When Did You Stop Kicking, Hitting Your Spouse, Dog, Child?

Why do we still debate the value of physical abuse as a teaching tool?

Posted Oct 22, 2014

No sooner had running back Ray Rice been booted from the Baltimore Ravens for knocking out his then fianceé in front of a security camera on an elevator than Minnesota Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson was indicted in East Texas for taking a tree limb to his young son, to administer the kind of ‘switching’ he received as a child in that same region of Texas—one that apparently left cuts, welts and bruises. 

Arguably these men were punished for being caught, because reports soon followed of more child and spousal abuse, along with participation in dog fighting by National Football League players, indicating that the violence they displayed on the field was not always left there.

College and even high school players are not exempt; in fact, their bad behavior is frequently ignored if not condoned, as it has been for years.   [Now it appears that Jameis Winston, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback for Florida State University for 2013, might or might not finish the season due to a sexual assault charge that prosecutors and university officials either did or did not mishandle last year.] 

Stories poured in from around the nation of football players beating women, children, and animals—the grouping of those three was hardly surprising, given that the first societies for preventing cruelty toward women, children and animals were founded more than 100 years ago in recognition of the connection. Proponents of corporal punishment quickly weighed in as well, proclaiming punishment the quickest way to learning success.

I have no intention of attempting to parse the differences between “positive punishment” and “negative reinforcement” as defined by B.F. Skinner and his followers.  To my mind any theory of learning or behavior modification that relies on the asymmetrical exercise of power in such a way that it inflicts pain or suffering on a weaker being is wrong. That is a moral judgment, an ethical determination. It is also based on a growing body of literature showing that aversive training or conditioning, whether in the form of a tree limb or rolled up newspaper, an electric collar or leather belt, not only retards learning in the long run but also can give rise to violent aggressive behavior. That is true of children and of dogs raised in an abusive environment. 

 I’ll stick to dogs. As the use of non-aversive training methods has grown, so, too, have the number of studies designed to measure the effectiveness of different schools of training.  The two major schools are aversive training and rewards-based training (which may or may not involve food).  The former is also based on the belief that “dog owners” must dominate their dogs with robotlike precision and force when necessary.

The Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science published online on January 24, 2009, an article by Megan E. Herron and two colleagues from the behavior clinic at Penn Veterinary School, showing that alpha rolls, kicking, staring down, shaking jowls, and other confrontational physical corrections advocated by many trainers more often than not trigger aggressive responses from the dog.

 The proponents of shock collars argue that they are better than choke chains because they depersonalize the correction while allowing it to be precisely calibrated.  But studies have reported the opposite.  Matthijs A.H. Schilder and Joanne A.M. van der Borg of Utrecht, The Netherlands, reported in the March 2004 issue of the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science on the training of 32 German shepherd dogs subjected to 107 shocks during training.  Their behavior was compared with a group of 15 dogs also subjected to “rough” training, but not shocked.  The abstract is here and gives their findings: The conclusions, therefore are, that being trained is stressful, that receiving shocks is a painful experience to dogs, and that the S-dogs evidently have learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announces reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context. This suggests that the welfare of these shocked dogs is at stake, at least in the presence of their owner. 

 Another study from Hanover (Germany) Veterinary School published online December 6, 2006, in the same journal reached a similar conclusion while striking straight at the heart of the argument over the ability of some people rigorously to over come and thus to overdo or mistime the shock:

The results of this study suggest that poor timing in the application of high level electric pulses, such as those used in this study, means there is a high risk that dogs will show severe and persistent stress symptoms. 

We recommend that the use of these devices should be restricted with proof of theoretical and practical qualification required and then the use of these devices should only be allowed in strictly specified situations. 

Some electric collar critics, like Robert Milner of Duckhilll Kennels, a well known importer and trainer of British Labrador retrievers, charge that the use of shock collars to train dogs for field trial competitions produces lines of dogs with a capacity to withstand aversive training and little more.

Other critics have seized upon a 2012 study by researchers at the Veterinary Medical College, University of Bristol, showing that electric collars were less effective than rewards-based methods in teaching dogs to break off a chase and come when called.  Trainers were not satisfied with the electric collars’ effectiveness, while the dogs cared for them not all. Dogs who were shocked learned less well and with far less enthusiasm than those who were rewarded. Not surprising to any one who has studied dog training methods, women lead the way when it comes to rewards-based learning.

Getting trainers to recognize that there is a better way to train than what they have been doing for years—sometimes decades—is no easy task. 

Making the task more difficult are several bits of folk beliefs about the collars—that some dogs simply cannot be trained in any other way; that people who abuse the collars lack proper self control and training; that they are better than long lines used to control dogs at a distance and other hands on means of aversive training.   People who are going to abuse animals will do so with whatever implement is at hand.

To one degree or another, many trainers follow the Koehler method of training by punishment—euphemistically, “emphatic correction”—and scant praise, developed during the middle years of the last century by William Koehler and presented in systematic fashion in 1962 in The Koehler Method of Dog Training.  It remains the base of many public training classes. The Koehler method embraces the use of dominance displays and strong corrections, delivered through shock collars and various mechanical devices.

Over the past several decades, even as the use of shock collars and other punishment devices grew, trainers, many of them women, began to move away from confrontational, in-your-face training methods to rewards-based teaching that leaves dogs and people less stressed, and more capable of, and eager for, learning.  Karen Pryor introduced from training dolphins, principles for shaping dogs’ behavior through the use of little toy clickers. (clickertraining.com) Dogs and other animals, including humans, are taught to associate the clicker with food rewards. The food is then phased out and clicker is used to signal approval. Clicker training has proven useful for a shaping or reshaping variety of animal behaviors, although it does require rather precise timing and coordination between reward and click initially.

In the opening decades of the last century, Edward Thorndike began to work out his rewards-based learning theory that transformed education. The notion that rewards spurred learning far better than punishment was hardly novel as a matter of practice. Thorndike provided the intellectual underpinning for much of current theory as applied to animal training, and because of his use of rewards, he is also invoked by Skinnerites who use positive and negative re-enforcers—the connection between Thorndike and Skinner is an academic discussion that I will avoid for now.

The Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science published in 2011 an article by Michael Ben Alexander of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and two colleagues on the training of search and rescue dogs. Of the trainers involved in the study, 72 percent were women, and they overwhelmingly preferred reward-based training. It proved the most effective method for training dogs who earned certification in Texas as search and rescue dogs, especially when started before the puppy was six months old. The older the dog was before starting training, the more likely some trainers were to seek devices for compelling behavior. The researchers do not explore whether that was because older dogs had different motivations and took longer to train or the humans developed those or similar explanations for their changing attitudes as the puppies grew to be big strong dogs.  All dogs benefitted from at least four hours training a week. [“Obedience training effects on search dog performance,”Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Michael Ben Alexander, Ted Friend, Lore Haug on-line 2011]

In dogs, no less than in people, motivation is essential; thus, the best trainers seek to understand what motivates a dog to alter his behavior or perform a task when asked. It could be food, a ball, a hard rubber Kong® or similar toy, or praise alone.

Early and frequent handling by people appears important in stimulating the puppy’s emotional and intellectual development. Without it life mightbe a little more difficult for older dogs.

Consistency and fairness are qualities of a good training program.  

Of course, following those principles should lead a person to realize that they cannot be fussing at and whacking on the dog if she does not come immediately when called and expect that next time, she will sprint to your side tail wagging.

 A Note:

I hope next time to talk about a different approach to training that involves learning to do things with your dog that are interesting to everyone involved—human and canine—and that help the dog better integrate into the household.  I hope to put it up in a couple of weeks, but we recently sold our house and are preparing to move for the first time in 22 years.  That takes time and energy that are not always abundant.