The Radical Notion of Consequences
Balance is achieved by counter-balancing self-reinforcing behaviors.
School should be fun for both students and teachers, and the same can be said for dog training.
Dogs and children learn quickly when educational elements are interspersed with play, and when well-timed rewards and praise clearly signal when success has been achieved.
Well-timed rewards and praise are the basis of most training.
But not all learning is accompanied by rewards, is it?
For humans, domestic animals, and even wild animals, powerful aversive experiences also educate.
A fox may get a ripped muzzle, a cow a shock from an electric fence, a horse a mouth full of nettles, a young man a police arrest or black eye.
Live and learn. Such is life.
Ask any man or woman to show you their scars, and they will remember what caused them.
Fox, cow and dog are no different.
Three Shocks Change a Life
Aversives, when strong enough and well-timed, make a powerful impression and can fix a lot of problems before they start.
Imagine if, when you were sixteen years old, you had been shocked just as you reached out to touch that first can of purloined beer.
Would you have reached for a second? A third? Would you have ever drunk a six pack?
And if you had not, would you have done better in school? Would you have married a different girl or gotten a different job?
Would three or four well-timed shocks have changed the entire trajectory of your life?
But, of course, that's not what happened, is it?
Instead, you drank the first beer, and the first beer drank the second beer, and before you can say "Bob's your Uncle" you had downed a six pack and discovered the joys of being drunk with members of the opposite sex.
Of course, when people drink, bad things eventually happen. People get sick, they say or do something they shouldn't, they embarrass themselves.
And yet, people still drink. We humans are slow learners and quick forgetters.
Why? Why are we slow learners when it comes to things like booze?
Well, to put it bluntly, beer, fate and society are not very good animal trainers.
All three elements allow for long periods of self-reinforcing pleasure punctuated by episodic (and sometimes apparently random) negative outcomes.
Often these negative outcomes are not all that painful. We survive hangovers, clean up the vomit, make our apologies, and we do not change our behavior too much.
Of course, alcohol intoxication is only one form of self-reinforcing behavior. Others include driving too fast, coming to work late, leaving work early, and spending more money than we actually have.
Provided nothing really bad happens, these bad behaviors will not go away.
Only when we "feel the heat" do we "see the light." Even then, the heat must be consistent and far enough outside our comfort zone to counter-balance the reward implicit to any self-reinforcing behavior.
The good news is that if a well-timed and consistent aversive experience is delivered, we learn quickly.
In fact, if we were all given a mild shock every time we went over the speed limit (rather than a random ticket we pay later), I think most of us would stop speeding in short order, and thousands of lives a year might be saved. Lesson learned, and it would not take a long time to learn it!
Cold Hand Meets Hot Stove
This last point is important: It would not take long time to learn it.
Electric fences work because they ALWAYS deliver a jolt when touched, and the shock cannot be brushed aside. The jolt of an electric fence is memorable even to a one-ton bull.
An electric fence is not designed to torture cows; it's designed to train them.
Training here is done with perfect timing and an assured, predictable, and memorable consequence.
Bad habits are never reinforced, and they are never ignored. It only takes a few well-timed applications of a powerful negative consequence for the cow to "get it" and stay away from the fence. After that it may never get jolted again.
The point here is that aversive training is not torture; it is the opposite of torture.
Torture occurs when punishment is random, unpredictable, or incessant.
Aversive training is NOT "randomly shocking the food bowl" to create psychosis in an animal.
Aversive training is NOT long periods of permissive indifference punctuated by sudden and unexplained periods of overlording, intolerance, or pain.
Nor is aversive training always painful.
It is simply an unwanted but memorable consequence that is consistently applied to counterbalance what would otherwise be an unwanted, but self-reinforcing, behavior.
For some timid animals the counter-balancing aversive that is needed may be as simple as a loud voice, a light jerk on a leash, or a loud rattle-can tossed in their direction.
As a general rule, the younger the animal, the less ingrained the habitat, and/or the weaker the positive stimulus provided by the animal's unwanted behavior, the weaker the aversive stimulus needed to serve as a counterbalance.
Training Is Not Torture
Why are so many people frantic in their assertion that negative consequences should never be levied when training an animal?
I cannot prove it, but I suspect some of this reaction is the pentimento of bad parenting long ago inflicted on confused children.
Adults raised as children in unstable homes sometimes have a hard time, later in life, differentiating between simple discipline and abuse.
In their own childhood, long periods of lackadaisical parenting may have been punctuated by overly-severe application of consequences, with new rules invented overnight and maintained for only a day or two before being abandoned without explanation, or honored only in the breach.
Of course, what has gone on here has not been discipline and training, but the opposite of that.
Where there should have been consistency, there was no consistency.
Where there should have been positive attention there was instead weeks of indifference.
Where rules should have been clear, there was only confusion.
People raised in these kind of households often have trust and communication problems, and people with trust and communication problems often gravitate to the world of animals, and especially to dogs.
Feeding, Seeding & Weeding
In a healthy household, the ratio of positive to negative consequences is always high, and it remains high.
There is no magic here; positive or pleasurable consequences, as well as consistency, are the backbone of all successful teaching.
Of course, we do not click and treat our children with little lumps of cheese or hotdog!
Instead, we use words, body language, short written notes, text messages, grades, privileges, time and attention, toys, play opportunities, money, fancy clothes, and increased responsibility to signal our approval.
Nor do we ignore bad behavior. Here the theories and methods range all over the map depending on culture, location, time and temperament. Some parents use a strap, some spank, some put kids in time out, most lecture, some humiliate, some withhold privileges, some slam doors and make threatening noises, some hold back toys and fun activities, some impose hard work or even fines.
Does it all work? Of a fashion. One problem is that parents are notoriously inconsistent (espcially when there is more than one parent), and the ability to time consequences so they are associated with bad action is hard.
If a child is started early, raised in attention and love, and attuned to the fact that well-timed and consistent consequences will follow, however, bad behavior rarely gets too far out of hand.
Yes, there will always be some bad behavior, but it does not take much to set the child right.
And what is true of children is, generally true of dogs and lawns.
In many ways, raising children and raising dogs is a bit like growing a lawn; It's all about feeding, seeding, and weeding.
The feeding is your positive daily interaction with the dog.
A healthy lawn needs sunlight, water, and fertilizer. A strong system of roots prevents a lot of problems, and tends to keep weeds at bay on its own.
This is true of children and dogs as well.
The seeding is the introduction of trained behaviors.
Some folks want kids and dogs to "grow naturally" and so, to extend the lawn metaphor, they allow the grass to grow tall and self-seed, and they let the edges of the lawn run a bit wild.
Others want children and dogs to follow a very prescribed set of behaviors and so the lawn is cut sharp twice a week, edged once a week, and overseeded on a regular basis.
Weeding, of course, is simply the elimination of certain unwanted plant species which, if left ignored, would self-propagate and ruin the lawn.
No matter how strong the lawn and how judicious your seeding and fertilizing, every lawn eventually has a problem weed or two, and woe is the homeowner who does not take the time to grub them out.
You see, weeds self-propagate. They are as self-reinforcing as some bad behaviors.
Can you feed your way out of a weed problem?
No, not generally. There's a reason every lawn keeper has a weed tool, and every dog owner has has a leash and a collar. Sometimes you just have to say NO, and mean it.