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Is Your Dog Being Punished by Rewards, by Jennifer Arnold

(First appeared on the Psychology Today blog on October 6, 2015)

The Negatives of Positive Dog Training

We have a new dog in our house. Betsy is a cute, playful mixed breed who clearly has a good helping of herding dog somewhere in her bloodline as she carefully orchestrates the movement of her stuffed animals, paying special attention to her favorite ratty pink pig. When a friend who works in rescue asked me to visit Betsy, she had just been placed on the schedule to be euthanized by the no-kill shelter where she’d lived for the past two of her two and a half years. Why a no-kill shelter has a euthanasia schedule is a discussion for another day, but suffice it to say that the normally sweet Betsy bears a striking resemblance to Cujo when she’s frightened and that put her at the top of the kill list.

To be fair, the rescue did try to help. Betsy’s rendition of Cujo involves making an ugly face in concert with a good deal of demonic noise, but she doesn’t actually bite, so the rescue organization thought training might eliminate the frightening behavior and help Betsy become adoptable. They took her to one of the top trainers in Atlanta, a woman known for using positive reinforcement rather than force-based methods. The trainer did everything right under the tenets of positive reinforcement. When Betsy performed desired behaviors on cue, she received a nice reward, such as a cookie, a chest scratch, or the chance to play. Betsy learned quickly, developing an excellent sit-stay ability, as well as the ability to hold a begging position the trainer termed sitting pretty. Despite learning these impressive feats, Betsy’s fear only grew worse. Why? I believe it’s because positive reinforcement, though far better than force, isn’t always positive for dogs.

The trainer rewarded Betsy when she understood and complied with her cues, but when she didn’t understand or obey, attention and rewards were withheld. This was tantamount to the trainer saying, “I will love and care for you…but only when you please me.” This not only made Betsy worry about her ability to keep the trainer happy, it inhibited her ability to form a trusting relationship with the woman. Dogs, by nature, want to please us when they trust us — it’s instinctual. But when we withhold the things that our dogs experience as essential to survival — attention, love, and food — trust is sacrificed. This is an awful trade-off that far too many of us are making in an effort to control our dog’s behavior.

There is a better way of relating to our dogs and building trust — one that doesn’t involve anxiety-inducing training methods designed to produce dogs who can sit pretty on the outside regardless of how frightened they may feel on the inside. It is an approach that has worked miracles for Betsy.

Helping Anxious Dogs the Bond-Based Choice Teaching® Way

Dogs and people, as social animals, need to feel connected in order to function. Your dog should never spend a second worrying about the security of her relationship with you. How can you make certain she doesn’t worry?

1. Never Make Her Earn Your Love…or Your Treats

Praise and treats should be given freely rather than as the result of her compliance with your directives. Think about it in parenting terms — it’s easy to celebrate and praise our child when he gets an A, but it’s when he fails a test that he most needs our love and support. When your dog does something amazing, you should absolutely say, “Well done!” But don’t reserve your support for only those times your dog gets an “A.” Once your dog knows that she has your support, no matter the circumstances, her anxiety will lessen and she will be well on her way to getting comfortable with the rest of the world.

2. Stop Directing Her Every Move

We dictate everything our dogs do, when it’s convenient for us. But when we’re unavailable, or when circumstances occur that are beyond our control, like thunderstorms or scary noises, we expect our dogs to be capable of coping. Constantly directing your dog’s behavior is a problem because she needs to have confidence in her ability to make good decisions on her own before she’ll ever feel secure. So stop telling her what to do and start asking her what she’d like to do. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to eliminate directives once you’ve learned to trust each other. When you want to go for a walk, ask her if she’d like to go, rather than telling her that she’s going. While she may not understand your every word, she’ll quickly comprehend your intent.

Since dogs are social animals, they want to fit in with their group. When you sit and relax, your dog is likely to sit and relax herself. If she doesn’t do so immediately, give her a minute or two to assess the situation. If she still doesn’t sit, understand that there is a reason. Is she afraid of the dog next to her? Does she have to go to the restroom? Does she just have an abundance of energy? When your dog isn’t doing what you’d like, figure out why. When your dog can please you, she will. Trust her. And, know that allowing her to direct her own behavior, rather than doing it for her, will increase her self-confidence and decrease her anxiety.

3. Give Her Time to Think and Process

Let your dog think when she’s worried. Luring, encouraging, and cuing inhibit your dog’s ability to think. She cannot get comfortable unless she's given time to process information and make decisions. So, when your dog is faced with something frightening, remember that time and distance are critical. She needs time to assess the situation at a distance from which she feels safe. Efforts to distract or redirect a nervous dog often make the situation worse. Beyond telling her you aren’t worried and that you’re there for her, be as still and quiet as possible when your dog is struggling to get a grip.

Though we often behave as if our dogs are adversaries to be conquered and controlled, happy dogs are our staunchest allies. I’m thinking that Betsy is a pretty happy girl these days. Last night, she put pink pig on my pillow.

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