by Niki Tudge
Scientifically we all acknowledge that negative and positive reinforcement in the scientific sense can develop and strengthen behaviors. The question is, at what cost? I make this statement very loosely as one must consider the meaning of “teach.” As Murray Sidman states in his book, “Coercion and Its Fallout,” if you want to do studies on escape or avoidance behaviors then present negative reinforcers (Sidman 2000).
When training your pet dog, if you want to turn them into a creature devoid of personality then approach your teaching through the application of negative reinforcement. Yes, the use of negative reinforcement will strengthen or make the behavior more likely but it certainly is not necessary, humane or enjoyable for the pet. The application of negative reinforcement does not, like its counterpart positive reinforcement, empower the pet to explore its environment sufficiently, learning from new and exciting experiences. Negative reinforcement coerces the pet to perform behaviors to escape or avoid the level of shock, pain or fear that are present or anticipated.
Whereas positive reinforcement “leaves us free to indulge our curiosity, to try new options, negative reinforcement instills a narrow behavioral repertoire, leaving us fearful of novelty, afraid to explore” (Sidman 2000 p 96).
In the context of dog training when shock collars or other aversives are used, the pet dog performs the behavior to stop, remove, escape or avoid the painful or unpleasant stimulus. With the continued application of negative reinforcement the context where the negative reinforcement is delivered begins to broaden and other conditions in the dogs environment begin to predict “the impending necessity for escape” (Sidman 2000 p 96). Even the dog’s home or the dog’s owner can move from being the setting of these unpleasant events to actually becoming negative reinforcers themselves causing the pet to escape or attempt to avoid these areas or people.
If a dog exhibits a behavior to remove, escape or avoid something unpleasant then that unpleasantness must have been presented in the first instance. As Sidman explains “ Before a negative reinforcer can strengthen whatever we do to turn it off, it will automatically punish whatever we were doing just before it came on”(2000 p 98). Therefore negative reinforcement and positive punishment are immediately linked.
Using coercion to train our pet dogs is absolutely unnecessary. Why would we want our pet dogs to live lives of “quiet desperation,” afraid to move outside predictable patterns and routines, devoid of experimental and exploratory behaviors? Why would pet dog owners want to become a stimulus (a scary, unpredictable presence in their lives) that their family pet seeks to avoid or escape? Pet dogs learn to completely avoid punishment if the punishment is preceded by a conditioned stimulus to fear. When an animal is punished and the punishment is inescapable the animal cannot exhibit operant escape learning, they exhibit a phenomenon called learned helplessness. The inescapable punishment teaches the animal to do nothing, thus they are helpless. It is not the exposure to the aversive that teaches learned helplessness but their lack of ability to escape or avoid it (Chance 2008).
My greatest fear and concern for our pet dogs, as a pet professional and pet dog owner, is that the acceptance of punishment and negative reinforcement in pet dog training will become more entrenched as pet dog owners attempt to emulate or conform to standards presented through many of our “reality” television shows. The stakes here are high. There are ethical concerns regarding the use of coercion in pet dog training not only for the welfare of our pets but the safety and well being of our dog owning community. I don’t know about you, but I would rather perform behaviors to gain something pleasant than live my live in fear of, or escaping something scary or dangerous. As a pet owner and pet industry professional I must advocate for humane, effective, efficient and enjoyable dog training methods and implore you all to do the same.
Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior, Wadsworth Cengage Learning
Sidman, M. (2000) Coercion and Its Fallout. Boston, Authors Cooperative, Inc