Punishment is Dangerous

Last week I spoke about punishment as a training aid, and denounced the way some people say you should never punish when training.

But it’s very important to recognise that punishment is very dangerous and should be used sparingly.

I really wanted to put this in the last week’s post, but it was getting long enough. So I saved the rest in a draft which WordPress promptly went and lost. Harrumph. It’s difficult enough writing blog posts with Little Miss Princess Paws wanting constant dominion over my hands. (We are still at war over whether the laptop keyboard is a suitable place to sit).

I had written a post about dog aggression and how punishment can be dangerous when used to treat dog aggression, but now I’m faced afresh with a blank page, I think we’ll take a different tact.

Last week we talked about some of the punishments I’ve used for Athena, namely the chilli powder on the cables as positive punishment to stop her from chewing on the wires. I mentioned that the positive punishment wasn’t perceived as coming from me.

This is what I want to talk about today – the effect positive punishment has on the human-animal bond. Positive punishment is aversive, that is to say it presents the animal with a stimulus that it finds unpleasant. If the source of that stimulus is its owner, it can start to associate its owner with the unpleasant stimulus.

Inappropriate dog behaviours such as aggression to people, aggression to dogs, excessive fear and excessive excitement have been significantly associated with owners who use punishment to train their dogs (Hiby et al, 2004). Now this is a survey of owners and doesn’t distinguish between positive and negative punishment in its results. It is by no means saying that punishment causes these behavioural problems in dogs, but that owners who use mainly punishment to train their dogs report more behavioural problems. I find it particularly interesting that separation anxiety was linked with the frequency of punishment-based training methods.

Another survey of dog owners (Herron et al, 2009) asked the owners what kind of punishment they used when trying to modify the dog’s behaviour. The kinds of positive punishment used were:

  • Striking or kicking the dog
  • ‘Growl’ at the dog
  • Force the dog to release something from its mouth
  • The godawful ‘alpha roll’ (adjective mine)
  • Stare dog down
  • ‘Dominance down’
  • The ‘grab and shake’ dog.

Now depending on how you do it ‘growl’ at dog and ‘stare dog down’ are not much different than how I signal to an animal that I’m unhappy. Just like I would a child, when an animal is doing something I’m unhappy about my body language changes, I focus on them, and my expression becomes ‘arch’ or angry. This is simply human body language and works remarkably well with both pre-verbal children and animals. It’s held for a very short period and is followed by verbal cues that the individual’s in trouble if it’s not immediately heeded. (Though note it’s not immediately clear how these were defined in the survey or by the respondents).

Some of these other punishments, such as the ‘alpha roll’, have been taken down before. I was first introduced to this technique via the BBC show Dog Borstal and trainer Mic Martin. He used it sparingly, but I remember thinking at the time the show was quick to glamorise and sensationalise the technique. And I don’t think on this blog I need to go into the whole ‘dominance training techniques’ any more.

But the point is that at least 25% of the dogs which received these punishments then went on to show aggression to their owners.

Positive punishment, particularly those which involve you threatening an animal, or posing an animal a threat, present a challenge to the animal. It needs to have the cognitive ability to figure out how to remove that challenge. The idea behind positive punishment is that the challenge will be removed when you stop showing the behaviour you’re showing, but if you threaten too much, you may well provoke another behaviour in response. After all, what human relationship would remain cordial if you started to behave aggressively? After all, much of these positive punishment methods, particularly those detailed in Herron et al, are definitely aggressive.

Used inappropriately, punishment is ineffective, if not downright dangerous. The punishment should be something the animal can control (i.e. Athena can control whether or not to eat the chilli coated wire) and it should not make the animal face some kind of conflict.

In some ways this kind of punishment is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Most normal people don’t go straight to the ‘alpha roll’ for things like stealing a biscuit or chewing on the furniture. A simple ‘no’ or a diversion is usually used. But these more extreme punishments seem more suitable for more dangerous behaviour, things like aggression or serious destruction. But what is it that’s causing these behaviours? Aggression usually comes from an animal feeling challenged by its environment. Aggression is, after all, a tool used for the animal to get its way. Some animals go for that tool more often than others.

When you present this kind of animal with another challenge (from a place where it should feel safe and secure, no less), is it any wonder it uses its favourite tool to try and respond to that challenge?

So yes, positive punishment works when it’s used appropriately, but the inappropriate uses of positive punishment are rife. My handy guide for the non professional?

  • Make sure the animal has choice in experiencing the positive punishment.
  • Make sure the positive punishment isn’t exacerbating the problem (don’t fight aggression with aggression).
  • Never use positive punishment on its own.
  • Make sure that the positive punishment is IMMEDIATELY removed the moment the animal ceases the undesired behaviour.

Punishment can work, but only when used properly.

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Who’s a Pretty Boy Then?

Working in the world of international animal welfare as I have been doing in the last couple of months, you are confronted by your own innate biases. These are little (or big!) ideas you have about animal welfare that influence the way you think about it and the choices you make for animal welfare.

These biases are often problematic as one of our main messages is “It is the animal’s point of view which matters”, and the animals don’t know about our biases. 

Now biases are hard to recognise because they are part of the way we think about the world. I’ll give you an example from my own background. I did a zoology degree which, in all honesty, was not big on the animal welfare side of things. ‘Naturalness’ was prized above all, because  we were conservationists and behavioural ecologists. I then went to work in wildlife rehabilitation with the RSPCA where we did our utmost to avoid interacting with the animals because if we were to accidentally tame one, it would not be appropriate to release that animal back into the wild. This meant that for orphaned wildlife such as foxes we went to great lengths to get them to behave naturally, with so-called ‘soft releases’ where they’re given a cage outside and then allowed out of the cage, getting maintenance feed for a period. This enables the orphans  to learn how to fend for themselves in a manner that attempts to mimic their wild counterparts. 

I then went to work in the world of agriculture, where animals are production units. While I worked in the field of welfare in both of these roles, it is frowned upon, culturally, to show affection to the animals. Most animals would be distressed by what we think of as human affection.

So I have developed an idea about most animals that aren’t dogs, cats and horses, that they really don’t particularly want or need human attention. 

But this isn’t necessarily 100% true. Many exotic animals in the pet or zoo trade, have been raised by humans. While not domesticated (genetically selected for traits that make them more suited for human-association), they have learned to cope with humans, and even desire human contact. It is a bias I have had to confront myself, seeing instances, particularly in primates, where human contact appears to be enriching.

The most difficult part about a bias is that seeing your bias contradicted feels wrong. On my holiday I visited a parrot sanctuary, which rescued former pet parrots. I noticed my bias creeping in as dozens of birds chirruped “Hello” and “I’m a pretty boy then” at me, beckoning to climb up on my shoulder and engage with me. One little cockatoo wanted very much to play with my hair, a parakeet was reciting its full repertoire of phrases  to my aunt while it sat on her shoulder in a  behaviour I could only describe as ‘desperate for attention’.

These birds are very intelligent and, at most, only one or two generations away from their wild ancestors. My training tells me they need all the complexity and diversity of a wild environment.

But behaviourally, I can see that many of those individual birds desperately wanted and craved human affection. They found it enriching and pleasurable, possibly only because their environment was not sufficiently complex without it, but could it be that some animals can simply enjoy the company of humans, much as we enjoy theirs?

This is a difficult question for me to parse, going against the grain so to speak. And yet if we ask the question “what does this animal perceive”, the right kind of human attention must be very positive for them.

You can’t shed a bias overnight, and my (many) cultural biases will remain with me, affecting the way I think about animal welfare. I’ll try and talk more about them in the blog, and hopefully by recognising our own biases, we can move past them to help the animals that need it. 

Bird sits on shoulder
Some animals crave human attention

LolCats and Doge, YouTube and Animal Behaviour

In 2013 Nelson & Fijn published an absolutely brilliant paper in Animal Behaviour. It’s called ‘The use of visual media as a tool for investigating animal behaviour‘ and it’s about watching animals on YouTube.

I watch a lot of animals on YouTube so I love this paper. It provides a methodology for using YouTube videos in animal studies, all very simple rules, like not using videos with editing and the like.

Why is this important? How can YouTube contribute to the study of animal behaviour? Well have you seen this video? It was doing the rounds on the internet recently.

The video’s description says that the dog has become protective of the unborn baby, going so far as to defend the baby bump from the soon-to-be-dad. It’s a cute story and makes for good internet memes. I have to be honest that as a behaviour scientist my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.

How does a dog know what pregnancy is, or that it will result in a baby that will be part of the family? How does a dog even know that a baby is a thing to be protected?  But as I thought about this I remembered our old cat who became fascinated with my mum’s belly when she was pregnant. According to my mum all her cats have been fascinated by her pregnancies. I’m sure they hear the second heart beat and it must be a fascinating thing for them.

This dog, I thought, is probably just responding to some weird behavioural cue that its owner is giving it. Like the well known story of Clever Hans, the horse who could count by reading its owner’s behaviour. This is actually a well known behavioural phenomenon, and is blamed for things like your dog looking guilty when its done something wrong (Horowitz, 2009).

Oh if only in this age of connectivity, I could somehow ask the owner if she might be aware of any cues . . .

It turns out the protective dog in this video is called Tebow, a 2 year old dog owned by Mekesha and her partner Justin. 3 weeks from her due date, Mekesha found the time to answer some of my questions.

As it turns out, Tebow is fascinated with Mekesha’s belly at the moment, just as I remember my cat being fascinated by my mum’s. Tebow will sit beside Mekesha with his head on her belly, or will lick it if he gets the chance. He’s also devoted to Justin’s young nephew and their younger dog, also in the video.

Something I thought was really interesting is that Mekesha wanted people to know Tebow isn’t an aggressive or mean dog. In fact she’s pretty upset that people think he might be. In the video you can see she’s laughing and she says everyone found it funny. As for whether she might be anxious in some way that Tebow is picking up on . . .

We have found it hilarious ever since, not threatening. I have no anxiety about my belly being touched and I actually don’t mind people doing it, I do know that certain pregnant woman who hate it, I am not that way.

I think that seems pretty certain! Of course, you can always argue that perhaps there’s some subconscious anxiety, that perhaps the anxiety is coming from Justin and not Mekesha – there are a hundred ways to interpret this video. But it’s interesting that most people who view it go with the ‘anthropomorphic’ one. That Tebow is protecting his family, even the ones he might not quite understand.

It might be easy to say “well this is somebody and their pet, of course they’re going to think the best of them”, but for another video doing the rounds this week:

National Geographic photographer describes a leopard seal’s attempts to feed him, graduating from live prey, to hurt prey, to dead prey, to partially eaten prey, as the seal becomes more and more convinced the photographer was incapable of feeding himself.

We should never forget that animals don’t think like we do. They don’t process the world like we do. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the similarities we do have in common. Videos like this get to the very essence of animal behaviour science – why do animals behave in the way the do? YouTube, and the internet, will help us by showing us more and more examples of these strange behaviours. What was once an odd story about something your friend’s dog did, becomes something an animal behaviour scientist might be able to analyse.

Plus I just want to get some funding to sit around on YouTube all day. Ethologists of the world, who’s with me?!