A Dog's Eye View: The problem with using punishment

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Laura Tyler

Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.

I just finished taking a course called “Living and Learning with Animals” by Dr. Susan Freidman, from Utah State University. The class was attended by more than 150 people from across the world, including people who specialize in raptor rescue, zookeepers, vets, behavior consultants and trainers of many animal species. The science and analysis of behavior is an incredibly fluid and intriguing subject. Applying this science to our companion animals fires my never-ending quest to know more.  

OK, I’m a behavior geek. I admit it. But, in my defense, I think that my 25-plus years training and competing with dogs has been a journey of uncovering the underlying reasons for training the way we do now compared to the way we did then.

My competitive journey began with a very bright Springer spaniel in my first dog training class. The training techniques were based on the competition exercises for American Kennel Club obedience trials. I was encouraged to keep training and compete with this special dog. The American Kennel Club developed this competition based on military dog training from the early to mid-1900s. So, the standards were and still are quite strict. We were allowed to use only a choke chain slip collar and a leather leash. What we now call “cues” were called “commands.” The dog was given the command one time, and if he did not comply quickly, a sharp “correction” (jerk and release on the leash) was given. The dog learned that to avoid the correction, he better do what he was told.  

The formal sit exercise — along with the others required in competition — were taught the same way. The dog learned to avoid being jerked on the leash if he guessed right and did it quickly. The training worked. The only way the dog knew he’d done it correctly was that the jerk didn’t happen. And if the “handler” praised the dog, this alone should be sufficient. The problem with this type of training is that it’s based on punishing the dog until he gets it right. And we now have evidence that this type of training when done repeatedly or forcefully can damage the dog’s neck, thyroid and eyes.

Today, we are blessed with sound science and research on the effectiveness of teaching using more modern methods. We can teach captive animals to endure basic husbandry procedures using positive reinforcement methods rather than shooting them with a tranquilizer gun and immobilizing them. I’ve seen videos of animals such as captive lions and giraffes offering a hip or neck for a blood draw because time was taken to teach them the benefit of making the right choice. We don’t have to dominate them to get them to comply.

The knowledge is out there. We don’t have to jerk, scream, beat or shock our family pets to teach them what we want. We can build a very special trust bond with our pets by seeking the knowledge of how they learn and becoming their teacher rather than their “master.”

Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.

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