Consequences: Does the punishment fit the crime?

Originally posted on muttabouttown.com

Photo provided by cdk under Flickr commons license.

Photo provided by cdk under Flickr creative commons license.

Last week, I discussed the role antecedents play in dog training, specifically when it comes to working with fearful dogs. The week before, I discussed the foundations of fear in dogs, and what happens to a dog when fear takes hold. Today, I’ll bring the topic full-circle by discussing what happens immediately after a behavior or event:  the consequence.

Technically speaking, the ABCs in dog training (antecedents-behaviors-consequences) are called the “three-term contigency.” In dog training terms, a consequence is an event that happens immediately after a specific behavior. We give our dogs consequences all the time, sometimes unintentionally. Common punishment consequences include time-outs, and withholding of treats or playtime until the dog performs a specific behavior. Common reward consequences include treats for sits, down-stays and tricks.

As discussed the first article in this series, dealing with emotions in dogs requires a different methodology than what we typically use in obedience training. When a dog experiences a powerful emotion like fear, everything else goes by the wayside. Nothing else matters. This doesn’t mean that consequences aren’t relevant. On the contrary, consequences are intricately linked to whether a dog’s fear strengthens over time.

Dogs are excellent at telling time. Animal behaviorist Pamela J. Reid explains this topic brilliantly in her book Excel-erated Learning writing, “The delay between the response and the punisher greatly influences the degree of learning …The ‘wait until your father gets home’ approach to punishment is not effective.” In this example, Reid is referring to the delivery of punishers in obedience training. However, the same concept can be applied to treating fear in dogs. Think about how you felt as a child when you were afraid. Would someone saying, “Wait till your father comes home, and we’ll give you a hug” work? Probably not.

Similarly, comforting a dog minutes, even seconds after the onset of the fear stimulus (science-speak for the scary thing) is less effective. Why? Because the dog will not necessarily connect the consequence with the scary thing.  With poor timing, the dog will experience a scary thing and then experience a treat as separate events. What we want the dog to think is: A scary thing occurred but immediately led to a good thing, and over time, each time that I encounter that scary thing a good thing happens. If done correctly, the scary thing starts to feel less ominous for the dog.  

One critical element to keep in mind when dealing with fear is identifying its presence. In other words, we have to ask ourselves, “Does the punishment fit the crime?” Often, a scared dog appears to be “misbehaving.” (A trainer can help you determine whether your dog’s body language is communicating fear. For those who are really interested in dog communication, I suggest David O’Heare’s book Aggressive Behavior in Dogs. It gets a bit technical, but has a great section on what dogs are communicating with their various behaviors.)

If we think a dog is misbehaving and exercise a punishment, chances are the fear is going to continue and potentially increase, because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. In the case of fear, a better question to ask ourselves is: “Does the consequence fit the emotion?”

To illustrate, take the example of a leash-reactive dog. Each time the dog encounters another dog on leash, he snarls, growls, lunges and barks. Here are two different scenarios that could occur:

Case 1: Owner sees dog displaying unwanted behavior, scolds dog with leash correction and shouting “No! Bad dog!” and keeps walking. Similar punishment occurs whenever dog displays leash reactivity.

Case 2: Owner realizes dog is afraid, brings tasty treats on walk, and each time dog notices another dog on leash, immediately marks behavior with a verbal cue or click from a clicker and supplies treat. In situations where dog is over threshold, owner happy talks/gives dog treats and walks to quieter side of street.

In case 1, the consequence doesn’t fit the emotion. Chances are, the dog’s leash reactivity will worsen. The owner is assuming that the lunging/barking/snarling behavior is the “crime,” and is implementing a form of punishment to eliminate the behavior.  From the dog’s perspective, the leash corrections and yelling actually reinforce the fear of meeting other dogs on leash. Each time the dog meets another fellow canine, he has to deal with the already-present fear plus a yelling owner. It couldn’t be clearer to the dog that meeting other dogs while on leash is not good!

In case 2, the owner realizes that the dog’s lunging/barking/snarling behavior isn’t a crime at all, but an emotion. The dog is reacting to his fear of seeing other dogs while on leash. By using good timing, the owner is slowly teaching the dog that encountering other dogs on leash leads to praise and treats. The clear link between the antecedent (encountering dogs on leash) and the consequence (praise and treats) will positively affect the dog’s behavior (snarling/barking/lunging). In situations where timing can’t be used with precision, the owner does a good job of “getting out of dodge” with the happy talk and treats so that the dog doesn’t remain in a scary situation.

Often, treating fear can appear counterintuitive. It can look like you’re rewarding an unwanted behavior. You may get some stairs from your neighbors. This is ok. Just remember that you’re dealing with an emotion. For your dog, nothing else matters when he’s scared.

Treating fear in dogs is by no means easy, which is why even the most experienced trainers ask for support from their colleagues on fear-based cases. If you suspect your dog’s behavior at fear-based, don’t worry if you feel muddled and at a loss as to how to help. Get support in the form of a trainer, and start jotting down the antecedents, behaviors and consequences you see. By doing this, you’re already putting your dog on the path to success and giving yourself some peace of mind.

– Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town, and recently adopted a fearful dog. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com

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Consequences: Does the punishment fit the crime?

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