Negative reinforcement

By Scott Hunt

The Dog Grumbler


THERE are many ways to approach dog training — as with parenting, everyone is an expert.

I believe dogs train themselves and always have, thus our efforts serve at best to facilitate that process.

Dogs are adaptable, willing and forgiving, so many approaches bear fruit.

In recent times, it has been shown that a dog which receives only positive reinforcement (i.e. praise/reward) for good behaviour can grow into a well-behaved dog.

Some claim that this approach is more humane, even scientific. After all, it is surely kinder to never be angry, let alone indicate to your dog that some aspect of its behaviour displeases you.

Any creature raised this way must surely be happier, they reason.

I disagree.

Life is about negative reinforcement.

If a child is about to do something dangerous we tell it to stop. If the child is too young to understand speech we make disapproving noises and intercede physically — negative reinforcement.

If a pup upsets its mother she growls, snaps, intercedes; possibly picking the pup up by the scruff of the neck and moving it to safety — negative reinforcement.

If I drink my tea as soon as it’s poured, it burns my lips and I’m careful next time — negative reinforcement.

I believe most of the physical manifestations of displeasure in dogs function to produce the right scents for the benefit of other dogs — to communicate negative reinforcement as clearly as possible using the optimum interface.

When in Rome, most visitors learn a few phrases in Italian. Out of respect.

Or do you just shout louder in English?

Your dog wants to please you and is eager to learn what displeases you. If you never tell it, the job gets harder. If you use the language its mother and other dogs use, you will have more success.

You need to smell angry. Dogs do this by growling, snarling, raising hackles, stiffening tails etc.

It’s not rude, it’s respectful of a very successful culture. It’s not offensive. It’s not cruel.

I am happy for any dog owner to pursue the positive reinforcement model, but to claim it is scientifically superior simply provides an excuse for those who have little science and no desire to learn another language.

It is also incredibly slow and inefficient. And disrespectful to dogs.

I am happy about anything that reduces the incidence of dogs being left alone; dress your dog up in human clothes, deck it with ribbons, invest in expensive coiffure and gourmet pet food if you like.

But don’t raise it like a spoiled human child and tell me it’s scientifically superior just because it works for you.

I treat dogs like dogs and try to use their language out of respect because I believe it’s good to be a dog.

They love me for it.

I am constantly engaged to help people whose dogs are uncontrollable because they were raised as spoilt children.

You think that tradesman with the great dog eschews negative reinforcement? That farmer? That hunter?

You think their dog loves them less for grumbling or cursing when they misbehave?

Dream on. And enjoy your holiday in Rome, but don’t expect the coffee to be what you ordered.

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About the Author: Eastern Shore Sun

The Eastern Shore Sun is your monthly community newspaper, reaching over 30,000 homes and businesses in the communities of Clarence and Sorell. It is the product of Nicolas Turner, Justine Brazil, Ben Hope, Simon Andrews, Tobias Hinds and guest contributors, with support from advertisers.

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