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Animal Instincts

No Way to Treat a Dog

Tough-love training techniques reconsidered

Once, at a university event, I had the honor of meeting Britain’s former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. When I was introduced as an animal behaviorist, she replied, “Ah yes, behavior! That’s what it’s all about really.” And she was right on the mark. Her business was dealing with the behavior of people in her own country and abroad. My business is dealing with the behavior of other animal species—in particular, dogs, cats, and horses. The parallels are many. One of the current controversies in my own end of the behavior biz centers on the punitive methods of dog training popularized by the late William Koehler. First of all, are they even humane? Some are definitely not. For example, The Koehler Method of Dog Training describes a treatment for separation anxiety in which the “bratty” dog who whines or barks when left alone is interrupted by the owner’s unexpected return and then whaled on with a belt or leather strap “until he thinks it’s the bitter end.” A form of water boarding, or sham drowning, for hole diggers is another of Koehler’s inexcusable correctional methods. Some dogs that have been subjected to aggressively punitive techniques are in “rehab” for a condition resembling posttraumatic stress syndrome.

To be sure, not all punitive trainers are as harsh as Koehler, but their principles are the same. In many cases, for instance, choke collars and prong collars are sharply jerked to deliver a “correction”—which is not much fun for dogs and can damage delicate structures in their neck. The trainer Dennis Fetco (aka Dr. Dog) has commented that the word “jerk,” in dog training, should be applied as a noun to those who use the technique.

But let’s assume you can stomach punitive training practices. That still leaves the question of whether they’re really the best alternative, and here it’s useful to contrast them with what’s known as positive training. Positive training tends to be benign even when it uses terminology like “negative punishment,” which simply means withholding some reward or privilege. Pink Floyd articulates the basic idea in “The Wall”: “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?” It’s effective, and it beats spanking.

Positive trainers frequently incorporate techniques like this into a wide-ranging lifestyle adjustment program that produces a happier, healthier animal. Behavior modification for, say, separation anxiety could mean giving the dog plenty of entertaining things to do while the owner is away (“counterconditioning”) and rewarding independent behavior in the owner’s presence (“positive reinforcement”). A hole digger might be allowed in the house more often and kept busy with breed-specific activities (“environmental enrichment” and “occupational therapy”).

Finally, physical punishment teaches an animal nothing except how to avoid punishment, and scientific evidence shows that even though the immediate results of punitive training can be impressive, it’s associated with an overall increase in behavior problems. Positive training, on the other hand, both reduces those problems in the long run and strengthens the bond between pets and their owners.

In the end, the popularity of punitive training may reveal more about the individuals who favor it than about the value of the methods themselves. Some people, it seems, are always in need of instant gratification, and punitive training has the edge there. Other people simply have a predilection for administering physical punishment. Perhaps experiences early in life play a role. According to an internal audit by the New York Association of Dog Trainers, 14 of 17 members admit they were abused as children. A typical way of dealing with that kind of history is to become controlling, so that the same thing will never happen to you again.

One thing is for sure, though: if you use punishment to achieve an end, punishment or the threat of it will be necessary to maintain whatever gains you may have made. And who would want their companion to relate to them based on fear of retribution? The way forward is clear. Just say no to physical punishment, and the world of dogs, at least, will be a better place.

A leading animal behaviorist, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of four best sellers in the field. His latest book, The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend (Houghton Mifflin), was published this summer.

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