Neither positive reinforcement nor punishment, there is an “intermediate space” between the two in dog/cat training

The mantra for so many years has been that the only way to train your dog or cat is through positive reinforcement. This is reward-based. The concept of punishment to get a dog or cat to do what you want them to do has been quite rightly outlawed. It doesn’t work. It just makes the companion animal nervous and sometimes confused.

The concept of “punishment” which is an extension of negative reinforcement is really a human-centric concept and not designed to be used on animals. That’s the argument.

Some say that the idea of positive reinforcement versus punishment is too binary – just two options when there is a thord route; the one I want to discuss here.

Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

But some dog and animal trainers would say that the concept of positive reinforcement has gone too far. Dog and cat owners – and I’m particularly concerned about dog owners here – have become too soft with their dogs. And if you go too far on that route and “treat a dog like a human, it will treat you like a dog!” 😢

That quote comes from The Sunday Times in an article authored by Matt Rudd about how the dog has become the master of the human in some households.

Having read the article, I’ve decided that there is an “intermediate space” as I like to refer to it, which in between the harshness of punishment which is wrong and the overly soft approach of only relying on positive reinforcement.

And there is a shift it seems against being stuck on positive reinforcement only. There are some experienced dog trainers who say that it isn’t enough. You have to show your displeasure to your dog if they do something which displeases you.

Which leads me nicely into some suggestions about this “intermediate space”.

Initially, below these suggestions come from Graeme Hall in his book Does My Dog Love Me? Understanding How Your Dog Sees the World published by Ebury and costing £22 at the time of dictating this article.

Touching base with the paragraph above about showing your dog displeasure, we know that dogs (and cats) can sense your mood, read your body language and pick up the tone of your voice and expressions. You can use this dog ability to send messages to your dog indicating your displeasure. Graeme Hall says this on this topic:

There is evidence of dogs’ ability to read our body language and facial expressions. If you watch me on telly, you see me switch between my village-idiot smile and headmasterly frown. I send clear signals that I backup with my voice.

Graeme Hall

This, too, is something we can use when encouraging our cat to do things that please us and discourage what is euphemistically called ‘bad cat behaviour’. You don’t have to shout at your cat or dog. In fact shouting at your dog can sound a bit like your dog barking. So if you shout at your dog to stop barking at the postman, your dog might see this as a fellow dog barking as they try to protect the group from an incoming hostile force. For a cat, shouting at them is a definite no-no because it simply makes them anxious.

But I think you can raise your voice a little bit and adopt body language and posture which tells them that their intention to do something should be curbed. For example, if I am working on my website and my cat wants to jump onto my computer or on my lap and get in the way, I tell him no and raise my hand and point out where he can go instead. He has learned that this is a sign that he should back off and do as I say. It takes a little while to achieve this but it certainly can be done and it is very effective. It is, in my view, that “intermediate space” between positive reinforcement and punishment.

Graeme Hall talks about being “careful with consequences”. He is referring to bad behaviour resulting in undesirable consequences and good behaviour resulting in desirable consequences i.e. a reward. Once again, undesirable consequences are not a punishment but it will deter a dog from doing something. Graeme makes it clear that “We’re not talking about abuse or bullying here – there’s no place for that. Instead, think clever: withholding a ball until your dog stops jumping and pawing at you, for example, is a consequence he doesn’t like – but the moment his paws stay on the ground, fling the ball across the park.”

Perhaps it goes without saying but a reward in reward-based training should be something which feels good for your dog. The classic is a food treat but it might be toys, stroking or a kind word. Every dog has their own preferences.

RELATED: Cat punishment versus divine intervention

When trying to mould good behaviour and deter bad behaviour, it’s essential that human actions are carried out in a timely way which means at the time the dog behaviour is being observed. Graeme Hall says that, “Dogs are super-logical about timing. That is, they connect praise (or tellings-off) with whatever they’re doing in the moment.” The same applies to cats.

You can’t wait until later to try and direct behaviour that took place five hours ago because that simply confuses the dog.

And I think the tone of one’s voice as a dog or cat caretaker can have a really big effect on their behaviour. It’s part of the overall package of body language. I believe that cats and dogs are very attuned to the tone of their caregiver’s voice and therefore respond well to it.

Although dogs and cats don’t understand human language they do understand tone. So, if you are not pleased with your dog barking at the parcel delivery service worker don’t shout at your dog to stop. Use your body language and tone to show your displeasure.

It appears that there is an underlying issue with both dogs (and cats in my view). Although this reference is to dogs. Graeme Hall says that “Many behavioural problems are different flavours of too much excitement”. Therefore, the purpose of the owner is to calm things down. He says it is best to encourage good behaviour with gentle words such as “good” rather than “a staccato ‘There’s a good girl!'” Certainly cats can misbehave by human standards when too excited. They become wound up and revert to wild cat mode. Jackson Galaxy refers to it as a balloon gradually being blown up to the point where it has to burst

There are dog trainers who would disagree with Graeme Hall. One of those is Jim Gillies who runs a positive training school in central Scotland. He regards Graeme Hall’s “balanced training” as misleading. I like the balanced approach myself.

For Hall, his approach is about leadership not dominance. In the human world, bosses don’t scream at their employees. They guide them with their presence and what they say and do and how they appear.

But you can inform yourself about dog and cat training by observing how humans respond. For example, Hall mentions that car drivers slow down for speed cameras because they don’t want to get a ticket and a fine. That’s the negative consequence. He uses that same system in dog training in saying “Sometimes dogs need an element of consequence to”.

Some dog trainers advocate taking a firmer line when necessary, such as using a water pistol or Mikki training discs which create an unpleasant noise. These are both delivered when trying to deter bad dog behaviour.

This leads me to the final point. If a water pistol is used on a dog or cat to train them, and if the cat or dog sees their owner delivering the jet of water, it is punishment. If they don’t see where the water is coming from it is simply a negative consequence without punishment – divine intervention. That I think is quite a nice but a fine point worth remembering.

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