrong.  Slow and gentle was better!

We can admit that dishing out physical corrections does not make one an expert on taking them.

Ariely’s most profound finding in my opinion is that you can look someone right in the eye, convinced that you are acting in their best interest, sure that you are not causing pain – and you can be wrong.  That’s what’s so great about science.  It just answers the questions so we can make better choices in the future.  In the meantime, we take the science we have.  Where pain is concerned, when in doubt, leave it out.