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Positive Reinforcement

Before practicing professionally as a dog trainer, Jolanta Benal of Brooklyn, New York, learned the difference between positive and punitive methods personally.

Her dog, Muggsy, had an attraction to men in uniform. Whether they were wearing UPS brown or U.S. Postal Service blue, Benal’s pit bull mix would lunge at them on the street. So she hired a highly recommended dog trainer to try to correct this behavior.

“He would set Muggsy up to do offending behavior, and then throw a can full of pennies at the dog,” she says. “It was a traditional old school technique. And it worked to suppress the problem behavior — at least in the moment.” Muggsy’s unhealthy obsession with the postal workers, however, did not go away. Even if he didn’t always jump at the UPS guy on a walk-by, says Benal, he wasn’t happy to see him either.

Benal then traded in for a new trainer that brought chicken instead of coins. As the man in uniform approached, Benal was now instructed to distract Muggsy by giving him the treat. And it worked. After several times, the dog would look to her in expectation, rather than towards the uniform-clad men in alarm. “For the last year of his life, he was an angel,” says Benal. “It was amazing the changes it brought.”

Millan argues that using food to coax dogs may be impractical: “It can result in an addiction to treats or an overweight dog,” he says in an email. However, Dodman of Tufts University explains that trainers only give food at the beginning of training. After a period of time, owners should reward intermittently, reinforcing the response. “If every time you played the lottery you won money, then the excitement wouldn’t be there anymore,” says Dodman. “The thrill for the dog is ‘Will I get a treat this time?’” Back-aches from stooping low to feed a dog, or the added cost of extra chicken or doggy treats, he believes, are far less dreadful than the anxiety and altered relationships caused by the punitive alternative.

Dodman has some data to back him up. In February 2004, a paper in Animal Welfare by Elly Hiby and colleagues at the University of Bristol compared the relative effectiveness of the positive and punitive methods for the first time. The dogs became more obedient  the more they were trained using rewards. When they were punished, on the other hand, the only significant change was a corresponding rise in the number of bad behaviors.

A series of more recent papers also support Dodman’s theory and Hiby’s results. A study published in the October 2008 issue of Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that positive reinforcement led to the lowest average scores for fear and attention-seeking behaviors, while aggression scores were higher in dogs of owners who used punishment. Another 2008 study, this one published inApplied Animal Behavior Science, found that positive training methods resulted in better performances than punishment for Belgian military dog handlers.

Bridging the differences in dogma

It’s hard to argue that the slow, patient techniques used in positive reinforcement would elicit the same dramatic moments seen on Cesar Millan’s show. “There’s a big difference between looking at behavior as a ‘Stop that’ versus a ‘Here’s what I want,’” says Bruce Blumberg, a professor of dog psychology at the Harvard Extension School. “Positive reinforcement is a different mindset. And it’s one that doesn’t work quite as well on TV.”

Dodman is one of many people who have asked the National Geographic Channel to discontinue “The Dog Whisperer,” consistently one of the highest-rated shows on the network. The American Humane Association issued a press statement in 2006 asking for a cancellation because of what they suggested were abusive techniques used by Millan. More recently, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a position statement in which it expresses concern “with the recent reemergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behaviors.”

Millan defends his methods, asserting they “use the minimum force necessary to prevent or correct a problem.” According to the dog rehabilitator, he can “redirect the behavior of most of my pack with just my body language, eye contact and energy.” He points to the “thousands upon thousands of letters” he receives from viewers touting  “miracles” of restored relationships and saved dogs. “All I want is what is best for the animal,” Millan says.

Despite the controversy, there is a lot that everyone agrees on. Both sides of the training spectrum teach that a lack of discipline or structure is not conducive to a well-behaved dog. “Dogs need direction and boundaries, just like human relationships,” says Haggerty, the trainer with her own dog school in Manhattan, which uses dominance theory. “If dogs don’t know what the boundaries are, they will wreak havoc.”

How a dog owner projects those boundaries is also important. “You have to be calm, you have to be clear, you have to be consistent, and you have to make sure you meet your pet’s needs for other things: exercise, play, social interaction,” says Herron of The Ohio State University.

Of course, if you take Blumberg’s Harvard class, he’ll tell you, “If your timing is lousy using positive reinforcement, the worst thing that happens is you get a fat dog.” *Lynne Peeples ~ Life Science

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