Dog Training: Why Our Language Matters
Animal Training Series
How to cite: Barata, R. (2021). Dog Training: Why Our Language Matters. Human-Animal Science.
The dog training world is flooded with trendy terms and statements far from their initial meanings, creating generalized confusion for the public. It worsens when different cultures and languages read them because the same word can have different connotations and meanings.
Rather than delving into the foundational aspects of the disciplines, there is a prevalent inclination to superficially navigate through authors who have already sieved information through their own belief systems, as well as others who have replicated such filtered knowledge using colloquial language.
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 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, and misunderstandings and to 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 other species.
I’ll share four practical examples of how inaccurate some claims or terms are. I encourage you to check the references and links, research, and challenge your critical thinking.
1- “We don’t use punishment. We use positive interrupters, verbal mistake markers, 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 occurs. 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, “punishment” also has religious connotations.
Some groups attribute a delusional fault to Skinner for creating and promoting punishment. That is not true. I could not find the promotion of punishment in his bibliography. 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 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, Verbal "Mistake" Markers (???), 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 is a positive punishment if the behavior decreases.
They also claim that if the dog shows undesirable behavior, we should redirect or use differential reinforcement, not 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 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 a replacement.
I’m not saying that differential reinforcement doesn’t work. Yes, it works as any behavior modification technique 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 taken into consideration either.
2- “Reward or Reinforcer is 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; a reward is not necessarily a reinforcer.
A reinforcer is anything that increases the frequency, intensity, topography, latency and/or duration of a particular behavior when presented (+) or removed (-) simultaneously or immediately after a behavior occurs. A reinforcer doesn’t mean that it is something “good” (or bad).
Skinner explained using “rewards” instead of reinforcers: “The strengthening effect is missed, by the way, when reinforcers are called rewards. People are rewarded, but the behavior is reinforced. If 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 word's history 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 with using it in behaviorism, is a typical example of hijacking terms from different areas and using them as an argument in others.
3- "We use consent training. It is always the dog's choice!"
My research on the topic yielded varying definitions. For illustrative purposes, I will refer to a particular blog (https://www.petminded.co/blog/3-ideas-to-practice-consent-training-with-your-dog) which characterizes consent training as "one method of understanding our dog's cues and training them how to say yes or no to certain requests (…) In order for our dogs to give consent, they need to 1) have a choice provided, 2) understand what that choice is, and then 3) tell us what choice they have chosen."
Another source, found at (https://allthedogstraining.com/consent-and-dog-training/), links it to positive training techniques.
Let me introduce the classic philosophical quandary surrounding free will and determinism as preliminary aspects. Engaging in comprehensive research and cultivating a proactive disposition will undoubtedly enhance understanding of this intricate matter.
Discussing "consent training" may appear paradoxical, given how the authors above present it. While one might argue that we possess control over our actions, these actions are influenced by a web of causal relationships.
The subjective experience of freedom constitutes a multifaceted discourse within human societies. The frequent reliance on emotions and their anthropomorphic portrayal substantially influence and shapes our behavior, thereby imposing limitations upon our freedom.
Attempting to convey an altered impression regarding our interaction with other species strikes me as somewhat disingenuous, as employing behaviorist tools to elicit "consent" from another individual appears tantamount to manipulation. Moreover, behaviorism, being a deterministic approach, does not align with free will. The foundational principles of deterministic theories posit that we inhabit a realm governed by cause and effect, where an individual's responses can be predicted through exposure to prevailing conditions and subsequent consequences.
In essence, while I comprehend the intention behind employing the "consent training" label in training practices, I disagree with the authors' explanation from my perspective. If a dog fails to grant consent for using a leash, we may condition them to accept it, implying an absence of genuine consent.
Should the dog exhibit a lack of responsiveness to our desires, it is often perceived as having a problem, leading us to repeat the process until our objectives are achieved. If unsuccessful, rehoming or euthanasia are considered by the parties in some situations.
This approach is more akin to acquiescence rather than genuine consent, with faint traces of servitude entwined within our utilization of them for our purposes.
4- “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 example is bound to create more confusion than we need. Please, be critical when you post things like this and research how terms are defined. Our job must be to simplify, not complicate, clarify, and not confuse.
I’m afraid you’ll create havoc by redefining terms previously defined and used differently. Also, linking cues and commands to specific emotional responses is blatantly wrong. Depending on their meaning, signals, cues, and commands can elicit pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
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 a command.
5- “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 could it be?
Note that (1) not all stress is bad, (2) fear, aggressive, dominant, or 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 wrote a comprehensive scientific compilation on this subject. You can read it below
Language is of significant importance in the field of dog training. A sound understanding of scientific principles and practical experience is paramount for professionals who wish to educate others effectively.
I urge individuals to refrain from co-opting established terms and assigning them new meanings, as this needs to be clarified. It is essential to challenge oneself, avoiding becoming entrenched in rigid ideologies, affiliations, or agendas. Our ultimate goal should be to provide the best possible care for dogs and their human families.
While acknowledging the complexity of the subject matter, achieving a consensus on how to elevate the status of dog training and improve our communication with humans and other species is necessary. The extent to which we are willing to adapt and share our work will play a crucial role in achieving this objective.
We must exercise prudence when discussing scientific concepts related to animal training. While we are free to employ any terminology or semantics of our choosing, it is crucial to avoid claiming that something is "science-based" unless it adheres to the fundamental principles of the scientific method. It is not our fault if some authors promote poor scientific practices; however, it is our responsibility to demand better practices and strive for a more profound comprehension of the subject matter.
Instead of engaging in superficial debates, we must concentrate on nurturing critical thinking and expanding our knowledge in a manner that challenges our beliefs. It is effortless to succumb to the temptation of using trendy words or labels to describe intricate concepts, but this can be perilous when dealing with the lives of living beings. We must endeavor to make the scientific language accessible to all without diluting its meaning or oversimplifying the issues under the flimsy premise that "they don't understand." The central question is: Do you indeed know those terms in science?
In short, the onus of effecting change lies with each of us. We must be willing to scrutinize our biases and limitations and endeavor to develop a more nuanced understanding of animal training and its sub-fields. By doing so, we can ensure that all four-legged individuals receive the consideration and respect they are entitled to.
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.
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.
Stegmann, U. (2013). Animal Communication Theory, Information and Influence.Cambridge University Press.