There are many, many ways to modify a problem behavior. So how is a dog trainer to choose one? The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has created a hierarchy of humane responses. It requires that all CPDTs use the least invasive methods first, only moving along to the more invasive procedures if those fail to work.
1. Address any underlying health, nutritional, or physical contributors to the problem behavior first. It’s common knowledge that there can be medical causes for problem behaviors; for example, pain and thyroid issues are discussed widely as potential causes of aggression. Rather than creating a training plan- even one rooted in positive reinforcement based methods- it’s more humane to address those health issues.
2. Manipulate the antecedents. Or, in plain English, if there is an external factor causing the problem, fix that first! So much better to shut the curtains to stop your dog from barking out the windows all day than to use a bark-control collar, no?
3. Use positive reinforcement to teach the dog what you want them to do.Notice how this is halfway through the list? It’s not because it’s wrong to use R+, but rather because it is more invasive than the other options.
4. Implement differential reinforcement of an alternate behavior. This is similar to R+ but since it also includes an element of extinction/negative reinforcement, it’s considered slightly more invasive.
5. Use negative punishment, negative reinforcement, and/or extinction. All three of these use some kind of aversive control, and are therefore considered more invasive than the previous options.
6. Reduce the problematic behavior through the use of positive punishment. Note that P+ is allowed. That said, it is meant to be an option of final resort.
There are some procedures which CPDTs are prohibited from using. These include lifting a dog by the collar, leash, or fur so that two or legs are held off the ground. Swinging the dog, hanging the dog, or restricting the dog’s airway is likewise prohibited. Shock/electronic collars are allowed, but not without using less invasive methods first. A CPDT cannot use more than one at a time, or apply one to the genitals or abdomen. Pinching the dog’s toes, ears, or other body part in order to cause or end a behavior. Holding the dog’s head under water for any period of time is disallowed, as is using a cattle prod on the dog.
I rather like the approach the CCPDT has taken. It shows a definite bias towards positive methods (which I obviously prefer), but does not take tools out of anyone’s toolbox. Although I have no intention of ever using a shock collar on a dog, as I’ve learned more about training and behavior, I’m less and less likely to say “never.” I appreciate having a rational approach that makes suggestions on various types of methods to try before moving on. I especially appreciate the emphasis on addressing health problems and management; I feel like those are often overlooked.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about negative reinforcement being so far down the list. On one hand, I see the point: R- requires there to be an aversive. On the other hand, I think there’s a big difference between purposefully introducing an aversive and removing one that’s already in the environment (such as in BAT).
I’m also glad to see that there are some limits to what can be done. They seem to prohibit only the most egregious options (read: abusive) for use in routine training. And really. Cattle prods? Shocks to the balls? I shudder to think about it. There needs to be a line drawn and this one seems fair. Of course, I would prefer not to use a shock collar at all, but I can see why someone living in rattlesnake country might consider one.
But what do you think? Where would you draw the line? Does this hierarchy go too far? Not far enough? Would love to hear some thoughts.