Friends and readers of this blog will recognize Arlo in the photo on the right. I took this photo a few days ago when we ducked into the Admissions building on campus to wait out a rain shower. I work on a pretty dog-friendly campus, but even so, I was conscious of the fact that I was in the lobby of a building where visitors who may not love dogs might be coming and going. I needed him to be on his best behavior, and he was.
What I love about this photo is not just the goofy expression, but also that his engagement with me is voluntary. It wasn’t initially, of course. Over time I reinforced check-ins and eye contact, and now those things are just part of our conversation when we’re together.
Why am I writing about this? Because recently, in another online conversation, I encountered a comment that I often hear when people want to justify punishment-based training: “Different tools, same results.”
Why? Because it depends on what you mean by results. The comment in question was about a particular behavior that had been trained with +R. I think the results are only the same if what you’re looking at is the end behavior.
Let’s say you want to teach your dog to walk by your side on leash. Trainer A begins teaching this behavior by reinforcing the dog whenever the leash is loose. Trainer B begins teaching this behavior by putting a prong collar on the dog and delivering “corrections” when the leash goes tight. Different methods, same desired behavior.
But what are the two dogs learning? Dog A learns to associate a loose leash with good things—not only the food coming his way, but also the person delivering the food. Maybe even the other dogs and people and motorcycles passing by as the food happens to be delivered. So reinforcing a loose leash helps to strengthen not only the likelihood that Dog A walks on a loose leash, but it also strengthens the relationship between Dog A and his person, and possibly also Dog A’s associations with other things in the environment.
What about Dog B? Well, every time the lease goes tight, he feels an unpleasant sensation–a pinch (or worse) around his neck. He feels his person yanking on the leash. He senses his person’s frustration and maybe hears his person yelling No! or Heel! Sometimes those things also happen when he rushes to greet someone (he enjoys meeting new people) or barks at a passing dog.
Dog B, it turns out, is no dummy, and after some trial and error, he figures out that by walking next to his person the yanking or yelling stops. So, in order to avoid the bad things, he continues to walk beside his person. He stops trying to greet new people because they have also become predictors of unpleasant things.
Are these two results really the same? If the goal is a dog who walks beside you, then you could reasonably conclude different tools, same result. But of course that’s not all you get. A dog walking on a loose leash because he associates that behavior with good things is really not the same as a dog walking beside you to avoid punishment. What the dog associates with the behavior is different, and thus the end result is different.
Our relationships with our dogs are about so much more than getting a specific behavior, or about end results. Sure, there are different ways to get a given behavior; but dogs are not unthinking, unfeeling machines and different tools have different results. Why not take the path that gets you the desired behavior and also the better relationship?