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Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training Backfiring Resulting in Aversion Therapy

December 8, 2010

One of today’s private dog training sessions went askew unintentionally and I thought it’d be something good to share with our Inquisitive Canine audience.

As a certified professional dog trainer I choose to use techniques that are considered the most humane, least intrusive, and that are quite rewarding to the dogs (and people) that I work with in my dog training classes and with my private dog training clients. I’ve actually been called “the chicken lady” by a few folks – not because I train chickens professionally (although yes, I’ve been to chicken camp I-III which is a separate topic altogether). Nope – it’s because I more often than not use chicken (the lean human variety you can find in almost all supermarkets) to train dogs.

Not for every behavior, no. I consider this edible delight “high value”. Meaning, I use it for behaviors a dog might deem “expensive” such as coming when called with lots of distractions, and ignoring cyclists, skateboarders and kitties.  I also use it in situations where I am taking the “learning by association” approach – aka: classical conditioning. If I want a dog to like something – for example taking a bath – then I pair it with chicken (or something that’s of equal value to the dog).

Take a look at Poncho in these pictures. Between scrubs and rinses I am giving him little pieces of chicken. I’ve been doing this for awhile now. Why? Well, he’s not really much of a water dog. But he does enjoy getting dirty – rolling and playing in who knows what. This means he’s gonna get a bath. He now will walk into the bathroom and jump up on the ledge for me to place him gently in the tub. So all is good with bath-time. The chicken (and other treats) have been working.

So, when can this approach backfire? Well, if the animal finds whatever motivator you’re using more of a punishment! Oops! And that’s exactly what happened to me today!

I was meeting a new client – she is a very savvy, enthusiastic and responsible “dog mom”. She has had both her dogs since they were puppies. Started immediately with puppy training, then adult classes. Provides enrichment, exercises and socialization. Well, it seemed there were some sibling and pulling on leash issues going on which was the reason for the consult. Simple enough, right? With only reading through the behavior questionnaire I had sent her I was already thinking about a plan of action.

Like every private dog training client I meet with I bring a variety of food rewards – including the ever loving chicken: freshly defrosted and smelling scrumptious. Upon meeting this kind person and her lovely dog it seems her pooch took a complete 180 of his normal reaction to meeting strangers. He first approached with that wiggle-waggle loosey-goosey body ready to be scratched under the chin and given a yummy treat. Well guess what! The dog sniffed the tidbit of poultry in my hand, immediately froze, gave me a ‘whale-eye’ stare, hackles up, ears back, body stiff and no longer loosey goosey – then started the ‘whooof whoof whoof’ at a pitch which indicated he was afraid, uncertain, apprehensive and wanting nothing to do with me.

Said the owner: “He’s never done this before! He’s always loved everyone he meets! I’m so sorry.” Well of course I’m not going to take it personally – we’ve all met people we were uncertain of. But I promptly wanted to start figuring out why the sudden change in behavior.

Well guess what folks? Turns out that just yesterday the dog had eaten about three squeakers from various toys, was very sick, and as usual received boiled chicken and rice for his meals – which he proceeded to throw up, in addition to the toys. I’m going to venture to speculate that is was the smell of the chicken that did it to him. Yep – made him relive the entire experience all over again without actually having to relive it. And guess who was at the other end of the chicken? Yours truly. Go figure! Of all things! Kinda similar to the gin incident I had as a youth….but again, that’s a story for another time…

This just goes to show you how well classical condition works to teach an animal to love or hate anything. It’s just too bad for this poor dog that it had to be with something like chicken!  (Heaven forbid I ever get sick on sourdough bread)

Fortunately we were able to get through our lesson. But let’s just say for the next session I’m already planning on bringing this dogs favorite items: ham and ice-cream! I’ll check first though to make sure he hasn’t developed an aversion to anything else.


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