Punishment is a hot button issue in dog training, and like every other trainer, Ian Dunbar has ideas about how punishment should (or shouldn’t) be used. However, he has unique ideas regarding behavior and misbehavior, ones I’d never heard before, so I can’t wait to share them with you.
But first, a definition: “punishment” is any consequence that reduces behavior. Therefore, a consequence cannot be considered punishment unless the trainer actually uses fewer as training goes on. This means that, for the average pet owner, most “punishments” are simply consequences which are painful, fear-inducing, or annoying… and completely ineffective! (I imagine they’re also confusing because the dog doesn’t understand why those unpleasant things are happening.)
The use of punishment in training is a difficult skill to master. To be done well, punishment must be immediate so the dog needs to know why he’s being punished. It must be consistent and happen every time the misbehavior does. It must fit the crime- serious enough that the dog wants to avoid it, but not so intense that it’s abusive. There should be a warning first, so the dog can avoid the punishment by changing his behavior. The dog must know what is expected of him, and if he fails, Ian says that the punishment the dog receives should instruct him on what to do instead.
This last point is interesting, and Ian contends that it’s often overlooked. I think he’s right. After all, whether it’s a collar correction for leash pulling or a time-out for playing too rough, most punishments only tell the dog which behavior was wrong, but do nothing to help the dog figure out what the correct response was. They don’t instruct the dog, and Ian believes that punishment can and should be instructive. He accomplishes this by using his voice, which allows him to use his language, feelings, and creativity in training to help the dog understand both how important it is to respond as well as providing consequences if the dog doesn’t.
He starts by letting the dog know if and when he ought to respond to a command through his “Dog-con” system, which basically formalizes when the dog may disobey. He created this system since he believes that it is rare that a person needs absolute reliability from their dogs.
The Dog-con system has three stages, each using a different version of the dog’s name prior to issuing a command. At Dog-con 1, Ian uses a dog’s nickname or a term of endearment to indicate that the command is more of a suggestion: “Hey, Huey, you wanna sit? No? Eh, whatever.” At Dog-con 2, Ian uses the dog’s real name to indicate that he expects the dog to respond. “Hubert, sit.” Dog-con 3 uses the dog’s full, formal name, and indicates that it’s show time; the dog ought to pull out his flashiest performance. “Hubert Lewis, sit!”
This concept absolutely hurt my brain when I first heard it, because when I give a cue, it’s generally because I want Maisy to do it. It took me awhile to figure out that there are times when I don’t really mean it. As it turns out, I use different cue words instead of prefacing the same word with different versions of her name. For example, whereas “come!” means “get your butt over here right now,” the variant “come on” means “when you’re ready, please head this way.” I didn’t set out to teach it this way- if I had, I would have chosen more distinct phrases- but Maisy and I both seem to understand the difference. So, I guess Ian and I are doing similar things, just in different ways.
Ian thinks 100% reliability on the first cue is impossible. Whether your dog is distracted or simply has better things to do, there isn’t a dog alive who will be perfect, even at Dog-con 2 or 3. However, instead of applying a punishment that causes pain or fear- things that are unnecessary in training- Ian uses his voice to get the dog to do what he wants. He does this using a method called repetitive reinstruction as negative reinforcement (RRNR). (Scientifically-minded readers will undoubtedly notice that the method is technically not punishment, a fact which Ian both acknowledged and dismissed by saying we shouldn’t get hung up on terminology. He said that the distinction is too fine to really matter.)
RRNR is actually pretty simple to implement. If the dog fails to respond, Ian continuously repeats the command until the dog complies. If the dog is at a distance, he will move closer to the dog as he repeats himself. If the dog was distracted, this helps bring the command to the dog’s consciousness, and if the dog simply chose not to respond, this lets him know that Ian was serious. Either way, once the dog has finally performed the cue, Ian will repeat the exercise until the dog responds on the first request, and then reward the dog.
Although many trainers worry that repeated cues will result in learned irrelevance, Ian doesn’t. He argues that if the dog fails to respond, the cue is already irrelevant in that moment, and you can’t make something more irrelevant. Besides, Ian makes sure that the dog does respond eventually, which means the dog will learn that the cue must be followed.
While RRNR helps instruct the dog when he fails to comply, it doesn’t work when the dog is trying but gets it wrong. When this happens, Ian will use a “specific redirection,” which tells the dog what he ought to be doing. For example, if the dog is jumping up, you tell him to sit. If the dog is lagging or forging at heel, you can tell him to “hurry” or “slow down.”
It sounds like this works well for him, but I (and others at the seminar) are concerned about doing this since cues can act as a reinforcer, which would mean you’re actually rewarding the very behavior you’re trying to punish. When someone asked him about this, Ian seemed confused, so clearly he hasn’t had this happen. Either we misunderstood how and when he uses specific redirections, or the cues Ian uses don’t have a strong enough reinforcement history for them to act as reinforcers.
At any rate, while I agreed with Ian’s feelings on punishment- it doesn’t need to hurt or scare a dog- and I felt confused by the rest. But maybe that’s just me. What do you guys think? Have you tried RRNR or specific redirection? What’s your experience been? Do you do something else entirely? I’ll be curious to hear what you think!