Dog Training: Why Our Language Matters

The dog training world is flooded with trendy terms and statements which are far away from their initial meanings, and it creates a generalized confusion for the public. It gets worse when different cultures and languages read them, because the same word can have different connotations and meanings.

I’ve studied this phenomenon for over a decade, which I named “Technical Fashionism.” There is a significant tendency to use some terms or claims for signaling to a group with a specific ideology or agenda. Even professionals with many long years in the area are adopting popular language to interact with the public instead of clarifying the existing ones.

For a long time, I’ve been defending the correct use of standard terminology that we can find in the academic literature to avoid inaccuracies, culture clashes, misunderstandings, and distinguish professionals who invested in their education.

These misunderstandings and unclear language promoted the increase of labels, personal agendas, emotional outbursts, and a dictatorship within dog training’s extremes, which reaches the quality of knowledge that the dog owners receive. The increasing discussion on subjective topics also jeopardizes real observation and natural communication with the other species.

I’ll share four practical examples about how inaccurate are some claims or terms. I encourage you to check the references and links, do your research, and challenge your critical thinking.

1- “We don’t use punishment. We use positive interrupters, non-punishing signals, or we redirect behaviors.”

A punisher is anything that decreases the frequency, intensity, topography, and/or duration of a particular behavior when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior takes place. A punisher doesn’t mean violence or coercion. 

Note: Resulting from all his linguistic experience throughout the world, Dr. Roger Abrantes (2013) suggested the use of the word “inhibitor” rather than “punishment” in his book “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Should Know”. When translated directly from English to other languages, especially Latin languages, “punishment” also has religious connotations. I wrote more about it in this article.

Some groups attribute a delusional fault to Skinner of creating and promoting punishment. That is not true. I could not find in his bibliography the promotion of punishment, quite the opposite. Most of his published work focuses on contingencies and reinforcement schedules. In his book “The Technology of Teaching,” Skinner wrote, “There are certain questions which have to be answered in turning to the study of any new organism. What behavior is to be set up? What reinforcers are at hand? What responses are available in embarking upon a program of progressive approximation which will lead to the final form of the behavior? How can reinforcements be most efficiently scheduled to maintain the behavior in strength? These questions are all relevant in considering the problem of the child in the lower grades.”

Positive interrupters or Non-punishing signals are standard terms used by ideological groups with specific agendas to embellish their actions and camouflage reality. They use these terms, for instance, if you make a “sweet voice” or clap your hands to stop a behavior. I consider it dishonest because clapping or adding any sound (or anything) to stop a behavior, it is a positive punishment by definition if the behavior decreases.

They also claim that if the dog shows an undesirable behavior, we should redirect or use differential reinforcement, not use punishment. The classic example is the dog pulling the lead. They defend that, if the dog pulls, you stop or change direction, and it is a “gentle or kind way” to teach the dog not to pull.

The reality is if you stop or change direction, there is pressure on the lead, so it is a positive inhibitor because you add something to stop a behavior. We cannot classify a punisher only by “more or less” intensity. 

Differential reinforcement is a procedure that combines (when possible) nonreinforcement of unwanted behavior and reinforcement of some other behavior. One advantage of differential reinforcement is that it focuses attention on strengthening desirable behavior (or desirable rates of behavior) rather than on suppressing undesirable behavior.

Differential reinforcement may be of limited value if the undesirable behavior continues being reinforced. 

Note that Skinner suggested differential reinforcement as an alternative to punishers, not as a replacement. 

I’m not saying that differential reinforcement doesn’t work. Yes, it works as any behavior modification technique used in its correct situation and intensity. 

I’ll give you a practical example of several experiences I had with clients from trainers that claimed only to use differential reinforcement. Those trainers assumed they were using differential reinforcement of incompatible (DRI) or alternative behavior (DRA). However, they used forward chaining training, reinforcing a chain of behaviors, or the Premack Principle, not differential reinforcement. Some contingencies were not taking into consideration either.

2- “Reward or Reinforcer are the same.”

The claim above or/and “we use the term rewards because dog owners will not understand” is a popular condescending claim that I never imagined a professional saying.

A reinforcer is not a reward, and a reward is not necessarily a reinforcer.

A reinforcer is anything that increases the frequency, intensity, topography, and/or duration of a particular behavior when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior takes place. A reinforcer doesn’t mean that it is something “good” (or bad).

Skinner gave a clear explanation about the use of “rewards” instead of reinforcers: “The strengthening effect is missed, by the way, when reinforcers are called rewards. People are rewarded, but behavior is reinforced. If, as you walk along the street, you look down and find some money, and if money is reinforcing, you will tend to look down again for some time, but we should not say that you were rewarded for looking down. As the history of the word shows, reward implies compensation, something that offsets a sacrifice or loss, if only the expenditure of effort. We give heroes medals, students degrees, and famous people prizes, but those rewards are not directly contingent on what they have done, and it is generally felt that the rewards would not be deserved if they had been worked for.” (Skinner, 1986, p. 569).

Reward learning involves several processes in a brain system and does not always result in observed behavior. Using the argument that neuroscience uses the term “reward learning” and there is no problem to use it in behaviorism is the typical example of hijacking terms from different areas and use them as an argument in others.

3- “Cues are good because it connects to feelings of well being. Commands are bad because it connects to feelings of the dog needing to obey orders. Therefore, we should use the term “cues”, “not commands”.

This is an example that is bound to create more confusion than we need. Please, be critical when you post things like this and do some research about how terms are defined. Our job must be to simplify, not to complicate, to clarify, not to confuse. 

I’m afraid you’ll create havoc by redefining terms previously defined and used differently. Also, linking both cues and commands to specific emotional responses is blatantly wrong. Signals, cues, and commands can elicit both pleasant and unpleasant emotions depending on what they imply.

I don’t consider it a case of evolution of the language, but one more obvious example of highjacking widely defined terms in animal communication theory and giving them different meanings and connotations according to training ideologies or agendas. They are also doing it wrong, because if we want to be scientifically correct, the right term would be signal, not cue.

A signal is everything that intentionally causes a change in the receiver’s behavior.

A cue is everything that unintentionally causes a change in the receiver’s behavior.

A command, or heterospecific call, is a signal that changes the receiver’s behavior in a specific way with no variation or only extremely minor variations.

Some people also use “positive interrupter” with the same meaning as command.

I invite you to read this article, and to watch this live, with more details about this subject.

4- “My dog is not aggressive, my dog is reactive.”

These days, it seems that dogs only suffer from stress, fear, and anxiety or are “reactive.” I consider this reductionism a complete lack of respect for a species and how healthy it could be?

Note that (1) not all stress is bad, (2) fear, aggressive, dominant, submissive, is not a characteristic, is a behavior, (3) anxiety is an easy label that sometimes hides under or over-stimulation situations, (4) in theory, all behavior is a reaction to something disregarding the level of intensity.

I recommend my article about aggressive and fearful behavior, where I address the “reactivity” label.

Conclusion

Yes, language matters. If we want to educate others, sound scientific knowledge, and practical experience will make you a better professional and person.

I urge you to stop creating confusion by highjacking existing terms and giving them a new meaning.

Challenge yourself and don’t get arrested in ideologies, groups, or agendas. The dogs and their human families deserve the best of us.

I know that the subject is not as easy as it seems. I believe that it will depend on a consensus of how we want to dignify the dog training activity and how we are willing to adapt and share our work and communication with the humans and the other species.

References

Abrantes. R. (2013). The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

Adolphs, R. & Anderson, D.J (2018). The Neuroscience of Emotion, A New Synthesis. Princeton University Press.

Barata, R. (2019). Positive reinforcement. Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior. Springer.  

Ferster, C.B., Skinner, B.F. (1957). Schedules of Reinforcement. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 

Gross, R. (2010). Psychology, the Science of Mind and Behaviour, Sixth Edition. Holder Education. 

Olson, M. & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2016). Theories of Learning, Ninth edition. Psychology Press.

Panksepp, J. (1999). Affective Neuroscience, The foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford University Press.

Sander, D. And Scherer, K. (2009). The Oxford Companion to Emotions and the Affective Sciences. Oxford University Press.

Skinner, B.F (1966). The behaviour of organisms, an experimental analyses.  B.F. Skinner. 

Skinner, B.F (1968). The Technology of Teaching. Meredith Corporation.

Skinner, B. F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement, A theoretical analysis. Meredith Corporation.

Skinner, B. F. (1986). What is wrong with daily life in the Western world? American Psychologist, 41(5), 568-574. Retrieved Jun. 29, 2019.

Stegmann, U. (2013). Animal Communication Theory, Information and Influence. Cambridge University Press. 

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