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Unsafe Training Methods You Should Avoid

Learning Objectives

In this lesson you will learn:

  • The concept that you are always training
  • The dangers of training a pet using fear or pain 
  • Why using a spray bottle to train can cause problems and is largely ineffective
  • Why leash corrections can cause problems and should not be used as a training method

Learning all of the ins and outs of being a dog trainer is outside the scope of this article. We are, however, going to cover the basics of how animals learn, so you have a good understanding of the benefits of reward based training compared to the potential problems that can occur with training that uses tools or techniques that cause fear or pain.

You are Always Training

First of all, let’s cover the concept that you are always training. No matter what you are doing, you are essentially always programming the pets in your care by either reinforcing certain behaviors or punishing other behaviors. And, by definition, any behavior that is rewarded will happen more often, and any behavior that is not rewarded will tend to fade and happen less often. Also by definition, when behaviors are punished, those behaviors will also happen less often. However, using punishment to decrease a behavior has some very serious risks. 

When a human uses fear or pain to train some behavior in cats or dogs, there is a substantial risk of causing severe damage to the relationship between the pet and human. Even with just a few uses of punishment a dog, or cat, can lose trust in their loving parent. These cats and dogs begin to interpret the humans in their environment as unpredictable, harsh, and not safe to be around, and over time this can lead to undesirable and unpredictable behavior.

The Dangers of Using Fear or Pain to Train A Pet

Now again, we say this over and over because it is so important: We do not advocate for any training that involves fear or pain, because, when using training methods that involve fear or pain, it is pretty easy to stress out and even traumatize a dog or a cat to the point they will need rehabilitation. And, it is especially easy to traumatize cats. In nearly every case where fear or pain was used to train a dog or a cat, we see some kind of reactivity or even serious aggression occur.

It’s much harder to cause these same problems when training with reward based training. So, when you are caring for any pet, we recommend you only use reward based training.

 and never use any training methods or tools that cause fear or pain and you should never yell at a dog and you should never hit or swat at a dog, or a cat,

 because these types of punishment training methods will cause the pets in your care to lose trust in you and degrade the relationship between pet and human. 

Set Up a Structured Learning Environment

However, you will need to provide some kind of structure for a dog, especially if they are jumping on you, pawing at you, or pulling on the leash.

Most of the time, using some technique that makes the undesired behavior boring for the dog will gradually stop the behavior from occurring. In situations where the dog’s behavior is dangerous for either you or the dog, adding in a stern “No!” will help stop the behavior in the moment. 

But it’s important to mention you should never yell at a dog to try to accomplish training and you should never hit or swat a dog, or a cat, because these types of punishment training methods will cause the pets in your care to lose trust in you and degrade the relationship between pet and human. 

Now, just telling a dog “No!” or making a situation boring does not really teach the dog much because it does not set up a structured environment where the dog or cat is more likely to start offering up good behavior that you can reward and reinforce. 

 To set up a situation where the dog or cat is learning, you also need to repeatedly reward good behavior, until a habit is formed and an essential first step to behavior change includes managing the animal’s environment so they are less likely to do an undesirable behavior and more likely to offer up desirable behaviors.

Here’s an example, let’s say you are trying to teach a dog to stop jumping up on you when you walk through a client’s front door.  Instead of relying on no’s and yeses, we can change the environment to change the behavior. We can do this by tossing a few bite sized treats on the floor behind the dog, when we enter the home. This gives the dog a chance to move away from us and keep four on the floor, lots of opportunities to praise the behavior we want to see

Being a Good Leader for Your Dog

Many trainers out there talk about being a leader for your dog, but often the definition of what being a good leader means is sort of brushed over. In my opinion, being a good leader for your dog is being consistent with your “Nos” when the dog is offering up undesirable behaviors, but also, and more importantly, being generous with your “Yeses” when the dog is doing the right thing. 

Many times it’s easy to remember the ‘No’s when you are seeing a dog or a cat offer up bad behavior, but it’s hard to take the initiative to reward good behavior as it presents itself in the moment. But, the more often you take advantage of rewarding good behavior, as it happens in the moment, the more often you will see the pets in your care offering up that good behavior.

I’ve heard good leadership summed up like this: “Anyone can tell someone what he or she did wrong, but a great leader teaches him or her what to do instead.” 

And when it comes to training pets, you teach a dog, or a cat, or a fish, or a pig, or whatever type of animal, what good behavior actually is by rewarding that good behavior in the moment. 

OK, so now that we have established it’s a good idea to reward good behavior in the moment, because rewarding good behavior leads to more and more good behavior presenting itself in the future. But, how exactly do you go about rewarding that good behavior? Luckily it’s pretty easy. There are three main ways you can tell a dog they did the right thing. That is with playtime, praise, or treats. 

So if a pet does something good, break out that toy for a little playtime, tell them they are a good dog, and offer up a tasty treat that is approved by the owner. 

While we are not going to get into how to shape a behavior in this lesson, because that is a deep subject that deserves its own section. But I’ll mention here that do recommend the use of a clicker to mark the precise moment the dog offered up the good behavior because marking the good behavior with a click and bridging that mark to a reward can teach a dog 40% faster than just using praise, playtime, or treats alone. 

But, if you don’t know how to use a clicker yet, that is OK. You will be miles ahead just knowing you should reward good behavior when you see it and you should always avoid any training that involves fear or pain.

Training Methods That Should Be Avoided

OK, so now that we covered a little bit about the benefits of reward based training. Let’s talk about other training methods that should be avoided.

We have already covered that pinch collars, choke chains, and shock collars can cause reactivity issues and even serious aggression. In this lesson we are going to cover why spray bottles and leash corrections can cause the same problems. 

No Spray Bottles

Spray bottles are not a good training tool, because they only stop undesirable behavior in the moment. The spray bottle does not teach or reinforce a more desirable alternative behavior. Rather it just stops behavior in the moment. 

Spray bottles are technically a type of punishment training that uses fear to deter or stop a behavior. And any punishment training that uses fear or pain is notoriously difficult to do correctly and most people end up getting it wrong and often wind up doing more harm than good.

Punishment training can even turn into a type of trigger for a dog that causes fear and stress to build up in the dog or cat. As time goes on and triggers stack up, this fear and stress can lead to unpredictable outcomes, including reactivity and aggression issues later on down the road.

Similar to how a pinch collar or choke chain can cause a dog to develop a fear of other dogs, a spray bottle can cause a dog to be confused, fearful, or stressed about their environment itself. Of course, this is very bad.

But, why does this happen? How can a simple squirt bottle cause all of these issues? Again, it’s because dogs have less computational power in their prefrontal cortex compared to humans. Many times, dogs make an error in problem-solving as to why they are getting sprayed in the face by their owner. 

Dogs do not put together that they are sprayed in the face because they are barking, jumping up, or chewing up the wrong items, because it is difficult for their little, lemon sized, brains to associate the water being sprayed in their face with the undesirable behavior. Rather, they only put together that they are getting sprayed in the face by their owner. 

To demonstrate this error in thinking on the dog’s part, let’s think through this series of events:

  • A dog is barking because they are anxious, lonely, bored, stressed, or perhaps even because they have an undiagnosed health issue
  • The human is annoyed by the loud barking, so they pick up the water bottle and squirt the dog in the face
  • The dog stops barking
  • The dog does not understand that they got sprayed in the face because they were barking
  • The dog only learns the squirt bottle, when in the hands of their loving pet parent, will sometimes squirt them in the face 
  • So the dog learns to avoid the squirt bottle, especially when it’s in the hand of their loving parent
  • As time goes on, the dog gets even more stressed and fearful of their environment because they are not sure why their loving parent sometimes squirts them in the face

Now you might say, why can a dog associate a reward with good behavior but a dog can’t associate getting sprayed in the face with bad behavior? The answer lies in how habits are formed and how behaviors are shaped in dogs. 

While it’s true that animals can learn from punishment 

When you are shaping a good behavior you have the opportunity to reward the good behavior over and over, in a short period of time. This is because the rewarded behavior tends to occur more and more often, even as you reward it. Further, it actually takes that repetition for a dog to learn. In fact, you need to get up to 10-12 precisely timed rewards per minute (for the good behavior) before the dog starts to learn and form a habit, and that new behavior begins to be shaped.

Punishing behavior is fundamentally different from rewarding a behavior because punishment stops behavior in the moment. So, with punishment, you don’t have the opportunity to teach the dog with the number of repetitions per minute required for the dog to start learning and to really understand what you are trying to teach. 

There are a number of other reasons why punishment based training is not as effective as reward based training, including issues with the dog associating the punishment with the trainer, timing issues, intensity issues, and a whole slew of hormonal changes in the dog that can end up causing reactivity and aggression issues. In short, punishment training is really hard to get right, so it’s best to be avoided. 

Not only are there risks of the dog developing fear and aggression with squirt bottle training (or any punishment-based training for that matter), spray bottle training is notorious for being ineffective because, again because the spray bottle does not set up a training situation that is conducive to the way dogs learn. 

But, if using a spray bottle is so ineffective, why do some pet parents continue to rely on their spray bottle, year after year? 

Once again, let’s dig into our animal behavior toolbox for the answer. 

We mentioned a couple times in this lesson that any behavior that is rewarded will present itself more and more often and any behavior that is not rewarded will tend to fade and happen less often.  This phenomenon of learning and behavior happens in people too and, although misguided, the use of the squirt bottle can be rewarding for a pet parent. Let’s take a look at this scenario:

  • The dog was barking
  • The pet parent squirts the dog in the face
  • Now the dog is quiet

 

Let’s face it, this simple and seemingly quick fix is rewarding to a pet parent.

Now that the dog is quiet the pet parent can get back to work, they don’t have to worry about that incessant barking giving them a headache that will last the rest of the day, they can move on with their life and start solving other problems. All of these positive outcomes for the pet parent are rewarding.

Punishment, as they say, is rewarding for the punisher. 

And, with that reward in place every time the squirt bottle is used, the pet parent begins to rely on the squirt bottle time and time again. Because as we mentioned before, any behavior that is rewarded, tends to present itself more and more often. 

No matter that the dog is now cowering in the corner, wondering why their pet parent would turn on them and spray them in the face, slowly building up stress hormones. 

So rather than using a spray bottle to stop barking, for example, you would be better off rewarding the dog with praise, play, or a treat when they are quiet. 

Rather than squirting the dog for chewing on furniture, you would be better off offering safe chew toys with kibble or treats inside. 

Rather than spraying a dog for jumping up, reward the dog for sitting.

No Leash Corrections

Now on to leash corrections. Leash corrections are defined here as a pop or a jerk on the leash to ‘tell’ a dog to move or to come with you. Do not, under any circumstances, use leash corrections to train a dog.

Leash corrections, like any punishment based training, is difficult to get right and can send contradictory and confusing messages to a dog. Also, it is easy to overdo leash corrections and injure the dog’s neck. It is even possible to crush a dog’s trachea using leash corrections. 

There is a sense with some dog owners that if the leash correction is bigger the dog will ‘get it’ faster. Much like the harder you pound in a nail, the faster you will drive that nail into the wood. But this is simply not how dogs, or any animal for that matter, learns. You can’t teach something faster by teaching it bigger or more forcibly. 

Wiggling the Leash or Gently Pulling is OK

But, every now and again you will need to use the dog’s leash to get a dog away from something that might be dangerous. Such as making sure a dog does not eat garbage or dog poop while out for a walk. Or, you might need to distract a dog away from something that is triggering the dog. These are generally cases where you are trying to get the dog to come to you or ‘Leave It’

You don’t need to pop or jerk the leash to get a dog to come with you. Rather wiggling on the leash or gently pulling the dog away is acceptable. If you really need a dog to come towards you, you can get down on the dog’s level, pat your knees and click with your mouth.

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