Carrots or Sticks?

Is it better to motivate by using rewards or punishment?

For as long as I’ve been in dog training, this has been a topic of debate—and it isn’t limited to just our dogs. This question extends to our relationships with family and friends, and even among nations. Do we get other creatures on this planet to behave in ways we like by showing them how to please us and providing consequences they’ll want to work to get again, or do we let them make their mistakes and then provide sufficiently unpleasant consequences that they’ll work to avoid similar situations in the future? If we use a combination of the two approaches, how do we find the right balance—when do we use which?

As I first embarked on my journey towards professional dog training, it was the “sticks” approach that I initially stumbled upon, but my first borzoi caused me to search for different techniques. Early on, I butted heads with that dog time and time again. I’d offer her an “appropriate” correction and she’d either shriek like she was being beaten or fight back, snarling and snapping. In those days, I didn’t enjoy my relationship with my dog. Training was a fruitless chore neither of us looked forward to.

Around then, I discovered a book by Karen Pryor: Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training. Pryor promoted an entirely different approach to behavior modification in any species, not just dogs. My motto of “set them up for success, and then reward them like heck” came out of her advice.

In my experience, this is a more effective approach to dog training than the old punishment-based methods. Much of behavior is just habit. We use management (which may include leashes, tethers, crates, gates, exercise pens and the like) to make it impossible for our dogs to get accidentally self-rewarded for making choices we don’t like when we aren’t actively working with them.

When we are in training mode, we work to make it easy for our dogs to make “good” choices, and then reward them with whatever makes them tick—food, toys, play, attention, affection. We follow these rules for long enough to establish strong habits we like. Dogs are great situational learners:  this is what we do when our family eats dinner, this is what we do when we walk past people or other dogs, this is what we do when the doorbell rings, and this is what we do when there is food unattended on the counter…

Through my studies to become a professional dog trainer, I learned that the operant conditioning methods (which renowned author and canine behavior specialist, Nicole Wilde, calls more simply, “trial and error learning”) had actually been around since the fifties. Why hadn’t this approach even begun to catch on amongst dog trainers until several decades later?

In Chad Montrie’s documentary, Tough Love, which the Arlington Dog Owners Group hosted at the Robbins Library in Arlington, MA on September 27th, I heard an explanation that made perfect sense, but which hadn’t ever occurred to me before. Bob Bailey, another famous figure in positive reinforcement training, said he thought that it might have been because contemporary trainers of the day were used to changing the behaviors of others rather than changing their own ways.

I like to think that in this age of science-based dog training, our profession no longer fits into that mold. Most of the trainers I know are ever-eager to attend seminars and workshops, read books and dog training journals, really—get their minds around the newest discoveries and thinking in order to hone their own practices to better serve their students. That doesn’t mean that we blindly follow every new idea that pops up, but I do think modern dog trainers are less resistant to change than we once were.

But my hopes for an ever-growing move towards positive methodology don’t end at the end of the leash. I see this approach as a great policy for dealing with every creature in our lives. Certainly, both punishment and rewards can yield changes in behavior, but as explained by B.F. Skinner (whose early research spawned this whole movement): the way a learner feels about the way in which they’ve learned something is important. Whether they have learned a behavior in order to escape from an aversive situation (or the threat of one), or whether they are acting to produce a favorable situation affects why they behave as well as how they feel about their behavior. He also once said that he believed we feel free when we are doing things which we are reinforced for in a positive way, and we feel “un-free or coerced” when we work to avoid unpleasant consequences or situations.

I personally believe it’s more effective to build relationships of trust and cooperation when we reinforce others to behave in ways we like using a positive approach—and I’d prefer to live in a world that revolves around these qualities rather than fear and resentment.


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