[Please note: May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month and MCS Awareness Month. I will be trying to do posts relating to both illnesses throughout the month. This piece isn’t actually about either disease, but a lot of it relates to my being on intravenous medication — that is what the infusion pump is for. I have been on IV antibiotics for two years, due to chronic Lyme. So, even when I don’t write about Lyme, it is always a major factor in every day.]
Last night something happened that reminded me how glad I am that I have almost completely eliminated any form of intentional punishment (causing any aversive situation) in raising or training my dogs. So, I decided to write this post about it.
I would say I have had a harder time eliminating every form of punishment from my interactions with a dog than some because of my worst trait. In my continuing effort at transparency, I am going to admit something that most people work very hard to keep private: I have a bad temper. I have worked on my anger all my adult life, and I probably always will. It is a source of deep pain and shame for me. The moments I regret most deeply in my life all relate to my anger.
I have found that there are two types of people (obviously an oversimplification is coming up) who used to do traditional/correction training and have switched to clicker.
The first group is composed of people who really didn’t like to do corrections — many say they always felt repulsed by them — but who followed the rules, because they were the rules, and they were told this was the only way to do it. Karen Pryor writes about feeling this way.
I have always envied people in that group, because I think they have an intrinsic kindness, mellowness, and commonsense that I will always lack. I was in the second group.
Like those in the first group, people in the second group were trying to accomplish something, and this was the way we were supposed to do it. However, unlike the first group, we were not naturally repulsed by the methods. In fact, usually we experienced it this way: if a dog was doing something to earn a correction, it meant they were being “bad,” so we were anywhere from mildly frustrated to incredibly pissed off about that (depending on the frequency and severity of the infraction) by the time we did a “correction,” and therefore administering punishment felt good.
Well, “good” is not really the right word. When I felt angry at my dog, and I did something that I’d learned was the proper response, like a leash pop or an alpha roll, I didn’t actually feel good during or after that maneuver. I was feeling angry and frustrated before the “correction”; during or afterwards, I felt even angrier, but it was accompanied by a righteous sort of “so there!”
I wanted the dog to do the behavior I wanted (or stop doing the behavior I didn’t want), but I also was just acting out of emotion: the dog does something appalling in front of a neighbor, and I feel humiliated, and I react out of that emotion, etc. But it could all be justified in the name of training.
I wasn’t actually training the dog, of course. It was just me letting my emotions get the better of me, which I could do with impunity because I was doing what “the experts” told me to do. I was actually damaging my relationship to my dogs, damaging my dogs’ sense of trust of me, and their sense of safety in the world.
There are very, very few good reasons to ever use punishment, and I have seen some checklists for the very rare instances when it may be justified. However, I haven’t yet seen a checklist that includes what I’d consider to be two of the most important criteria:
- You are in a totally mellow, non-angry (dare I say peaceful and accepting?) frame of mind.
- You do not have a tendency to flare up.
I include the second one because, even if you start out mellow, administering punishment, in itself, might trip off emotions of anger or righteous indignation or whatnot, especially if you are the kind of person who has tendencies in that area.
All that said, it’s nice when the theory pays off for you — not just the enjoyment of doing things positively, but the realization that not doing something negative has saved your ass! Usually the fallout from punishment becomes obvious after the fact (often, a good deal after the fact). However, the dividends aid by avoiding punishment also may not be obvious till later.
A while back, I wrote a post about training Barnum to alert me to my infusion pump alarm.
The idea was to teach him to jump on my bed and wake me when the alarm went off, and then keep me awake while I disconnected and flushed the line. I’ve been training this by clicking and treating (with high-value treats) for alerting me to the alarm initially, and then giving him dinner as a very high-value treat when he alerts again — either to the alarm going off again, or to my timer going off. (If I’ve set one of them to go off again.)
Last night, I didn’t have his usual high-value first-round treats, so I planned to just give him his dinner when the pump went off.
As I was doing my infusion, I just knew there was no way I was going to stay awake for it. I thought, “Fine, I’ll fall asleep, and either the alarm or Barnum or both will wake me, and then I’ll deal with the line and feed Barnum.”
That’s the last thought I had until . . . “Blehp! Blehp! Blehp!” And Barnum is on the bed, and I’m really confused.
Then I realize he’s woken me up, and that the pump alarm is going off, and I look around for his treats — and can’t find them. “Good dog! Good boy!” I tell him.
But I can’t find his treats. He keeps jumping on the bed. I tell him to get down, and he does, then he jumps back up! “I’m sorry!” I keep telling him, “I don’t have your treats. You did a good job. Now off!”
Because he won’t stay off, I eventually use some lower-value treats (I always have some form of dog treat around) to get him off the bed.
But he just eats the treats and then jumps back on the damn bed! This is really irritating the heck out of me!
The last thing I need when I am trying to flush and disconnect the line and I am desperately trying to stay awake is to have Barnum be such a pest! In truth, I am attending to my line because I can’t fall back asleep because Barnum is being so dang annoying!
I finish dealing with my line and immediately fall back asleep.
Some time during the middle of the night, I wake up, needing to pee. Barnum is curled up, asleep in his crate. As I go past the crate, I see his food bowl on top — with his dinner in it. Oops. I’m not sure how this happened, but I feel guilty that I didn’t feed him.
I put his bowl in his crate, and he seems more confused than me: “What? It’s the middle of the night. Why are you feeding me when we’re both asleep? I’ll think about it. . . .”
He must have decided it was worth waking up for because in the morning, his bowl was empty.
So, what happened last night?
Barnum knew his dinner was waiting for him on top of his crate. All past experience told him that if he jumped on my bed often enough after the alarm went off, he would get fed. So, he kept doing it.
I have, indeed, been training him to escalate his behavior until he gets his “grand prize” treat. I have trained intelligent disobedience in him, although I thought we still had a long way to go till it was proofed. But, I wasn’t thinking clearly about any of this stuff last night at two o’clock in the morning. I realized it today, after I woke up and recalled the events of the previous night, and pieced together the fractured bits of memory.
When he woke me up last night, I forgot about his food dish and most of our other training. But it was because Barnum kept jumping on the bed that I disconnected and flushed my line — I’m certain of that.
So, the training in that area is working, despite my discombobulation! What I’m really glad about is that I did not lose it at Barnum for being a pest, but instead, reinforced the desired behavior (even though in the moment, I didn’t realize it was the desired behavior) of keeping me awake until I flushed my line. I kept giving him treats, keeping the behavior chain going!
I’m really glad I went with the low-value treats to manage his “misbehavior” instead of yelling at him or whatnot, because I’d have punished him for exactly what I wanted him to do. Punishment stops behavior, and sometimes, even when the dog is annoying the crap out of you, he should keep doing it!
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT?