Control or cooperation

I like the idea of reinforcement based training, that’s how I see my approach, but part of reinforcement based training involves understanding the function of punishment, and noticing where it is, what it does. Maybe the best way to describe a training method grounded in behavior science is to observe how trainers control both reinforcement and punishment.

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Understandably, it’s harder to observe behaviors shrinking and disappearing, than to notice and observe growing behaviors. Punishment is the function that shrinks behaviors. And most often, punishment is unintentionally shrinking behaviors the trainer WANTS.

Punishment can interfere with creativity, make an animal nervous, avoidant, less interested in the game. It can demotivate dogs. Very often, I notice people are “flattening out” their dog. They want him to behave so badly, they’re like back seat drivers, turning the dog into a passive puppet on strings. To achieve all that is possible with a dog, I think I need to encourage my dogs to think, not just “obey.” That means I have to let the dog make mistakes, have choices, learn from their own decisions, help me solve problems. Seeking “obedience” in dog training might lead towards more authoritarian body language and unintentional punishment, than training aimed more at enrichment, education, cooperation, and games of choice.

Trainers need to be aware of any punishment or reinforcement in the environment, and how it may be influencing our dog’s behaviors. Often, we need to condition our dogs to reduce the impacts of a sometimes punishing environment. That’s the core of communication. We control reinforcements and punishments to reduce suffering and strengthen cooperation.

Understanding behavior science is like understanding gravity, or even more, it’s like understanding chemistry. Understanding all the environmental elements of reinforcement and punishment, how they go together to impact behaviors, we can begin to recognize what shapes our own behaviors, not just our pet’s behaviors! This is one of the fun rewards of training with your dog!

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